SPIDER-MAN: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Spider-Man (2002) – Directed by Sam Raimi – Starring Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Banks, Macho Man Randy Savage, Joe Manganiello, Bill Nunn, Bruce Campbell, and Stan Lee.

There is not a better made superhero movie that I enjoy watching less than Sam Raimi’s wonderful SPIDER-MAN. I would almost go so far as to say that there is nothing I would change about the film, except of course, there’s that awful (minus the mask) Green Goblin costume. Beyond that, however, SPIDER-MAN is an earnest, honest, well-meaning superhero film about good people put into extraordinary circumstances. When it came out in 2002, I broke my rule about seeing movies on opening weekend to sneak out for the 11 AM showing and absolutely loved it. As I told anyone who would listen at the time, SPIDER-MAN thrilled the kid in me without offending the adult. Even now, when Peter walks away from MJ at the end of the movie and we hear him say in narration, “With great power comes great responsibility,” I get choked up.

So why don’t I enjoy watching it more?

In large part, it’s because SPIDER-MAN did it’s job so well that superhero films have grown beyond it’s two hours of cinematic goodness. For me, Spider-Man has the single greatest origin in all of supeherodom and Raimi’s film wonderfully lays it out for us in live action. The problem is that I’ve read and re-read and re-read Spidey’s origin so many times that tuning in to a movie to watch it all again …

I don’t get a whole lot out of it anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled it exists, and if I ever have kids, I’ll gladly pop them down in front of the big screen TV top watch it over and over again. But for now, watching the film once every five years or so is enough.

Raimi’s film is the perfect superhero movie to transition the genre out of Batman’s darkness and into the light. The influence of Burton and Schumacher’s franchise is all over Raimi’s film, of course, and if there’s one quibble I have with Raimi’s direction is that Raimi chameleons himself inside the Schumacher mold to such a degree that he loses himself. Raimi delivers a very professional directing job in SPIDER-MAN, but like Chris Colombus in the first Harry Potter film, Raimi’s approach has seemingly been designed to not mess things up more than deliver a unique, powerful vision.

More Schumacher than Burton though it may be, Raimi’s approach absolutely works. SPIDER-MAN raked in over $800 mil at the international box office back in 2002, and it’s completely deserving of every dollar. You can see strains of where Raimi overplays his hand – he sometimes mistakes melodrama for real emotion, and most damningly, he just won’t let Peter have a moment’s rest, won’t let life give him a break. I understand that bad luck and hard times are part of the Peter Parker stock and trade, but Spidey is a jokester, too, always ready with the quip while inside his suit, but there’s not a whole lot of that in SPIDER-MAN.

A pre-9/11 SPIDER-MAN teaser poster featuring the Twin Towers reflected on Spidey’s goggles.

In fact, the best one-liners come during his wrestling match with Bonesaw McGraw (Macho Man Randy Savage Oooh Yeah), because in the rest of the film there’s not a whole lot of room to joke around. Post-wrestling match, of course, after Peter gets stiffed on his payment, he lets a burglar run past him that ends up killing Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson).

Cliff Robertson’s Uncle Ben and Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May are the emotional backbone of the film, and both veteran actors deliver pitch-perfect performances. Robertson has one of the toughest jobs in all of superhero films; he’s got to deliver an absolutely spot-on performance in limited screen time and he hits every single scene with the right mix of fight and emotion. When he’s worried enough about what’s going on in Peter’s life that he forces Pete to ride with him into the city, he gives May a little flash of victory behind Peter’s back. Then when they get to the library, he tries to have a heart-to-heart with Peter about what he’s going through and Pete rejects him, tells him to back off, and slams Ben for not being his father. It’s a brutal scene, totally undeserved, and Maguire and Robertson deliver it as well as any scene in any superhero film.

As for the structure of the film, the first half concentrates on the origin story and the second half delivers the Spidey vs. Goblin. SPIDER-MAN does a very solid job weaving all of its characters through both halves of the film and making each of them feel like real people. Whenever Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) comes back into the narrative, there’s a genuine sense of the life she’s lived in between these moments. I’m not a huge fan of Dunst, but she’s really good here at playing the suburban version of white trash. She’s had a hard childhood and can’t wait to get out of her house and into the city post-high school graduation. It’s not an easy life as she tries to make it as an actress, but she’s not afraid to work menial jobs to make ends meet.

