With the franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, getting good buzz and arriving in theaters next week, I thought it time to take a retrospective look at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, which arguably kicked the current superhero craze into high gear. While it’s true that Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) got the ball rolling, it was the enormous popularity of Spider-Man ten years ago that got studios to sit up and take notice that the genre was hot again. Fans of The Avengers, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight, pay your respects, as without the Spidey films we’d likely not be enjoying such a superhero Rennaissance. As always, “like” my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter for regular updates.
THE STORY: Nerdy social outcast Peter Parker gets bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider and develops super-strength, incredible speed and agility, a sixth-sense for impending danger, the ability to climb walls, and the capacity to shoot webs from his wrists. He graduates high school and begins working as a freelance photographer. Feeling responsible for his uncle’s death (he let the shooter get away), he takes up the mantle of crimefighting superhero, battling (and defeating) his best friend Harry’s mad scientist father, who accidentally impales himself trying to kill Peter. Harry swares vengeance on the masked vigilante Spider-Man, not knowing that Peter is the man behind the mask. Peter’s loyalty and sweetness win him the heart of his dream girl, Mary-Jane Watson, but desiring to protect her from his enemies he denies his true feelings for her.
MY TAKE: A colorful and energetic origin story that perfectly captures both the awkward longing of adolescent romance and the geek fantasy of gaining superpowers, Spider-Man boasts well-developed characters and admirable pacing. While some of the effects haven’t aged well, the tone is inconsistent, and the villain’s plans/motives aren’t clear, there is still much to like here, especially the Toby Maguire-Kirsten Dunst chemistry, Danny Elfman’s memorable score, and Raimi’s inventive direction. Spider-Man sets a solid foundation on which a great trilogy could have been built. GRADE: B+
CORE MESSAGE: “With great power comes great responsibility.“
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
THE STORY: Juggling two jobs, college studies, and crimefighting activities overwhelms Peter, whose commitment to his “calling” is tested when he finds that Mary Jane is engaged and Harry resents him for not helping in the hunt for Spider-Man. Tired of living in poverty, losing his powers due to stress, and never getting what he wants out of life, Peter abandons his responsibility to help others. When an experiment goes wrong, turning Peter’s mentor into a madman, Peter heeds counsel from his beloved aunt and takes up his hero mantle again to protect the city, even though he believes it will cost him Mary-Jane. When she discovers that her superhero crush and the love of her heart are the same man, Mary-Jane leaves her groom at the altar, choosing Peter even though it may put her in danger. Harry, having discovered that his sworn enemy is also his best friend, finds his father’s performance-enhancing formula and weapons technology and begins to plot his revenge.
MY TAKE: I don’t say this lightly, but Spider-Man 2 is a practically flawless popcorn movie and the very epitome of how to do a sequel right. At the time, Roger Ebert even said that it was the best superhero film he’d ever seen. Taking character arcs and story threads from the first movie and expanding on them in intelligent and satisfying ways, Spider-Man 2 is funny, moving, thrilling, and inspiring. Every single thing it sets out to do, it does extremely well. Raimi’s direction is wildly creative, the music soars and, even with action scenes providing spectacle aplenty, Spider-Man 2 wisely slows down enough to let audiences connect to its characters. The emotional payoff is so perfect that, if it weren’t for the unresolved subplot of Harry seeking vengeance for his father’s death, this would be the perfect place to end this story. GRADE: A+
CORE MESSAGE: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was duty. I acted, and behold, duty was joy” – Rabindranath Tagore.
SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)
THE STORY: With the city hailing him as a hero and a marriage proposal to Mary-Jane imminent, Peter Parker is on top of the world, at least until Harry tries to take his revenge. Meanwhile, the “actual killer” of Peter’s uncle escapes from prison and is turned into a man made of sand, arrogant Eddie Brock competes for Peter’s job at the newspaper, and Peter’s new-found fame as the city’s hero blinds him to the hardships Mary-Jane is going through. What’s more, parasitic black alien goo from a meteor latches onto him and amplifies his aggression, ego, and dorkiness until he’s broken Mary-Jane’s heart, tried to kill the “Sandman” in a vengeance-fueled rage, retaliated against and partially mutilated Harry, made an enemy out of Brock, and turned into a strutting hybrid of jazz and emo sensibilities.
If all of that sounds convoluted, don’t worry, it gets worse: comic-book interest Gwen Stacy is introduced for a woefully under-cooked love quadrangle, the symbiotic black goo falls onto Brock turning him into the monsterous Venom, and there’s even a random amnesia subplot and awkward kitchen dance sequence thrown in for good measure. Ultimately, Harry finally learns that Peter really didn’t kill his father after his elderly butler decides to tell him (aside from undisclosed Alzheimer’s, why the old coot sat on this information for two whole movies is beyond me). Harry and Peter forgive each other, teaming up to defeat Venom and Sandman while Mary-Jane once again proves herself utterly useless in a fight. Harry dies, Peter cries, forgives the Sandman for accidentally shooting his uncle way back when, and offers Mary-Jane his hand in a wordless apology. They hug, the credits roll, and audiences around the world sat in stunned silence before asking “What the…?”
MY TAKE: Swinging for the fences and striking out big time, this ambitious failure gets almost as many things wrong as Spider-Man 2 got right. While I can appreciate telling a story about replacing vengeance with forgiveness, in order to do so Spider-Man 3 unwisely rewrites the tragedy of Uncle Ben’s death (a powerful moment in the first film) and sullies the sweetness of the Peter/Mary-Jane romance, which is the emotional core of the series. The film is also overstuffed with characters and plot threads; in trying to do too many things at once it ends up doing none of them well (save for, admittedly, a handful of impressive action beats, the gorgeous marriage of visual effects and music when Sandman is “born,” and the always reliable Bruce Cambell’s hilarious performance as a French maitre’d). If Raimi and company had taken out the ridiculously inconsistent Sandman character (so wait, because he loves his daughter we’re supposed to believe that he’s not a “bad guy,” yet he regularly endangers civilians and tries to murder our hero?) and redistributed their time and energy retooling the remaining story threads, they might have made a great film. As it is, Spider-Man 3 is a crushing disappointment that killed a potentially excellent series in one fell swoop (hence the reboot). GRADE: D
CORE MESSAGE: Peace comes from abandoning the evil in our nature, making restitution to those whom we’ve hurt, and forgiving one another.