Spider-itis, or Donovan explains his take on the Spider-Man films

Spider-Man (2002)

In 2002, my family and I were in the theater, watching the final act of Spider-Man unfold. Spidey has just saved the tram car full of kids and Mary Jane, but Green Goblin ropes him through the skies a’la The Amazing Spider-Man #39 and hurls him into what appears to be a haunted castle. What follows is the most awesomely brutal final fight scene that cemented in my mind, and still to this day, the essence of the Spider-Man character in a way that wouldn’t be replicated…until twenty years later.

It’s this scene and the origin scene that nail it for me, but the movie is near perfect throughout. Every time I watch, with several Spidey films filling out the filmography, I forget how crazy accurate it is to the comics. Peter’s relationship with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, his relationship with Norman Osborn (even Mendel Stromm is in this!), Norman and Harry’s strained relationship, Norman’s pressure from his own company, The Daily Bugle, the city’s polarized view of Spider-Man, the love triangle between Peter, Mary Jane and Harry…it’s all there off the page!

Now there are new elements to be sure. MJ isn’t nearly as much of a 60s glamour girl as she was in the Romita Sr. days. Spidey doesn’t invent his web-shooters, which by now has been unearthed as a last-minute change in production. Uncle Ben dies by carjacking as opposed to the burglar breaking into the Parker home weeks later, which was always a big coincidence. Peter doesn’t truly become Spider-Man until after he graduates high school, which I’m sure drives certain members of the fanbase crazy.

But those are all examples of changing the material to fit the film adaptation that don’t harm the story whatsoever. When I was a kid, I thought this is how comic book movie should’ve been done, because it’s not hard! Sam Raimi clearly loves the material and is relishing every scene he’s shooting. Once the Daily Bugle is on screen and J.K. Simmons gifts his presence onto the world with his iconic J. Jonah. Jameson, there was no more room for doubt. This was THE super hero movie of the 21st century, the new Superman 1978. And whereas Batman 1989 had the change in origin, Jack Nicholson top billing and other weirdness like Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave to mar its reputation, this film only has Green Goblin’s less-than-stellar costume, and…Macy Gray? Is that the worst it gets? Because Willem Dafoe outperforms everyone in this film, and his craziness only gets better with age. As a 13 year old, I didn’t appreciate how free from abandon he was acting, and how much he’s clearly enjoying playing a sicko who undresses his son’s girlfriend with his eyes in one scene, then talking about her like dirt in the next, all before screaming at an old woman to finish the Lord’s Prayer over fire and cackling evilly. I mean…look, Thanos is a solid villain, and Josh Brolin certainly gave him nuance and a grounded believability, but this is more fun. It’s more in the lines of Loki from the first Avengers film, but way closer to the line of OTT. But that’s the Goblin. He’s Spidey’s Joker and you’re loving how maniacal he is.

Upon re-watching, it struck me for the first time how achingly human Ben and May are. Peter’s high school scenes are peppered with bit characters and loudmouth Flash Thompson, and New York at large has an eclectic cast, but Ben and May are an innocent elderly couple that never hurt anyone. When Amazing Spider-Man first came out, I liked Martin Sheen’s gruffer, more masculine take on Ben and Sally Field’s more harried Aunt May, but now I really prefer characters whom you’d be sure you’d like to hang around with because they’re nice people. Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris have such unassuming dignity, away from the harsher world that constantly bats Peter around, that it’s hard to watch the first act knowing you’re gonna get to the scene where Ben dies with tears in his eyes, and May suffers the loss not only in this film but in the entire trilogy. It’s something that Raimi just instinctively nails, and what the MCU, frankly, hasn’t shown its understood. Characters need a baseline, a leveling ground to react off of to be fully fleshed out. Not everyone needs to have a bit or a gag. It can be flexible, such as in Spider-Man 2 when Aunt May gets some slight moments of humor during the bank heist sequence. She doesn’t do a jig or starts rapping.

And so reality hits again, after the awesome and arguably campy Bone Saw sequence. When the music drops and Randy Savage is knocked out and Peter feels like he’s on top of the world, the world screws him over. This scene is different than the 1962 original where Peter just ignored the burglar because he felt he was too good to go out of his way for anybody. Here, it’s revenge for being ripped off. Frequent guest Joshua Lapin-Bertone has often lamented this change, and dislikes it even more in The Amazing Spider-Man, because it makes it easy for the audience to sympathize with Peter. I see his point, but don’t mind the change, and that may be because the scene itself is so powerful. As a fan, you know what’s coming, and Raimi directs it beautifully. The guard’s scream explodes throughout the hall. Peter has just enough time to make the worst mistake of his life, and it all goes down in about ten seconds. The closing look on his face as we fade out to the scene of Ben’s subsequent murder outside is perfectly done by Maguire. And then, when Peter later beats up The Burglar and realizes that he’s the same crook he could’ve stopped earlier in the evening, the look on his face is a perfect blend of horror and confusion, right before he’s got a gun to his face and he snaps The Burglar’s wrist. It’s the same look, only with tears in his eyes, when he’s on top of the Chrysler Building once the man is dead. Here, about 40 minutes into the movie, he’s still figuring himself out. He’s still learning what he can do with his powers. And you know his mind begins to change, not out of creativity but out of need for atonement. It’s perfection.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Another weird placement, because while Spider-Verse and Spider-Man are practically perfect, this movie – like Amazing Spider-Man 2 – has a hell of a lot of flaws. Perhaps not as structural and obvious as that film, but possibly as numerous. It’s practically two different films in its first half and second half.

