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15 years ago, a handsome computer-generated poster invited me to go for the ultimate spin. As a child, the first thing that delighted me about that first tantalising image of Spider-Man was how perfectly similar to his comics counterpart he looked. Spider-Man’s comics-accurate suit fits the tone of the first 2002 movie – a suggestion of darkness, but ultimately energetic and light. Unlike the stoic dourness of X-Men or the snarling badassery of Blade, Spider-Man unknowingly set the tone for the eventual Marvel Cinematic Universe – while there are nuggets of seriousness here and there, it’s ultimately proud to be a piece of escapism. It knows that it’s okay to have a laugh every once in a while as long as comedy doesn’t dominate the film. That’s not to say it’s perfect entertainment – the film’s paper-thin plot carries with it the problem of so many superhero origin films that would follow in its wake, the dialogue has aged about as well as a crisp Wexford strawberry grown in the Summer of 2002 and poor old Kirsten Dunst is saddled with material that would delight only the most politically influential American bigots.
Should there be any lonely souls STILL unfamiliar with the origins of Peter Parker’s wall-crawling alter-ego two reboots later, suffice to say the story deals with a young man who finds himself bitten by a ‘genetically-engineered super-spider’ (contagious gene-splicing was a more credible source of powers in 2002 than the good ol’ radioactivity of the 1960s). The spider-bite causes a freakish metamorphosis in Peter Parker’s body and he finds himself in possession of all the powers of a spider and none of the Cronenberg-esque body horror one would expect. After a delightful costume-designing montage, he selfishly tries to use his new abilities for financial gain, but soon pays the price for his ignorance when his beloved Uncle is killed due to his own refusal to do the right thing. Thus, Peter becomes Spider-Man to fight the forces of evil in New York City, including the Green Goblin – a power-mad industrialist who has undergone a transformation of his own.
Much has been made about the film’s casting in the years following this film. To start with the positives, J.K. Simmons is obviously, absolutely, completely wonderfully perfect as J. Jonah Jameson, the horrible old publisher of The Daily Bugle, where Peter Parker seeks employment in the second act of the film. His fast-talking, cigar-chomping character assassinations foreshadow his brilliant Oscar-winning turn in Whiplash, he brings the best laughs of the film and he brings some much-needed eyebrow raising for what was becoming a very self-important film. He is so magically good in the film that it’s no surprise that no attempt has ever been made to recast the Jameson character in the slew of Spider-Man reboots (Spideyboots? SpideReboots?) that have followed. Similarly, Cliff Robertson is lovely as Uncle Ben – the few scenes he has in the film have real human weight to them. When he finally says the oft-repeated line, it has a magnitude to it that still gives the viewer chills. Rosemary Harris is nice as Aunt May, but the complaint that she’s a bit too much of a cartoon ‘Werther’s Original’-esque grandmother is not entirely devoid of merit. Willem Dafoe chews on so much scenery in this film that he has suffered from chronic indigestion ever since. Like many elements of the film, he goes for self-aware pantomime and it usually works, except for when he’s saddled with the many clangers in the script (“40,000 years of evolution and we’ve barely even tapped the vastness of human potential!”). His eventual turn as the Green Goblin obviously looks ridiculous (the fright mask, with its static expression had many critics comparing it unfavourably with the Green Power Ranger) but the 12 year old in me refuses to call it anything other than cool. James Franco plays Dafoe’s son Harry Osborn – some have dismissed him as being too cool to invest in any of these films but I think he acquits himself well here (again though, he has some rotten lines).
As the titular character, Tobey Maguire still leaves me undecided. Much has been said about the fact that in the film, Spider-Man isn’t really the fast-talking, quippy jokester he so often is in the source material. A large part of that may be that Peter doesn’t become Spider-Man until the second act of the movie (after lots of slouching and moping). To be fair, there are a lot more Spidey-puns in the film than critics remember (including one really horrible homophobic one – oh 2002…) but generally speaking, Peter is a far more insular character than he appears to be in the comics. This actually is an interesting experiment though – live-action films allow the full range of human expression from the actor on screen (a luxury not afforded to the static panels of comics or the cheaply animated cartoons where most people first met Spidey). There’s a scene shortly after a pre-costumed Peter attains his spider-powers where he arrives home and realises he forgot to help Uncle Ben to paint the kitchen. In the comics, there would have been a big thought bubble exclaiming “NUTS!! With all the craziness at school, I totally checked out on Uncle Ben!! Aw whatever…if he only KNEW what I’m going through right now, he wouldn’t have me doing these crummy chores!!”. In the film, Tobey Maguire accomplishes this with a weary sigh and a subtle roll of the eyes. Sometimes less is more, mighty Marvelites.
