by Matt Fleming. This is Retrograding, where movies don’t mean a thing if they ain’t got some swing.
THE FILM: Spider-Man
THE TIME: 2002, two years after Fox’s first X-Men, proving that superheroes could still be viable post-Batman & Robin.
RECOLLECTIONS: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man took one look at X-Men’s box office and said, “oh, that’s cute,” raking in the kind of money Hollywood executives had only dreamed of before, and subsequently setting a new benchmark for financial performance in summer cinema. Spider-Man set the records that are still being met by today’s superhero soirees, so it’s no wonder why Sony once thought it had a bonafide money-making machine in their arsenal. (Of course, this was certainly the catalyst for the execution of Marvel Studios; six years later, Iron Man was born.)
The hype was real. Raimi and his team were able to take James Cameron’s “scriptment” from its ‘80s graveyard and craft a legitimately fun adventure, with graphics that stunned moviegoers (at the time, at least). While it doesn’t have as much of the childlike whimsy many people expect from the web-slinger, the heart and spirit are fully realized. Let’s not forget as well, that kiss between Spidey and Mary Jane remains as iconic a moment in cinema as anything from Hollywood’s classic days, leading many aspiring romantics to lose consciousness from trying to court others whilst hanging upside-down.
THE DIRECTOR: Until Spider-Man, Sam Raimi was a journeyman director best known for the Evil Dead movies, which really only engendered excitement in the eyes of fringe fans with unhealthy Bruce Campbell obsessions (*ahem*). While Darkman remains an underrated cult classic, his post-Dead career had languished between critical praise and the box office abyss. It turns out that these are perfect attributes for the director of a dice-roll the size of Spider-Man, and it doesn’t hurt when the director understands both the material and the audience.
Raimi’s years of fly-by-night filmmaking turned him into an incredibly inventive visual storyteller, and it shows all over Spider-Man. The camera movement is either dynamic or steady depending on the film’s needs (in stark contrast to the unfortunate Amazing Spider-Man reboots), and Raimi captures the concept of a “Spidey-Sense” perfectly. He also had the foresight to deliver a tight story, focusing on an origin and a single villain. Unfortunately by his third web-slinging foray, studio pressures had won out, and Spidey had become overwhelmed by bloat. But in this instance, Raimi had delivered an instant classic for the superhero genre.
THE CAST: While most of us are eagerly anticipating Tom Holland’s turn in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tobey Maguire set the standard for the awkwardness of a young dork with superpowers. After perusing the list of actors Sony had initially been eye-balling (Edward Furlong? Seriously?), it’s clear that Maguire was the right guy at the right time. Though his character was still a bit of a departure from the Spidey of the pages, he managed to deliver iconic performances in two out of three films. (The less said about Spider-Man 3, the better.) Andrew Garfield had the better accent and Tom Holland has the look, but Tobey brought Peter Parker some serious heart.
The other standout performance in Spider-Man belongs to Willem Dafoe as his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin. Finally, someone in casting realized Dafoe was the spitting image of an actual goblin, but with the acting chops to thoroughly frighten filmgoers with his over-the-top antics. The climactic battle between Spidey and the Goblin is one of the most harrowing film fights of all time, with a brutal finish that still leaves a lump in my throat. Villains just don’t arrive this large anymore. (Example: the threat of Marvel Studios’ Thanos has loomed over seven films and counting, with little to show for it.)
However, the rest of the main cast leaves some wanting. Kirsten Dunst delivers the most “just fine” performance of her career as Mary Jane Watson, the highlight being the aforementioned kiss. She’s a damsel in distress that seems pretty nonplussed when she isn’t in mortal danger. Also, this was the film that unleashed James Franco unto the masses, and while he’s shown some promise with his comedic fare, he stands out like a sore thumb here. Kudos for whoever landed J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson and Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, two roles that may never be matched in future Spider-fare. Also, I’ll never not geek out when “Macho Man” Randy Savage utters the guttural line, “Bonesaw is ready!”
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Pure nostalgia-fest. Over a decade has passed and we’ve seen the effects of Spider-Man’s success, heck, Marvel has practically made this film a blueprint for doing superhero flicks. Still, this one stands aloft as the first post-Blade comic book movie to stand alone as an exemplary adventure film. Spider-Man 2 was even better, but the first one showed audiences why Peter Parker is Marvel’s biggest asset. Further, in 2002 Spider-Man was Sam Raimi’s finest moment, joining his unique visual talents with their ideal subject matter. If someone has never read a single comic before, they can enjoy this movie. Better still, they can understand the universal appeal of a kid from Queens swinging around town, saving the day.
RETROGRADE: 7.5 out of 10