Who am I? You sure you wanna know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale, if somebody told you I was just your average ordinary guy, not a care in the world … somebody lied.
So begins Spider-Man (2002), the absolutely excellent first film about Marvel’s flagship costumed character. But let me assure you: this film, like most superhero films worth watching, is all about the man behind the mask. In this case, that man is Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire. Peter, aside from being a superhero, is also a nerdy high school student who lives with his elderly aunt and uncle. One day during a school science field trip, Peter is bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider and develops many spider-like abilities. After inadvertently causing the death of his beloved Uncle Ben through inaction, Peter decides to use his powers for good. Uncle Ben’s words — “With great power comes great responsibility” — become Spider-Man’s crime-fighting mantra. Meanwhile, Peter must also deal with more normal problems, such as the fact that he’s in love with the girl next door. That girl, Mary Jane Watson (oh, boy), is unfortunately also admired by more popular and less geeky guys like the school bully Flash Thompson and Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, whose father Norman is not only a billionaire scientist, but also Peter’s arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin.
Spider-Man was easily Marvel’s biggest hit to this point — in fact, it is still the third-highest grossing Marvel movie ever: it made over $800 million worldwide, more than double X-Men‘s gross. And yet, despite the massive success that seemed inevitable given the character’s status as one of the most universally-known superheroes in the world, the movie took a long time to get made.
(As an aside, I wonder which superheroes have the greatest name recognition among the general, non-comic-book-reading public. I have always considered Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man to be a sort of “big three,” with Wonder Woman and the Hulk likely rounding out the top five and Wolverine floating just at the edge of the list. I hesitate to put him in the top five only because my mother, who is probably a pretty good representative of the average person who knows superheroes from their work outside comics, saw a picture of him and had no idea who he was. But of course, the Marvel movies may have changed some of these rankings. You’d have to think Iron Man is pretty well-recognized by now, possibly eclipsing the dormant-outside-comics Wonder Woman among a younger audience. Anyway.)
Like the story of Peter Parker’s life, the story of how Spider-Man came to the big screen is not for the faint of heart. There’s an interesting summary of all the drama at io9, but here are a few of the main points: Marvel had sold the film rights to the character as early as the 1970s. Roger Corman bought Spidey’s rights in 1982, then James Cameron was involved in the early 90s. A few years later, there were lawsuits over which of the several companies who thought they owned the rights actually did: ultimately, it was Marvel. But they sold the rights again — for good, this time (so far) — to Sony in 1999, at which point production finally got started.
I have a book called Spider-Man Confidential: From Comic Icon to Hollywood Hero by Edward Gross. Gross has put together a timeline of developments during the production of Spider-Man, which includes the names of the many actors who were at various points rumoured to be up for the role of Peter Parker. It is a mind-boggling list; some of the possibilities open up a whole world of “what if?” scenarios. A few examples: Jason Schwartzman, Wes Bentley, Nicholas Brendon, Freddie Prinze Jr., Heath Ledger (who was offered the role and turned it down), and Leonardo DiCaprio. In Daredevil #16 from May 2001, Peter Parker looks uncannily like DiCaprio; I’ve often wondered if this was a consequence of the casting rumours. Maybe not, though, because Tobey Maguire was confirmed to have been cast in July 2000. Kirsten Dunst, cast in December 2000, was the last piece of the main cast to be put in place, and filming began in January 2001. The movie was released at long last in May 2002.
This isn’t a perfect movie. The fact that both the hero and the villain wear masks takes away somewhat from their early confrontations. The film also doesn’t do a good job of showing Spider-Man’s wisecracking side.
But those small flaws aside, it’s pretty awesome. Right from the opening credits, featuring Danny Elfman’s excellent score, to the closing credits with the only semi-decent song Chad Kroeger was ever involved in, it is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying experience. The script has a great balance of comedy and more serious moments, plus it includes some fun stuff like the montage of New Yorkers talking about who they think Spider-Man might be with the nod to the “Spider-Man, Spider-Man” theme tune. Peter’s crush on the unattainable Mary Jane makes for an engaging love story, and the pair’s upside down rain kiss has of course become legendary (even being re-created on one of my favourite TV shows). Sam Raimi’s direction is spectacular: he and the visual effects team bring Spidey to life perfectly in all his webslinging glory.
The early part of the film where Peter is discovering his new abilities is one of the most irresistibly fun sequences in the history of movies; the scenes of Peter chasing down the man who killed his uncle are also excellent. The film so effectively portrays the euphoria of his first climb up the building, and then later, the fear mixed with excitement as he goes after the thief. It also captures the kind of hokey 1960s tone of the early Spidey comics very, very well. It is a completely earnest movie about a good kid who just wants to be responsible. Aunt May and Uncle Ben are like a wonderful pair of kindly, good, old-fashioned grandparents. Peter and Mary Jane’s romance is sweet and innocent, and some of their dialogue is, uh … “corny” seems like an understatement — but it works with the tone of the movie. The purity (for lack of a better word) of their young love is juxtaposed against the ugly and rather disturbing back alley attack on Mary Jane and Norman/the Goblin’s disgusting sexual comments about her.
Willem Dafoe was a solid choice to play Norman — he plays the crazy well. The entire cast is great: James Franco makes Harry pathetic but still likable; Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson as May and Ben are the salt of the earth; J.K. Simmons is J. Jonah Jameson from the old 1960s Spider-Man cartoon brought to life; and Kirsten Dunst brings a lot of depth to Mary Jane, whose party girl persona is clearly a cover for the serious low self-esteem issues arising from her home life. I am also a huge fan of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. He was basically typecast in “wide-eyed innocent” roles at this point and it serves him well here, in portraying both a hero trying to find his way and a young man whose unaffected admiration makes the girl he loves feel good about herself. Plus, he’s superbly geeky, and much closer to what I’d expect Peter Parker to be like than Andrew Garfield was in The Amazing Spider-Man this year.
I must admit, it’s been a pet peeve of mine that people seem to be so very dismissive of the original Spider-Man now that the
completely unnecessary remake “reboot” is out. We all loved this movie for good reason when we first saw it and it has aged well, too. The effects still look good, Sam Raimi is still a great director, and Spider-Man is still the best, most amazing Spider-Man origin movie.
Though, it’s not quite the best Spider-Man movie ever — we’ll talk about that one in a few weeks.