Kirsten Dunst is a wonderful actress who has accomplished great things throughout her twenty-year career. Spider-Man is not an accurate demonstration of her talents. Mary Jane Watson is what cripples the first Spider-Man film when watched through the lens of 2017. But Dunst is by no means to blame for this – she exists solely as a catalyst to advance the plot, for Peter to have someone to fall in love with and for Spider-Man to have someone to rescue in the third act (Sam Raimi would callously repeat this throughout all three of his Spider-Trilogy). We’re never given any real reason for why Peter is so bonkers about her other than that he’s known her for a long time and she was good in a school play one time. The iconic upside-down kiss scene in the film is actually really uncomfortable – in typical early-2000s style, Spider-Man rescues her in the pouring rain from a gang of would-be rapists. In my 12-year old innocence I assumed Kirsten Dunst’s clearly visible wet t-shirt nipples were a coincidence. Fun for all the family. The film doesn’t really have an excuse for such a weak female character either – Lois Lane and Vicki Vale had stuff to do of their own accord in the Superman and Batman films and those were years prior to that. Mary Jane Watson is as much a prop in this film as Spider-Man’s mask.
When examining a blockbuster fifteen years after its release, the special effects are always going to be a difficult subject. To be fair though, while some of the CGI doesn’t have the same texture as one would expect in a 2017 film, Spider-Man does still have real heft to him as he’s swinging through Manhattan. Real imagination went into theorising how Spidey would move and dance through the air as he thwipped his organic webbing through the financial district (hard to believe that in the non-machine-gun-firing-raccoon film landscape of 2002, movie producers thought the idea of a teenager creating mechanical web-shooters was too far-fetched). Compare this to Spidey’s most recent cinematic outing – Captain America: Civil War, where the web-swinging felt like such an afterthought that it may as well have been imported from one of the PS One video games. The 2002 film seems to employ a lot of old-school wire-work and chroma-key to accomplish this, rather than just using computer trickery – the contrast between the well-lit stuntman in the foreground and the grainy rear-projected Manhattan skyline may be too uncanny a valley for modern filmgoers, but all in all the effects are as admirable today as they were breathtaking at the time. The cinematography is serviceable, although there are many times in the film where it feels like a music video for Sum 41 (tellingly, they had a song on the soundtrack album). There are a lot of crash zooms, bro. That being said, the film makes beautiful use of the New York setting. Most unlike the newer Spider-Man films (the first Andrew Garfield film, despite having just as many on-location NYC shoots, looked like it had been filmed in Toronto). Manhattan is beautifully, almost fetishistically woven into the landscape of the film (the Daily Bugle building is the Flat Iron building, for example). Despite being a real city that exists, Spider-Man makes Manhattan look as breathtakingly fantastic as Tim Burton made his version of Gotham City (a collection of macabre sound-stages and matte paintings).
It sounds like my affection for this film has gone sour in some respects, but I can’t let that happen – I won’t let that happen. Nostalgia is too strong where this film is concerned – like Burton’s Batman before it, it could be argued that the cultural event of the film is possibly more valuable than the film itself. During the Summer of 2002 kids realised that superheroes were cool again. The film was everywhere – toys, t-shirts, Easter eggs, games, etc. Nickelback are a terrible band, but find me a millennial who doesn’t love ‘Hero’ by Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott, cheddar-infested though it may be. The song, like the film, captures that feeling of post-9/11 helplessness – how could normal men and women like you or me or Peter Parker stand up to people whose lives were devoted to death and destruction? There’s a scene towards the end of the film where a bunch of New Yawkuhs see Spider-Man being attacked by the Green Goblin, so they start throwing pipes and things at him, exclaiming things like “You mess with Spider-Man, you mess with New Yawk!!”. It’s awfully trite, but tell me you don’t love it. It’s not Shakespeare, but Spider-Man is as amazing as ever and it holds together nicely, even if it’s a bit of a tangled web at times. I can pun too, y’know.
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