Movie Talk: The Sam Raimi Spider-Man Films Re-Visited [Part 1]

spiderman-1Release Year: 2002
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

I’ll be honest: I was expecting the first of the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies to have aged terribly before I re-watched it yesterday. After all, this film is eighteen years-old at this point. EIGHTEEN. Where has all of THAT time gone? Since then, we have had many Spider-Man films, with the webhead played by different actors to much critical acclaim. So what was I expecting? Ropey CG? Dodgy acting? I don’t think it was unreasonable to have gone back into Spider-Man with low expectations. It had been a long time since I last watched it, for starters. Also, the movie has since gone on to inspire countless memes and inevitable criticism from a younger generation along the lines of, “Oh my God! Look how bad this looks compared to the new ones!”

Well, guess what? The film is still awesome. The end credits rolled and I was just as satisfied as when I first watched it back in 2002, as a twelve year-old. You can keep your newer Spider-Mans. I never fully bought into the whole crossover or ‘event’ thing, even in the comic books. I preferred Spider-Man to have his own self-contained adventures with his own supporting cast, as it used to be in the pre-millennium comics (guest appearances from other characters aside). That’s probably one reason why I still enjoy first Spider-Man.

Another is the casting, which was spot-on. I’ll admit that Tobey Maguire’s version of Peter Parker isn’t 100% satisfying (he occasionally comes off as just weird/creepy as opposed to nerdy and shy) but for the most part, I have no issues. Willem Dafoe is great as the billionaire industrialist, Norman Osborn, who becomes the iconic Green Goblin. I have to say that I really enjoy the look of the Goblin in this movie, especially that grinning, gargoyle-like helmet with the slide-up eye covers. Back in ’02, I was dubious but now? I’d say that I like it more than the Goblin’s classic costume from the comics. The glider is bad-ass too.

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Admit it: this was better than the rubber mask and messenger boy satchel from the comics.

Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson are perfect as Aunt May and Uncle Ben while J.K. Simmons couldn’t have done a better job portraying the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson. Seriously, it’s a pleasure whenever he’s on-screen, shouting and puffing away on a cigar. I couldn’t help but smile.

Kirsten Dunst does a pretty solid job as Mary-Jane Watson, Peter’s high-school love interest, though I wish her character had been a little more fiery and bubbly as in the comics where she was first introduced as a party girl. Here, she is softer and an unlikely sympathiser towards Peter given their respective places in the high school social hierarchy. That aside, I’ve never been able to forget that alley scene in the pouring rain where MJ’s sodden top leaves nothing to the imagination. As I said earlier, I first watched this film as a twelve year-old and I can’t count the number of times I reversed and replayed those few seconds of the DVD. If it had been the VHS version then the tape would surely have worn out! It was gold for a sheltered adolescent, and – while I didn’t indulge in any reverse/replay shenanigans this time – I still appreciated the scene as an adult. I couldn’t see it getting through the censors in today’s uber-critical, Woke world without some photoshop-like post-production magic though. Nor would I be so confident about her super low-cut top from the movie’s start making the cut.

It’s another reminder that more time has passed than I realised since Spider-Man hit cinemas, and that the world has changed a lot in those eighteen years. This DVD I have is a further reminder. It’s my original copy – the same one that I stressed so much with all that reversing/replaying – from 2002 and it was the first DVD that I ever owned. It’s a ‘Special’ 2-Disc Widescreen Edition (remember those?) that I seem to recall costing about £20! The double-discs, thick booklet and solid plastic for the casing are a stark contrast to today’s DVD’s which usually have no special features and the flimsiest of cases.

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Would this make it into a 12-Rated superhero movie today? Somehow, I doubt it.

