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).