But it is nearly the best Spider-Man movie.

The problems are mostly surface level. The typical MCU smarm is present throughout, and Midtown High remains to the very end an unrealistic high school. More than the timeline shenanigans, my biggest issue is that Peter’s life should’ve been under more threats of violence than simply a thrown brick (caught ably by one Charlie Cox as Matthew Murdock). Some of the extended scenes I’ve seen, as I’ve not of this writing watched the “More Fun Version”, are more scenes of Jon Watts’ take on the people in Spider-Man’s world doing comedy sketches, with no extremes of emotion and light-hearted fluff that keep things away from danger. I do like how the Peter-Stark-Mysterio controversy seemed to drag on in courts once it became public, and that there are Mysterio truthers who believe Peter murdered him, but those elements are hardly touched on to keep the series from threatening anything related to suspense or drama. The biggest groaner from me came from the MIT Admissions woman, who – after very nearly dying at the hands of Doc Ock – wags her finger and says that almost killing her was “not cool”. Stuff like that just really had me peeling my skin off.

But I went into the movie with a feeling that things might be different. Even with the typical humor which was hardly ever funny, and considering the leaks which could’ve been made up on the internet…I sensed that something felt different about this one. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was the feeling that there was a lot not being shown to us.

There was also a slightly greater presence of the signature Spider-Man elements in the movie. It peeks its head with Matt Murdock, but really hits when Alfred Molina returns. More than Spider-Man 2, Molina is being written as a very classic Doctor Octopus. His language is a bit more haughty. He’s every bit as murderous, threatening to rip Holland in two at Happy’s condo, but it’s more than simply the same of what we got before. Him snapping at Holland “WE’VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR QUESTIONS, BOY!!!” was pure Doc Ock. It was delightful, and seeing him interact with Norman Osborn as two peers of the science field was also terrific, even if they technically don’t have a relationship in the comics proper. It just, felt right.

But at the halfway point, Holland’s Spider-Sense – an ability that’s been incredibly inconsistent in presentation over the many films – goes off, and the tension thickens. And when he webs Dafoe’s hand and the Goblin comes out, it’s full steam ahead for the rest of the movie. With a sureness of tone akin to the Russo brothers, Jon Watts completely flips the script, and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is finally given sustained moments to really shine by dropping into hell. From the battle in the condo with the Green Goblin which manages to surpass the final Spider-Man 2002 fight – with Holland incorporating some serious Marvel vs. Capcom fighting style and giving almost as good as he gets – to Dafoe being even more frightening as Norman than he was twenty years ago, everything just wakes up. The frivolity is gone. The lack of proper consequences is gone. The threat of violence is immediate. Goblin crashes Peter through the floor and breaks his ribs. And when Holland saunters towards the window, limping and bleeding before leaping out into the Daily Bugle spotlight and spotted by Jameson before being tossed by The Lizard, I felt the same feeling I had when watching Spider-Mans 1 and 2 two decades earlier. Everything that I had in my head, honed from years of comics and trivia and history, exploded to the forefront of my brain. Goblin beats Spider-Man near-to-death before killing Aunt May, but not before Marisa Tomei, who’s been given pleasant scenes with Holland’s Peter throughout the film, delivers the classic mantra verbatim from Amazing Fantasy #15. And when Watts pulls the camera out to see Spider-Man, bloodied and defeated in the rain, all was right with the world.

The rest is far easier to guess why this is so high at the top, but it’s less to do with simple nostalgia and more how the past Peter Parkers inform Tom Holland’s Peter’s manifestation of the general concept of character. The sense of fate and tragedy and destiny and choice interweave with pain and regret from the losses of the previous Spidey’s careers. Tobey returns and shows up to work, playing a far calmer version of his good-natured, even tempered Peter who’s content with his troubled but ultimately rewarding life. He’s got scars on him but they don’t make him limp. Andrew Garfield, who arguably steals the movie, plays a classically haunted version of the character who can never move past the death of Gwen Stacy. He’s still in mourning, and you can see his involvement as a chance he recognizes to redeem himself in Holland’s Peter. Together the three carry the weight of the Spider-Man mantle, and breathe a bit easier around each other, knowing that they are not alone in the multiverse. This gives way to the movie’s humor, which is automatically better in quality and kind because it’s Spider-Man cracking on themselves.