Back to the movie, I was able to appreciate the origin story and scripting far more this time around. When I first watched Spider-Man (and the few times after that), I questioned why they had skipped over Gwen Stacy and gone straight to Mary-Jane; why the Goblin and not one of the other villains that Spider-Man faced off against in the comics before Osborn? Obviously, I was just being a pedantic nerd but this stuff seemed to matter to me back then. Now, well…I’m still a nerd, but a more informed nerd at least. Everything about Spider-Man seems to be more closely aligned with the ‘Ultimate’ universe which hadn’t long kicked off back then and was a modern re-telling of the Spider-Man origin story with Peter a teenager in the new Millennium. It’s a great alternate universe to the ‘normal’ Marvel one because it brought Peter Parker bang up-to-date without getting too dark or edgy. That’s what the Spider-Man movie feels like and, while some may consider the tone to now be outdated, I think it remains a perfect halfway house between the 60’s original and the more current stuff.

I really enjoyed the final showdown with the Green Goblin too. The finale apes the comics when Norman discovered Spider-Man’s identity and made things personal by killing Gwen Stacey. Here, in the movie, Osborn attacks Aunt May before kidnapping MJ and making Spider-Man/Peter choose between saving the girl he loves or a cable car full of kids. It remains an exciting climax and the final, final battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin is fucking awesome. The two really go at it, punching one another through walls and all that cool stuff.

While I don’t think Spider-Man has aged as badly as some may have you believe, there are a few things that aren’t quite so hot. The CG for instance, is largely still convincing but there are those odd moments when Spidey’s web-swinging sequences look a bit rigid and unnatural. Then there are the few scenes with the Green Goblin on his glider that don’t look quite right, especially when there is other shit going on in the background. There are also a couple of really corny “imagination” sequences where Peter is thinking about something (buying a car to impress MJ, for example) and various images are floating about, overlapping and fading out. These bits look like they belong in a TV comedy from the 90’s – at least in my mind.

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Shit gets real at the very end.

These are pretty minor criticisms however and, honestly, I’d expect any CG to look dated almost twenty years later. Movies use so much of it now that the age of the tech is going to be a lot harder to disguise further down the line.

One final shout-out has to go to Danny Elfman’s superb score. There are several rousing pieces of music in Spider-Man that unmistakably belong to this movie and give it its own sound – a sound that I would recognise anywhere and immediately link it back to Spider-Man.

Overall, I still got a good kick out of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man effort. Natural aging aside, the movie still does a damn good job of capturing the source material’s magic and telling an origin story. I also can’t help but like Spider-Man that little bit more for the fact that it is a film from a more innocent time and is entirely self-contained without all the MCU bullshit and associated expectation. As an added bonus, it features the best Green Goblin and the best Jonah Jameson (in my opinion of course).

Comic Book Review: Ultimate Spiderman Vol.1 – Power and Responsibility (Marvel, 2001)

USM-1Year: 2001
Format: Trade Paperback, collecting Ultimate Spiderman #1-7 (2000)
Writer(s): Brian Michael Bendis, Bill Jemas
Artist(s): Mark Bagley (pencils), Art Thibert, Dan Panosian (inks), Steve Buccellato, Marie Javins, Colorgraphix & JC (colours)
ISBN: 0-7851-0786

“With great power comes great responsibility.” In 1963, these prophetic words launched one of the most successful and recognisable characters of the 20th Century…Spider-Man! The powers granted bookish Peter Parker by a radioactive spider have fueled the imagination of fans worldwide for nearly 40 years. With the dawning of a new age, however, comes a hero for a new millenium…Ultimate Spiderman!

Updating Spider-Man for the 21st Century was no easy task, and it took the brilliant minds of Bill Jemas and Brian Michael Bendis to do just that. With the artistic talents of Mark Bagley and Art Thibert breathing new life into this legendary mythos, Spider-Man has reasserted himself as one of the most popular characters in the world!

When Marvel first established the ‘Ultimate’ line of comics, it was a genius move. Rather than take the controversial move to reboot the entire Marvel universe from scratch and bin decades of existing canon (as DC would later do with their New 52 series), the Ultimate comics had their own separate universe, giving Marvel the opportunity re-introduce all of their popular characters for a younger generation. It meant that the characters fans knew and loved could be drastically revamped to be a bit grittier, more realistic and more “with the times”.

