With the recent release of the new Spider-Man movie trailer, people are already comparing it to the web-slingers' previous forays to the silver screen, both favorably and unfavorably, but I wonder how many of these critics have seen those movies recently? Fellow Whiskiites Alex Navarro and Matthew Rorie mentioned, on Screened's podcast, not having seen the first Spider-Man movie in years and if two cinephiles like them can't keep up, who can? Me, that's who. Here's a look back at what Sam Raimi's Spider-Man Trilogy got wrong and what it got right.== TEASER ==
What Doesn't Work
Let's talk about the elephant in the room, and it was in the room on day 1 for even the most hardcore fans of the film: Spider-Man never looks real while web-slinging or wall-crawling. This can be chalked up to serious CGI characters still being in their infant stages of realism, but it's now striking and almost slaps you across the face just how weightless and unreal the effects in this movie look.
Another, more enduring, problem is that we don't really get to see Peter Parker the genius or Peter Parker the teenager. Toby Maguire was already staring down the barrel of 30 when he was chosen to play the role, so the film wasted absolutely no time in rushing Pete out of high school and into college.
We might as well have opened the movie on graduation day for how little we saw, but this speaks to a much greater problem of the movie: we don't get much of a feel for the kind of person Peter Parker is. His genius is never on display (sure, he gets good grades, but he doesn't actually inventanything), we see his awkwardness, but it's played-up so much that it comes across as comical more than pitiable or sympathetic. He also never really quips, which is integral to his character across every form of media.
The replacement of Gwen Stacy with Mary-Jane was also profoundly difficult to comprehend for a number of reasons: most notably they basically made her into Gwen. She was the girl next door, she was a low-maintenance, and she was his first love, all things that could be said of Gwen Stacy. MJ is also given next to nothing to do except be fawned over by Peter and abducted by Osborn to recreate the famous Bridge Death, only with a much happier ending. Less relevant but still very strange: Kirsten Dunst is naturally blonde, while Bryce Dallas Howard, who would later play Gwen, is a natural redhead.
Finally let's talk about the Green Goblin: Willem Dafoe is a great actor who brings a level of sinister menace to every villain he plays and possesses a face that could turn ancient warriors to stone...and he's hidden behind a Power Rangers villain-caliber costume. I understand that certain changes need to be made in movies (GG's original costume was just that: a Halloween costume), but covering up your leading antagonist's horrific face with a face that is hilariously over-the-top is an incredible mistake.
What Does Work
This is a small detail, but it bears mentioning: J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson was really, really great. He gave it a different turn than Ed Asner, who voiced JJ in the animated series, but he brought a weird amount of depth to a character who could've easily been glossed over. He's not only played for laughs but some surprisingly profound moments, such as when Green Goblin smashes into his office and demands to know who takes Spider-Man's picture. Despite Peter standing right there, Jonah immediately says he doesn't know and the pictures come in the mail. It was a small moment, but it let you know the guy wasn't evil, he was just sorta sleazy.
When Spider-Man came out it was an absolute revelation. The movie did action better than any superhero movie before it (with the exception of Blade) and took the source material seriously without being shackled to it. It showed us a world that a superhero (and supervillain) could actually inhabit semi-realistically and it showed that it could not only be a big-budget blockbuster, but that there was such an audience for these movies that it could SHATTER records.
X-Men may have introduced the world to the high-budget superhero movie considering the most expensive superhero before that was Blade and the most expensive one before THAT was probably the Punisher movie starring Dolph Lundgren in which Castle teams up with the mobsters who murdered his family. With X-Men, studios realized they could take risks but with Spider-Man, they realized they could make massive money.
In the End...
The movie's not bad, it's just dated. The CG doesn't hold up, the writing comes off as overly corny and the plot is all over the place. On the plus side, the movie's a lot of fun and it's a great jumping-off point to the series, establishing a series of relationships that carry over well into the next movies. The movie's more about potential than execution and it shows a lot of it.
Evil Dead 2 was essentially a remake of The Evil Dead, both also directed by Sam Raimi, with a much bigger budget. It had the same plot, the same lead actor, and very similar monsters, but it also had a much more intentional tone and was an objectively better made movie. Spider-Man 2 comes off in much the same way: Spidey pines for MJ, someone comes between them, a scientist accidentally turns himself into a monster, Mary-Jane is kidnapped, Spidey rescues her, someone finds out Peter Parker is Spider-Man, the villain kills himself, MJ falls for Peter.
Seriously, it's true that there are only a few plots out there, but even the fine details of this movie are essentially the same as the last. Even going so far as to have Spider-Man rescue a baby from a burning building in both movies and in both movies you're left to answer why a baby was left alone in the apartment in the first place.
The central romantic conflict is also weirdly mean-spirited. I get that it's more interesting, and probably more realistic, to have a rival love interest who isn't a titanic jerk, but Mary-Jane breaks the heart of a man who's perfectly fine and in fact might be more stable and better for her. John Jameson is essentially an innocent victim in Peter and MJ's troubled love life and the movie makes no effort at painting him as anything but a perfect match for MJ. We never see them have so much as an argument let alone anything that would make her pick the Wall-Crawler over the Astronaut other than the fact that it's their "destiny" to be together.