There’s a tragic feeling to everything MJ does; life has been hard on her and that sadness comes through around Peter, who gets to see the private MJ (and not just when he’s peeping into her bedroom window) while others get the public, happy-go-lucky Mary Jane. The famous “upside down Spidey” kissing scene, when paired with the funeral kissing scene, brings these two halves of both Mary and Peter’s personas together in a really touching way.

Tobey Maguire is very good at playing the sheepish Peter Parker, even if he does go the wide-eyed, stand and stare dumbly route a bit too often, just as Willem Dafoe is very good at playing the mentally unhinged Norman Osborn, even if he does go the bug-eyed, cackle maniacally route a bit too often. James Franco is solid as Harry Osborn, J.K. Simmons is outstanding as J. Jonah Jameson (even drawn incredibly cartoonishly), and Elizabeth Banks has a “is that who I think it is?” cameo as Betty Brant.

The action is very good and very bright, which the film needs to balance of the dark emotion of Ben getting murdered and Peter being partly responsible, of the Goblin kidnapping both Aunt May and Mary Jane, and then accidentally killing himself.

It’s all professionally done and SPIDER-MAN was exactly the right film at the right time for the superhero genre. While Bryan Singer’s X-Men beat Spidey to the screen by two years and deserves credit for being the post-Burton/Schumacher Batman opening act, SPIDER-MAN’s $800 mil rake at the international box office (compared to X-Men‘s $300 mil), Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN felt like the start of something new. Did they play it safe? Absolutely, but in playing it safe, Raimi and Maguire also didn’t screw it up and simply let Spidey and the Goblin go at it over the course of two hours. The film definitively put “with great power comes great responsibility” into the mainstream lexicon and it finally put the core of the Marvel Universe onto the big screens in a way that the X-Men could not, given the whole “hated and feared” thing. Spidey is Marvel’s most important and popular character and its box office performance broke new ground for superhero films (at the international box office, SPIDER-MAN bested Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman and Robin COMBINED).

SPIDER-MAN is an excellent movie, both for what it puts on the screen and how it helped to get the ball rolling on all sorts of superhero movies, but I don’t find it a highly re-watchable movie. I know that makes me a bit of a jerk because why wouldn’t you want to watch something done this well, but I’m kinda burned out on origin stories.

Once every five years or so, however, SPIDER-MAN can still bring me along for a heck of a ride.

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2 thoughts on “SPIDER-MAN: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

  1. I enjoy Spider-Man, but I have a lot of problems with it. I think it gets a lot of slack for all its issues because it proved that you can make a movie with a superhero in a flashy costume and it can still be taken seriously. And I get that, I do.

    …but god, the melodrama! The dialogue between Peter and MJ is just so cringe-worthy. It doesn’t help that Kirsten Dunst gets my award for Least Likable Superhero Love Interest. In every movie when she’s at the mercy of the villain and counting on Spidey to save her, I’m rooting for the villain just so she can finally shut up.

    Also, despite Dafoe’s great work, the Green Goblin is just written too one-dimensionally for my tastes. In Spider-Man 2 and 3, the villains have reasons for doing what they do, but in the first one, I don’t see much reason for Osborn to continue putting on the Goblin mask once he’s killed off the board members who forced him out. And after that point, the movie just loses me (that hideous costume which looks like it was picked up from a Power Rangers garage sale certainly doesn’t help — with the budget they had, they could’ve done much, much better).

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    • I think, as far as Dunst goes, she delivers the performance they want – which is a decent but searching piece of white trash. Her MJ has probably gotten by on her looks her whole life and now that she’s doing something on her own, it’s harder than she thought and so she falls into Harry’s arms because his money can take of everything. I’m not saying she’s super likable, but I do appreciate the flaws in her character.

      As for Gobby, I agree, but I think what the film is going for is the idea that even after Norman takes out the board members, that there’s something completely rotten about the Goblin persona and it will never be completely satisfied. They could have done a better job selling this.

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