The Ultimate universe still feels fresh and new to me but in reality, it’s now on the verge of being twenty friggin’ years-old. Holy shit – where has that time gone? I haven’t kept up with where its at now but I imagine that it too – like the ‘main’ universe – is drowning in its own baggage and backstory.

It should come as no surprise that Spider-Man was the first character (alongside the X-Men) to be revamped and launch the Ultimate line. Marvel absolutely did the job too, re-telling the character’s origin story in an up-to-date, more believable fashion while remaining faithful to the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko source material from the 60’s. Peter Parker is still a shy, bullied high school student for example. He still gets bitten by a radioactive spider and Uncle Ben is still killed by a burglar but not before reminding his nephew that, with great power comes great responsibility.

The difference with Ultimate Spider-Man, however, is that the pacing of Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man is so much more realistic (well…as realistic as the whole shebang can be) rather than being rushed through in a single issue. It takes Peter the first five issues to even begin to get used to his new powers, for example, with Uncle Ben making it until the end of issue four. Furthermore, Spider-Man doesn’t battle his first supervillain until the sixth and seventh issues.

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[Source]
It allows the human side of Peter and the supporting cast to shine through as much as the fantastical superhero action. We see Peter gradually come out of his shell then turn into a bit of an entitled asshole before being brought back down to earth when Uncle B is offed by a burglar that he could have previously stopped but didn’t because it wasn’t his problem. But we also see how Flash Thompson (and his new jock side-kick, Kong) make Peter’s life a misery at school and we can empathise with Peter fighting back even while he’s burning his relationship with Aunt May and Uncle Ben. We see the tentative, awkward attraction between Peter and Mary-Jane. In short, Marvel really nailed teenage/high-school life of the time and made the character much more relevant to younger readers who wouldn’t have been able to relate so easily to the 1960’s original. The premise is the same but the language and culture in Amazing Spider-Man #1 was so outdated by then.

While Peter struggles to come to terms with his new abilities, survive school and maintain relationships at home, Norman Osborn is working on his ‘Oz’ formula and keeping a beady eye on the results of Peter’s accident which occured when his class toured his facilities. Right from the off, Osborn knows who Peter is and sees through the costume. Frustrated with investors – and seeing how Peter’s physical abilities were enhanced by the spider bite – Norman injects himself with the Oz formula. A major lab disaster follows and the Green Goblin is born out of the flames and death.

This version of GG is a monstrous, Hulk-like creature that can generate and hurl explosive fireballs and leap huge distances. The creative team essentially kept him resembling a Goblin (albeit far more muscular and beastly) but swapped the glider for superhuman abilities and the pumpkin bombs for organically-generated fireballs. A tattered purple robe compliments the villain’s green skin and makes him instantly identifiable as the Green Goblin, despite the physique and characterisation being completely different. It’s a fantastic re-imagining in my opinion.

 

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GG looking hench in the Ultimate universe. [Source]
As I’ve already said, the pacing of the origin story is much slower in Ultimate Spider-Man but at the same time, the character development and action trade places every few pages so the story doesn’t ever feel drawn-out for the sake of it.

Plenty of the familiar Spider-Man supporting cast is also re-introduced and revamped in these first issues. The likes of Jameson, Liz Allen, Doctor Octavius Ben Ulrich and Captain Stacey all make minor appearances – for now.

I also have to mention the fantastic artwork by Mark Bagley. His work is so easy on the eye and his characters are always full of personality and visible emotion. The inks are bold and the colours bright, leading to an overall art style that is energetic and pure comic-book without ever stepping into the cartoon or overly-exaggerated territories.

