Saturday, June 30, 2012

Spidey on Screen: Spider-Man (2002)

I was shellshocked when I first watched Spider-Man on May 3, 2002. There's no other word. I'd never seen anything like it. Afterwards, a friend asked what I thought, and after mulling the question, all I could come up with was, "I knew exactly what was going to happen." I meant it as a compliment. Abject admiration. Not since Christopher Reeve's first turn as Superman could I remember a big budget superhero flick so unabashedly embracing its roots with as much confidence. This was the Spider-Man I'd read about in comics all my life. Seen in cartoons all my life. He looked the same. Acted the same. His origin was the same. In hindsight, maybe that's just a testament to how low the bar had been set for comic adaptations.

In 1999, having secured the Spider-Man film rights after a very lengthy, very contentious legal battle with several comers, the movie mavens at Sony dutifully set about laying the pieces in place to get Spidey onto local cinema screens posthaste. Bear in mind that, until very recently at that time, Marvel Comics had never enjoyed a successful big screen translation for any of its characters. Not one. This might seem hard to believe in today's post-Iron Man age of celluloid dominance for the company, but back then their cinematic prospects were one long, uninterrupted joke, with mega flops like 1986's Howard the Duck and also-rans like 1990's The Punisher and Captain America (not to mention the craptastic, never-released 1994 Fantastic Four) serving as periodic punchlines.

But the timing couldn't have been better for Spidey in '99. Two years earlier, crosstown rival DC's Batman movie series famously flamed out (or, more appropriately, froze up), and the perpetually "upcoming" Superman reboot had spent nearly as long in development hell as the Spider-Man project had. Things finally turned around for Marvel in 1998, thanks to a little known character from the publisher's far fringes. No one thought Blade would do much of anything when it opened in late August, but lo and behold, the action-horror pic starring Wesley Snipes as a vampire hunter created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan racked up $70 mil domestically, proving that, done well, even one of Marvel's lesser lights could find an audience. Imagine what could happen with one of its marquee characters.

After sorting through a deep pool of directing candidates, Sony narrowed their list of potential Spider-Man helmers down to David Fincher (yes, that David Fincher) and Sam Raimi. While Fincher's take on the property would have hewed closely to his trademark style and could conceivably have been memorable in its own right, I'm sure the franchise minders at Sony were thinking just a little bit about the famously independent Fincher's heated clashes with his studio the last time he worked on a big franchise. In the end, the gig went to Raimi, another longtime Spider-fan who previously tried his hand at the superhero genre with 1991's Darkman, and who brought a fan's eye to the proceedings as he worked with scribe David Koepp to craft the screen story (using as a guide some of the James Cameron material Sony had acquired).

Raimi felt -- rightly -- that one of the primary appeals of Spider-Man over the years has been the way folks could so easily relate to Peter Parker's hard luck travails. It wasn't just Spider-Man's regular face-offs with diabolical super-villain types, it was Peter struggling to pay the rent, keep his grades up, and make sense of his topsy-turvy love life. He remained, per Marvel, "the hero who could be you." Thus, one of the biggest decisions Raimi made early on (which ended up causing some controversy on the fanboy circuit), was to retain an idea that first germinated with Cameron, giving Parker organic webshooters rather than the comic book conceit of mechanical devices on his wrists to launch artificial spider-webs. Raimi's rationale at the time was that it was simply a bridge too far to believe a teenager could come up with such advanced gadgets.

With the story set, and a summer 2001 release penciled in, the next step was casting, and here again Sony had their pick of a very wide talent pool, with some of the most prominent young actors in Hollywood lining up for a chance to potentially suit up. This included the late Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and James Franco -- solid actors, all -- but it was Tobey Maguire, who had built a solid reputation as a dependable presence in prestige films such as 1997's The Ice Storm, 1998's Pleasantville, and 1999's The Cider House Rules who won Raimi over. He ended up getting the nod with the suits after filming a shirtless stunt sequence that demonstrated his ability to get into the physical shape the role required. 

From there, the rest of the cast quickly fell into place, with Kirsten Dunst tapped to play love interest Mary Jane Watson, and, after John Malkovich and Nicolas Cage both fell out for scheduling reasons, Willem Dafoe snagged the role of Norman Osborn, a.k.a. main baddie Green Goblin. James Franco, who missed out on the superheroic lead, snared the second prize of playing Peter Parker's best friend and romantic rival Harry Osborn. With a script, cast, and most of the key creatives all locked in and ready to go, production swiftly commenced under Raimi's confident helm, for the film's targeted summer 2002 release (pushed ahead from its initial '01 date).

