Skip to main content

My name's the Human Spider!

Spider-Man
(2002)

(SPOILERS) I’d recalled Sam Raimi somewhat performing with his hand in his pockets for his first Spidey outing, reining in his style in order to prove to Sony he could do the necessaries and deliver the required blockbuster (and only really becoming unleashed for the sequels), but his first Spider-Man is actually most striking for how much flourish, colour and inventiveness there is from the get-go. Perhaps that’s a consequence of a decade of actually stylistically restricted MCU movies, but even the formally freer DCEU has yet to produce anything approaching both his sense of panache and fun.

Because there’s a lot of goofy fun here, despite the sombre, guilt-ridden hero at its core (I know the Spidey faithful bemoan The MCU Spidey for his lack of burden, seeing guilt as essential to the character, but I’ve found it refreshing). And despite Tobey Maguire, even though, in many ways he’s smart casting, almost entirely failing to bring the ready quipster side of the Spidey to the screen. On the other hand, he’s an entirely convincing nerd, and Raimi, an entirely convincing nerd himself, delights in putting Peter Parker through the wringer; even when the worm turns and Peter pounds Flash Thompson (I’d completely not realised this was a young Joe Manganiello, but not thatyoung, since hardly anyone playing a teenager here looks less than 25). He’s also entirely convincing in his beta-male behaviour, taking the emotional beating Harry (James Franco, at his slimy best) inflicts on him when Osborne Jr snatches Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst, spirited and enthusiastic in a not overly giving part) away from him.

Raimi picks his cast keenly all-round, though. I was a bit cool on the movie on first viewing, enjoying it a lot more on subsequent visits (crazy as this may seem, more than the “best superhero movie” that is the first sequel), and that’s mostly down to Willem Dafoe’s deliriously crazed performance as Norman Osborne/ Green Goblin. Sure, I can make no arguments that the costume isn’t a now standard-issue armoured mech suit disappointment, but Dafoe inhabits the role with such relish, and Raimi supports him with such gleeful conviction, that one is keen to get back to him whenever we’re with the heroes of the piece. The Gollum-esque internal struggle for dominance between the warring sides of his character – defined by the mesmerising mirror scene – is an absolute highlight, and if Parker’s lacking in witty lines, Norman Osborn and the Goblin are ever ready with them (and really, you can’t but sympathise with Norman having Franco as a son).

A degree of sympathy is also engendered by having Norman up against it, first with the military withdrawing his contract from under him, and then again when he’s ousted by the OsCorp board; even the Goblin killing his chief scientist is something Norman regrets. And when he turns fully, the result is a marvellously unsettling Thanksgiving dinner (well, it never gets to the eating part), as Norman arrives with the kind of grin only Dafoe can muster and an “Aunt May. I’m sorry I’m late. Work was murder” before adding “I uh picked up a fruit cake”. He maligns Peter’s room (“Bit of a slob, isn’t he?”) and then leaves in a hurry – but not before sabotaging Harry’s already waning chances with MJ – having realised Spidey’s true identity. I also love that he shows up at The Daily Bugle to threaten J Jonah, and even more that he hides under a shawl pretending to be an old lady in a burning building. The only thing against him in all this, villainy-wise – and it is a massive blunder – is that he has Spider-Man at his mercy, to offer him a partnership no less, and doesn’t even sneak a peek under his mask.

Nicholson’s and Ledger’s Jokers still gets all the credit for comic book villains, but for my money Dafoe is every bit their equal (I do think it’s his costume that gets in the way of the recognition he deserves). Notably, and there are various clear parallels with Burton’s Batman here, the principals’ “births” are interlinked, here born on the same night. Significantly too, Peter doesn’t realise the Goblin is Norman until the latter reveals himself at the end, saying very little for Peter’s proactivity throughout (on that score, Spider-Man is rather slack, in the same way origin movies, with so many elements to juggle, often are).

Elsewhere, JK Simmons is an absolute blast as J Jonah Jameson; has a comic book character ever been more perfectly cast? His JJJ definitely tends to the more fun side of the various comic book portrayals, from his headlines (“Spider-Man – hero or menace?”) to his desire to get a patent on the name Green Goblin, to his intricate knowledge of defamation (“I resent that! Slander is spoken. In print, it’s libel”) and who he doestrust (“My barber”). It’s little surprise Simmons has returned to the role this year, as trying to find a worthy replacement would be a fool’s errand. There’s also Bruce Campbell as a wrestling announcer in Peter’s early fights for cash (a great sequence), Cliff Robertson exactly the incarnation of the insufferably honourable Uncle Ben one would expect, and Rosemary Harris the encapsulation of Aunt May (well until Marisa Tomei came along); her slapping Norman’s fingers for not waiting to eat is priceless.

As much a star are Raimi’s visuals, though. The gusto here is infectious, from the over-enunciated sound effect when Peter is first bitten, to his tingling spider-sense, to the masterful use of slow motion in action scenes (his corridor altercation with Flash is a particular knockout), to imaginative montage sequences (Peter’s hallucinatory fever post-bite, complete with skull), staging (Peter on the ceiling, Norman down below, a drop of blood poised to fall) and cutting (explosive debris transformed into raining graduation hats). In contrast to most superhero movies, Raimi shoots 1:85:1 to take advantage of the vertiginous nature of the wallcrawler (only switching to 2:40:1 for the sequel – apparently due to the demands of Doc Ock’s tentacles, although some have also cited the subway train fight). He also sets as much of the fledgling CGI-dependent web slinging at night as he can; there’s been criticism in hindsight of the rudimentary quality of virtual Spidey, but in fairness, Raimi’s evidently aware of the limitations in his cutting decisions. Unlike many directors, he doesn’t allow the effects to do everything (and thereby unflattering over-expose their shortcomings).

Yes, the sales blueprint of Batman is all over this, from a pop act intruding on the action (Macy Gray performing during the carnival sequence) to Danny Elfman’s so-so score, but Raimi has put together an altogether more satisfying movie, understanding that you can’t just have mood; you also need to make a superhero do vaguely super things. While other movies of the period haven’t aged terribly well (X-Men), the most refreshing element of this and a couple of others (Ang Lee’s Hulk, Del Toro’s Blade II) is seeing talented filmmakers allowed to show their chops, rather than conform to producer-led dictates (although, it sounds as if the cheesy post-9/11 response of New Yorkers’ “You harm one of us, you harm all of us” was down to Raimi himself). That Spider-Man was just the start of a trilogy for the director but works as a self-contained story – yes, there are mentions of Eddie Brock and Curt Connors, Harry is grieving, and Peter’s poised for a sequel – shows clearly that when Sony left Raimi behind, they also left behind their ability to make a solid Spidey movie. Well, for about twelve years.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.