Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Spider-Man (2002) Review

With great potential comes great results

With all the crap that has been happening with Spider-Man 4, which is now being turned into a franchise reboot rather than a straight sequel (don’t ask, the whole situation is really complicated and really frustrating), I felt the urge to go back and revisit what it was like in the beginning. You see, it was simpler times back then…back when anticipation ran red hot and we were waiting for the coming of the next great superhero movie (especially when they started getting their groove back after so many duds). I was just a little tike, ten years old that is, back in 2002 when superheroes, Star Wars, and video games where some of my biggest interests (I still like the first two, but I’ve kind of ditched the video games since then). So when I sat down with my friends in the local theater up in the balcony (one of the only times they’ve ever opened it), you can imagine the giddy excitement I was experiencing as the colorful credits blasting with Danny Elfman’s great score came flying onto the screen. I loved the movie…Spidey, the action, the Green Goblin, the humor…I loved it all. Of course, everyone knows that views and perceptions can change over time with a little bit of age. So how has old web-head’s first cinematic adventure held up over time with me?

Plot Synopsis: Peter Parker is not who most people would call a strong person. He’s a high school science geek who is constantly bullied, left out, and ignored by everyone around him except for his best friend Harry Osborn. He also has feelings for Mary Jane Watson, his next-door neighbor who feels sorry for him, but is still within the more popular crowd. On his way to a class field trip, Peter meets Harry’s father Norman, a science geek himself who owns Oscorp Industries, which supplies the military with experimental weapons. During the trip, a genetically engineered spider bites Peter while he is taking pictures for school. That night, he returns home to his Aunt May and Uncle Ben only to quickly go to sleep after collapsing from a weakness that has come over him. When he wakes up in the morning however, Peter wakes up feeling better than ever. Over the next few days, he begins developing strange skills such as web shooting, wall crawling, and heightened senses. Meanwhile, the military threatens to pull the funding on Norman’s performance enhancer project back at Oscorp, which causes Norman to test the chemical on himself out of desperation. But in addition to giving him increased strength, the gas also makes him go mad and steal some of the weapons from his laboratory. Soon he begins terrorizing the city as the Green Goblin, and Peter is going to have to put his powers to the test in order to stop Norman from causing any more harm.


What makes Spider-Man such a thrilling ride, especially when viewed under the critical eye, is director Sam Raimi’s high energy visuals. Anyone who has seen his Evil Dead movies knows that Raimi is known for using wild camera angles and tracking shots to heighten the excitement. His shooting style was an inspired choice to bring the character of Spider-Man to live-action life, and it’s all here to be seen. From the action scenes to moments of Spider-Man flying through the city, Raimi allows viewers to feel the adrenaline rush of Spidey’s acrobatics and high-flying stunts. Funnily enough, he also knows how to stage a great kiss scene. Yeah, you know the scene I’m talking about. Where Sam slips up at a few points is in the special effects department. While most of the shots of Spider-Man flying are very well done, there are quite a few where the CGI feels a little “off”. The details are fine, but the animation has a certain weightless feel to it that looks slightly cartoonish. Most of the moments are during the on-ground fight scenes and when the Green Goblin jumps on his glider. They don’t threaten to shut down the incredible energy and fun of the movie, but in the years after the movie’s release they’ve lost some of their luster.

In recent years, I’ve heard some flak thrown against the movie’s two leads, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, and I don’t understand why. Maguire, in particular, was a great choice to portray Peter Parker/Spider-Man. He nails Peter’s awkward personality with his soft-spoken delivery and subtle attraction to Mary Jane. But when he becomes Spider-Man, you can sense that Maguire is injecting Peter with more confidence and assurance as he becomes more comfortable with his powers and the struggles that he can now overcome thanks to them. Most of all there is the guilt he bears over Uncle Ben’s death. The sense of discovery that permeates his character arc makes it a joy to watch as his skill in fighting and web-slinging gets better and better. Kirsten Dunst is also strong as Mary Jane, who isn’t the perfect girl that Peter likes to think that she is. The hints at her turbulent family and less than successful ambitions add depth to her, when she could have been just another typical girlfriend of affection. Complicating Peter’s affections for Mary Jane is his friendship with Harry, played by James Franco. Harry, even though he is very supportive of Peter, has jealousy because he feels pushed aside by his father, who clearly is more enamored with Peter. Franco has also been criticized for portraying Harry as annoying and selfish, but that’s the point, because he has been driven to that from feeling ignored and unloved.


And if there was ever an actor who could properly bring Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin to life, it was Willem Dafoe. Seemingly born to play a bad guy, Dafoe chomps down onto the role with gusto and insanity. But Norman did not willingly transform himself into the Goblin, and in the midst of all the destruction caused by him, Dafoe dials down the craziness as Norman, which allows us to sympathize with his plight. What’s unfortunate about him is that he’s saddled with an atrocious costume when he turns into the green meany. The stiff, immobile Goblin mask wastes a great opportunity to show off Dafoe’s wild facial features. Even though the Goblin doesn’t exactly get the best treatment, David Koepp’s script is not to be faulted. The movie quickly establishes plot points, character relationships, and exposition in record time. Within the first fifteen minutes, we’ve already learned a lot about Peter, May Jane, Harry, and Norman and also set up the “origin” story for how Peter becomes Spider-Man. His relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May is also established quickly and efficiently, which makes the aftermath of Ben’s death even more sad to watch. Despite the emotional currents though, there is also a light-hearted level of humor to be had here (as any version of Spider-Man should have). The best example of this is the character of Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, played with scene stealing aplomb by J.K. Simmons.

Also not to be forgotten is Danny Elfman’s remarkable music score. Elfman’s had experience in superhero scores (his Batman theme is equally, if not more memorable than this one), and he seems very much at ease with the material. The trick to creating a memorable score is that it needs to be unique and iconic enough to immediately be identifiable with the character or story, and whenever I hear those strings flare up, I know Spider-Man is a coming. And despite flawed special effects and a weak villain costume, Spider-Man remains one of the best comic book adaptations out there thanks to its strong characters and acting, a great story, and a unique vision thanks to director Sam Raimi.


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