You're likely already familiar with the story, but the gist is that Peter Parker is a high school loser who's been nursing a crush on his next door neighbor Mary Jane all his life. When he's bitten by a genetically engineered spider while visiting a science exhibit, he takes on its abilities proportionally, including heightened strength and reflexes, crawling on walls, and shooting webs from his wrists. Initially using his powers for fame, he sets about righting wrongs when the death of his cherished Uncle Ben (the late Cliff Robertson in a brief, crucial part) makes him realize the importance of the mantra, "With great power comes great responsibility." Spider-Man's first big challenge comes in the form of the Green Goblin, a high-tech terrorist who is, in actuality, the father of his best friend.

Honestly, reading over that summary is a bit of a yawner. But in many ways that's a reflection of the trail that Spider-Man blazed. It's been followed by so many superhero opuses in such a short time that it can't help but seem a little bit pallid. And with the benefit of ten years' hindsight, it's definitely creakier today than at the time of its release (when it found the critical and popular sweet spot, setting the then-record for the biggest opening weekend of all-time). What still works, I think is Maguire's performance, both in costume and, more importantly, out. While I disagree with Raimi's backburnering of Parker's genius-level intellect in favor of making him more run-of-the-mill nerdy, Maguire has an everyman quality that makes it an easier sell. A particular highlight are his interactions with blustery newspaper publisher boss J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, who gets most of the best lines).

Also a marvel (pun unintentional) is the Spider-suit designed by James Acheson, an absolutely faithful representation of the character's look that doesn't appear at all cheesy or out-of-place. Yeah, we could get into the weeds on how a perpetually broke college student came up with the materials to pull such a suit together, but I'm happily willing to call "suspension of disbelief" on that one. On the other hand, while we're talking suits, the Green Goblin's neon green Power Rangers number is a fail all the way around. While I can see the rationale behind not 'porting the Goblin's comic look to the screen as-is, this is simply a compromise too far. You can't help but kind of feel bad for Defoe (who's also great) having to emote and act behind the goofy, plastic-looking mask.

Watching Spider-Man today, it's easy to see why it worked as well as it did, while also fully acknowledging those parts of the machinery that have gathered some rust in the interim. Much of the credit for what works has to go to Raimi, who threads the needle between the mainstream, "franchisey" flick the studio required, while also finding enough quirky "little" moments to make the big moments more than just noise. As far as I'm concerned, the sequence where Peter learns his uncle has been murdered, tracks down the killer, and is ultimately confronted by his own role in the tragedy remains one of the most effective and affecting ever put to film in this genre. There's real magic there as he swings through the city for the first time, aloft on the wings of Danny Elfman's lush score, that retains its power to thrill.

Also, as mentioned above, Maguire anchors the proceedings admirably and with aplomb. He and Raimi find an easy rhythm early on that helps the film immeasurably. You can't help but like him (of course, it also helps here is that the character of Spider-Man is himself so iconic and easily relatable that the filmmakers don't really have to do much lifting to get us involved in his various travails). If there is a weak link, however, it's Kristen Dunst. Granted, the role of love interest in movies like this rarely calls for much and is usually pretty thankless, but after awhile Dunst's flat delivery is just grating. While the actress surely has a set of pipes that benefits her during all the fighting and falling she endures, it's hard to see why Parker has been carrying a torch for her for so long. The role is underwritten, and she doesn't really give it any extra "oomph."

Still, I'll happily cop to being in the minority on that last point, as the romance angle was one of the prime selling points for the film, and helped it appeal to the young girls for whom something like this would normally be anathema. In fact, Spider-Man was the very definition of a four-quadrant success, finding a receptive audience with men, women, young, and old, all of whom helped make it one of the top five movies of all time by the time it ended its domestic run (besting even Star Wars: Episode II from that same summer). With the rapid-fire successes of Blade, X-Men in 2000, and now Spider-Man, Marvel had gone from punchline to player. And Sony Pictures, who'd labored long and hard during and after the various legal troubles to craft a film that could become an annuity, had seen that work pay off beyond their wildest dreams.

To Be Continued...


J.R. LeMar said...

I agree, it was a great film. I still consider it one of the greatest superhero movies ever (after The Avengers & Iron Man). But you do contradict yourself in this blog when you say that until then Marvel hadn't had a successful film adaptation, and then a little further down you point out the previous unexpected success of the Blade film.

Zaki said...

Thanks for the heads-up...I've amended the post slightly to clarify what I was trying to say. :-)

J.R. LeMar said...

The BLADE films get criminally overlooked, as the real beginning of the superhero movie boom. 1 & 2 were both commercial and critical hits, and even the crappy 3rd one made over $100 million worldwide. But Marvel never did anything to capitalize off of it. I recall that Mark Millar wanted to do a Blade miniseries with John Romita Jr., which would have come out around the time of the 3rd film (synergy!), but the PTB @ Marvel convinced them to do Wolverine instead (because that's a character that could use more exposure from having two A-list talents on him, unlike Blade, I guess). Oh well.

Anyway, I can't say I have a burning desire to see the new Spidey film, @ least not enough to go to the theater. I'll catch it when it's on TV