Spider-Manuary – Reviewing Spider-Man 1
This month… and a little bit of February, I will be reviewing all of the Spider-Man films of the century in order. I’ll skip Homecoming as I already reviewed it when it released, although expect a lot of cross-commentary and inevitable comparisons.
Spider-Manuary… I have never been so ashamed and proud of myself at the same time.
So we get this series kicked off with the Sam Raimi trilogy that brought the character firmly into modern cinema, lifting Peter Parker from the 1990’s edgy guitar-scream cartoon series and placing him – and Marvel as a whole* – onto the world stage.
Tobey Maguire, already 27 and too old to pass as a high school student, is bitten by a genetically altered spider that combines the hunting properties of several powerful predatory spiders, and somehow that means its venom is filled with gene-manipulating DNA fragments, but it’s no less scientifically dubi- well wrong, than a radioactive spider. He wakes up in the morning with his eyesight cured, suddenly ripped, and able to take down the school bully (played by Joe Manganiello, the man who will be deathstroke and is among the nerdier actors working) in a way so conspicuous that it’s astonishing nobody but the dots together.
There are some truly joyous sequences that follow, experiencing Peter Parker discovering his new powers may be among the more satisfying moments of modern cinema. Going from a fumbling series of hijinks, he takes to the walls, leaps from rooftop to rooftop, and does the whole “go web go!” bit with his natural wrist mounted spinnerets that would go on to be a meme for a solid decade to come, and not the only one. It’s wildly unfair to pick on the film that gave us the single greatest J. Jonah Jameson in history, J.K. Simmons, and there’s a chance that we may never see a better Green Goblin than Willem Dafoe in our lifetime. I am going to pick on it, but later, there are some more pros before we hit the cons.
Being helmed by a famed horror director, Spider-Man gets some seriously dark moments. That first major act of “heroism”, chasing down the shooter that killed Uncle Ben, as Spidey casts a haunting shadow across the wall behind his prey has an intensity that makes the emotional reveal to follow all the more intense. It also makes Dafoe’s Goblin a far more terrifying beast, as he coaxes Spidey into a trap, and every moment of back and forth between Dafoe and his inner monster feels like it could have been a cut scene from Evil Dead.
Now let us get to the biggest grievances. Number 1, this film has not aged well, no sir.
That may not be fair, but it shows up far worse when held up against Amazing Spider-Man and the MCU kid! Set pieces are obvious, action is slow and ponderous, same as the CGI. There are goblin-glider moments when you feel like you can practically see the truck it’s mounted on, where a lot of the newer films have action that flows, and toys more with the possibilities of wall crawling and webslinging in combat. Look at the fight with Doc Connors where Garfield cocooned the giant rampaging Rhys Ifans, crawling over him like a spider, or the ATM robbery sequence in Homecoming.
Now it’s time for my favourite reoccurring grumble, Spider Sense! The ultimate narrative device of convenience, for sure. Let me make one thing clear for starters, so much of what Spider-Man does cannot be done without the sense. Those incredible reflexes, the dodging and weaving, simply being aware enough of one’s surroundings to be able to websling through a city like New York requires inhuman reaction times and spatial awareness.
The parade attack then.
We hear that shrill sound that tells Maguire that villainy is afoot, and we see him turn his head a smidge to see what’s set his nerves a-jangling. We then get a full minute of Goblin showboating, his first appearance on the scene while people look up and point at the very obvious glider, including our Tobey who looks gormlessly skyward at a single unmoving point. Then the pumpkin bomb flies, then another, and it takes a further twenty seconds for Spider-Man to move! In that time we see two long-shots of Tobey… just looking. He then has the gaul to say “Come on! Move it, kid!” to the brat about to be squished with his ice-cream?
And all of it to build time for our Mary Jane to get into deeper trouble so she could be saved. There’s no two ways about it, she’s only in this film to be the downtrodden damsel, the prize to be won. And that’s no fault of Kirsten Dunst, I maintain that she’s a superb actor but look at what she was given to work with here! Flavourless dialogue, literal girl-next-door issues, and a love triangle she is apparently only in to bait the shy guy into finally asking her out?
And while I say Dafoe was the best Green Goblin, I don’t think he’s entirely unbeatable, all that would be needed is a costume that allows the actor to move around, and look less like their own action figure. An expressive mask, sleeves that look less like tumble-dryer exhaust pipes, and maybe more motivation to make Spider-Man’s life miserable than “we got in a fight one time after I already killed the bosses I didn’t like”. Oh yes, double check that, he gives Spider-Man the chance to sign up, or die, and so begins a super-powered slap fight that ends with a tram car full of kids being dropped while a bunch of kids watch Spider-Man prioritise his girlfriend. It may be chemically induced, but he’s still “evil because evil”.
Of all the spidey-films… this one holds a very odd place. It’s not the worst, because it’s flaws were less glaring at the time and have become more apparent by contrast and as time and technology have left it behind. But it’s far from the best because it suffers so badly with character blandness, Tobey Maguire gawping like an idiot, and also a bunch of nearly-thirties actors playing teenagers! It was the early 2000s, there were plenty of young actors, and no excuses for sloppy scripts. After all 2002 was a great year for well written films like… oh…
Oh… I’m sorry, never mind.
Next week, everyone’s current favourite. Spider-Man film!
*Nod here to Blade and X-Men for actually getting the ball rolling, but they’re not getting much more than this. I decided to talk Spider-Man and dammit, Spider-Man is what I’m going to talk about.