And the fact that the three end on an embrace of love and acceptance not only moves the online fanbase – which have been yearning for something like this since Far From Home when the multiverse was first invoked – but one-ups the series of mentors that Holland’s Peter has had over his career. Yeah, Tony and Happy and Strange all love him, but it’s almost out of exhausted tolerance. Holland’s Peter is overwhelmed with emotion, unable to find the words to thank his other selves, but Tobey and Andrew’s Peter simply smile. “You know. It’s what we do.” Whereas Tony hugged Peter upon seeing him alive in Endgame as catharsis for him (which wasn’t wrong, just different from this), Tobey and Andrew remind Holland that they are him. It’s okay, and he’s okay. This gives him the strength to continue on, beyond the admittedly downer ending with MJ and Ned having their memories of Peter wiped along with the rest of the world. The film’s major theme is second chances, and Holland’s ends with the final swing less somber than Tobey’s in 2002 and less awkwardly happy than Andrew’s in 2014. It’s stalwart and hopeful.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Of all the Spidey-Movies, I was the most concerned about this one. For years, it was universally agreed upon that this was the best super hero film of all time, even battling in a number of magazine rankings with The Dark Knight. And I agree with that match-up. While Nolan’s second Batman film concerns itself with the moral fallout of a city when superheroes and supervillains come crashing to town, this film zeroes in how how being a superhero affects one’s life. Basically, it ruins it. So when Peter decides to quit being Spider-Man and devote himself to living a normal life, he thrives…but the city suffers. How can he live with himself when both sides of his double-life cannot be balanced?

This really is the ultimate superhero tale, because it focuses on the story of the individual, but Peter isn’t a demigod or someone who is better than anyone else. His mistakes are honest ones. His feelings of insecurity and hubris and anger are all natural. He’s trying his best and his best saves lives, but the extremes are burning him out. When I was a kid (or, young teenager by this point), I always wished there were more Spider-Man in this. He quips far less in the suit than he did in the first film – although I always loved Tobey’s delivery of his retort to Doc Ock in the bank scene – and there’s several stretches of time where he’s not in the costume. The fight scenes always ended too short for my taste as well. But perhaps it’s the passage of time, getting older and knowing how hard adulthood is, that seeing a superhero trying to live as a young adult but seemingly getting it wrong is so resonating.

But it’s all death by a thousand cuts. I’ve heard (and you will hear, should you listen to the special) accusations that Raimi lays it all on way too thick. But that’s part of the point. Peter’s in a rut. It’s the mental and spiritual consequence of things all going wrong at the same time. But there are touches here and there that remind us the world isn’t out to get him. Betty tries to cheer him up. Aunt May lends him money. Harry introduces Peter to Doctor Octavius. Dr. Connors tries to encourage him. People like Peter, but it’s his headspace that we’re into, and we’re frustrated along with him. It’s the ultimate realization of every letter the Marvel Bullpin received throughout the last sixty years of readers feeling exactly like Peter has. Clearly, Sam Raimi read the old comics and felt just like Peter as a kid.

Which also explains how high-energy the action is. Every time Spidey bursts onto the screen, it’s awesome. It’s almost a completely different movie from the lowkey character drama that plays whenever Tobey’s face is on-screen. The Bank Heist fight particularly strikes me. The shot of Spider-Man flying backwards through the air, into the window before jumping at the edge to see Doc Ock threaten Aunt May…I’m watching this and realizing how fearless, how sure, and into this world Sam Raimi is. He believes in it. There’s no nervous “Nah, I’m just kidding” jibes at the source material which has utterly polluted the MCU. No side characters that break the fourth wall. No appeal to absurdity. It’s all business, and perfectly directed business which keeps this above the dozens and dozens and dozens of imitators in the years since, and for years to come.

FURTHER LINKS:

Earth-2.net

Escaping 2018

The Secret Ingredient that Made Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Movies so Great

Too Many Sequel-itis: Hellraiser


4 thoughts on “Spider-itis, or Donovan explains his take on the Spider-Man films

  1. Your explanation here (and on the episode) of MCU Spider-Man really hit home for me, that essentially, because you have the Avengers making up Peter’s world/community, his actual world/community is considered secondary. That definitely puts a finger on why the school is characterized so blah, especially when compared to — at least my memories of — the original Spider-Man movies. The Raimi films almost felt overwrought with how much world there was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I remember reviews of Homecoming congratulating it for feeling the most like the comics because of the school setting, but Peter has zero relationship with Flash or Betty or any of his classmates. It’s all just window dressing, and the persistent sense that he’s above all of them is really anathema to the majority of Spider-Man media content out there. Spectacular Spider-Man – which doesn’t need me tooting its horn – has probably the best presented balance of Peter’s supporting cast and how they affect his life when he’s not Spider-Man that reflects the comics of the Lee, Ditko and Romita days.

      Like

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