My only criticism is that I couldn’t put this trade paperback down and so it was over all too quickly, leaving me hungry for more. I’ve read Ultimate Spiderman before though, all the way up to the introduction of Silver Sable, so I’m aware of how the plot unfolds, but it’s been so long that this book feels fresh and exciting again. I’m very much looking forward to tracking down the rest of the trades and continuing to re-visit what I consider to be Marvel masterpiece of story-telling and visual eye-candy.

Comic Book Talk: The Amazing Spiderman – New Ways To Die [ASM #568-573]

The six-part “New Ways To Die” storyline in Amazing Spiderman is sort of a bookmark for me as this is when I stopped following Marvel’s most famous hero and ceased consuming Marvel comics in general. I’d simply gotten burnt out on the massive crossovers and wasn’t too crazy about some of the things that had happened in the Marvel universe. Sometimes I have a peek at some of the events that have happened since 2008 and I have to say that I won’t be returning to the fold any time soon.

In any case, New Ways To Die was a nice place to conclude. I was genuinely enjoying the Brand New Day arc that returned the tone of Amazing to that of the 60’s/70’s where Peter Parker’s life wasn’t so dark, miserable and tied-in with the rest of the Marvel universe. It allowed for some much-loved support characters such as Betty Brant, Ben Ulrich and Harry Osborn to return. BND also saw the return of simpler stories while nurturing some ongoing plot threads in the background.

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New Ways To Die sees the Thunderbolts, led by Norman Osborn, travel to New York to take down Spiderman, who is being implicated in a series of murders – killings that have all featured one of his spider tracer devices at the scene of the crime. Behind the scenes, it is candidate for the mayor’s office, Randall Crowne, who brings in Osborn and his team to eliminate Spiderman in the interests of boosting his election campaign. Dexter Bennet of the DB newspaper (formerly the Daily Bugle) is on smear duties, putting the Spiderman serial killer story on the front pages at Crowne’s behest.

All of this is just the backdrop and part of the ongoing Brand New Day storyline as are the appearances of Goblin-esque ‘Menace’ who has notable encounters with Spiderman and the OG Goblin of them all, Osborn.

The real attractions of this storyline are Osborn being as evil and calculating as ever and the emergence of a brand-new symbiote. Eddie Brock – the original Venom – is now trying to live out his final days as a cancer sufferer, helping a New York food shelter in order to make amends for his actions as a supervillain. Unfortunately, the (then) current Venom – Mac Gargan – encounters Brock at the shelter when hunting Spiderman and Eddie suddenly transforms into a new white-coloured symbiote, suitably dubbed Anti Venom. It was great to see Brock as a symbiote again and I really liked the design of Anti Venom. For me, there was only ever one Venom and the Mac Gargan incarnation of the character was something I never truly warmed to.

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Another major treat throughout this six issue run was John Romita Jr’s superb artwork. I have always been a big fan of J.R. Jr ever since first seeing his work on Spiderman in the 90’s and it looks better and better as the years pass. I know many don’t agree but I love his take on the symbiotes with their extending limbs, huge demonic mouths and almost comical abilities so it was a joy to see him illustrate the debut of Anti Venom. Heck, I didn’t even really mind Gargan when drawn in his style.

The battles are illustrated superbly and the interactions between Spiderman and Norman Osborn are fantastic, especially seeing as how Osborn looks and sounds as evil as ever here. He has brought the Thunderbolts in for a reason but really, he just wants to get at Spiderman himself. As a result of BND, Norman no longer knows Spiderman’s secret identity and this allows for a little bit of cat and mouse between him, Peter and Peter’s alter ego.

Overall, this was a very fun run of Amazing Spiderman that continued the Brand New Day trend of injecting much-needed life and raw entertainment into the book. The artwork is first class and Anti Venom was an excellent debut character that put Eddie Brock back in the picture at long last. Upon re-reading these issues, I’m even tempted to pick up some more Amazing from this era and perhaps even re-acquire the issues that led up to New Ways To Die from the very start of Brand New Day. That’s the power of a good comic book.