Finally, we get to see more of Peter Parker but this comes at a cost since we're also treated to Spidey losing his mask on a crowded subway who swear not to tell anyone who Peter is. The issue is that nobody actually knows. What are they going to tell anyone? "Spider-Man is actually this 5'9" guy between 19 and 26 with brown hair and brown eyes! In this city of millions!" Another logic leap is in the creation of Doctor Octopus which hinges on his mechanized arms having a built-in Artificial Intelligence that causes them to not only go berserk, but convince him to commit crimes to keep his project going. But since he controls the arms with his spinal column, there's really no need for an AI other than to advance the plot.
Speaking of the villain of this movie, instead of getting a strange, foam-rubber monster you'd expect to see destroying a model of Japan, you get someone who's face you can actually see emote, he's got a great look and in the right circumstances actually looks like someone you'd run away from rather than gawking which turns into laughing. Doctor Octopus also comes off as legitimately remorseful and motivated for his actions beyond trying to make money or being a sociopath. He projects a truly villainous, powerful aura due in no small part to his mechanized tentacles looking legitimately powerful and realistic.
Which leads us back to the CG, which is vastly improved from the last movie. Spider-Man has a weight and gravitas to his moves, especially when he swings across the city and even more especially when he tangles with Doc Ock. The fights have impact and weight, and even though Spidey doesn't quip like he usually does, we get to see a bit more of his personality shine through when the mask is on. The audience begins to look forward to the clashes, even if the good Doctor gets a little monomaniacal near the end of the movie.
Side-characters also have emotional depth well beyond the first movie. Harry Osborn vacillates between trying to be a nice guy and a good friend to Peter while seething over his hatred of Spider-Man for supposedly killing his father, Mary-Jane does seem conflicted between the two men in her life, and Peter and Aunt May have some legitimate angst because of Uncle Ben's death.
Spider-Man 2 still holds up as a remarkably good superhero movie even in the wake of better movies like Iron Man or Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. The characters resonate more, the action scenes are more fluid, and there's nothing glaringly wrong with the film itself. The characters, while better developed, still don't quite feel like Spider-Man characters, but they do feel like GOOD characters.
What Went Wrong?
I'm going to be painting in broad strokes here because, let's face it, if I have to go into every single thing this movie did wrong, we will be here all day AND all night. First: this is where it became incredibly obvious that Gwen Stacy had been swapped for Mary-Jane as the Gwen Stacy in this movie was a sexy, high-maintenance, fashion model. Pretty much three adjectives you can describe Comic Book Mary-Jane with.
The symbiote is shoe-horned in so clumsily that it's basically forgotten for the entire first act, the act in which its introduced, and remains hidden until the middle of the second act, Sandman is so ham-fistedly developed as the "sympathetic" villain that he comes across as completely one-dimensional, Harry Osborn gets stuck in what I think is the first honest-to-God "Amnesia Storyline" in a movie since 1977 and Peter gets a "My Chemical Romance" haircut and dances a Saturday Night Fever dance down a New York street. The movie plays like it was written by twenty people with twenty objectives and it STILL has the SAME EXACT PLOT AS THE LAST TWO MOVIES, only this time it's a Mary-Jane is jealous of the perfectly innocuous and innocent Gwen Stacy instead of Peter being jealous of the innocuous and innocent John Jameson.
This movie is beyond schizophrenic, possessing three primary villains all vying for the spotlight and none of them ever managing to actually get it. The protagonists behave in such a way that it's clear they're characters in a movie following a script that tells them what to do and where to go. They're unmotivated, they're mechanical, and most of them appear to just be going through the motions, even as characters. There is no over-arching narrative nor is there any room for development because so many characters are just shoved into the movie, no one of them gets any real screentime. This is a perfect example of what listening to your most vocal fans can do since most of the additions (Gwen Stacy, Venom) were ultimate requests from them. And the final nail in the coffin is that the entire story hinges on a pair of plot twists so absurd that they completely undermine the motivation of two of the film's leads.
What They Got Right
This isn't a terribly popular opinion, but I actually like the choice of Topher Grace as Eddie Brock. He was given next to nothing to work with, but his potential as a more cocky, brash villain than one who's a cackling mad scientist. We had an anti-Spider-Man who used his powers of cleverness and witticism for evil and actually seemed like he could be a credible threat to our Friendly Neighborhood Wall-Crawler. Beyond that, the CG still looks great, but it's not used to terribly good ends as the fights are few and far between and come off as more excuses for Spidey's mask to rip.
At the End of It All
This movie was the Batman and Robin of the Spider-Man franchise. I'm not saying it was as bad as that movie, I'm saying it was the movie that, despite being profitable, forced the studio to cool down on a popular franchise because it had become absolutely venomous, no pun intended. Studio over-involvement coupled with overblown expectations. It's star had become too big, necessitating his face being seen as often as possible...and two of the three villains constantly losing them as well. The movie came off more as a cash-in than a medium with a story to tell.