Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is most effective when it teases us with tantalizing intimations of better movies it might have been. In an early scene, jagged arachnidan hairs slither from the skin of Peter Parker’s fingers, too-briefly evoking the carnal revulsion of David Cronenberg’s early work in the horror genre. Later, Danny Elfman’s score and Peter Parker’s torn-asunder battle-damaged mask hint at the heavy-handed but intriguing theme of duality in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, an underrated film I studied with great enthusiasm in a recent essay for CC2K. ( Difficulty with Duality: The Batman Films of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher ).
Arriving in theaters less than a year after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, Spider-Man also plays like a patriotic cinematic tantrum from Reagan’s ‘80s, an urban superhero Rambo with all the subtlety of professional wrestling at its most jingoistic: heroic New Yorkers come to Spider-Man’s aid against the Green Goblin with cries of “You mess with Spidey, you mess with New York!” and “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” and, most American of all, “We ought to kick your ass!” The film draws to a close with Spider-Man launching himself from a flagpole atop which Old Glory waves proudly.
Tobey Maguire, with his eyes as dark and bulbous as Gollum’s in Lord of the Rings, turns in an understated performance as Peter Parker that calls to mind another big-eyed, nearly mute Maguire orphan: Homer Wells, from the truncated adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. Though Irving himself wrote The Cider House Rules screenplay, the reductive result fits a curious pattern that holds through several adaptations of Irving’s work: Simon Birch is a crude production of just the first act of A Prayer for Owen Meany, while The Door in the Floor is a winning take on a lone act from A Widow for One Year. Keeping these abridged retellings of John Irving’s novels in mind, one grasps with greater sympathy the daunting task that greets any screenwriter ambitious or foolhardy enough to attempt to condense decades of bloated, contradictory comic book continuity into a two-hour movie like Spider-Man.
Kirsten Dunst does what she can with the limited role of Mary Jane Watson, whom Peter Parker describes as “the woman I’ve loved since before I liked girls”, but the romantic subplot is no more convincing in Spider-Man than it is in any other superhero movie, and Willem Defoe, far scarier unmasked than masked, is creepy but also too loud as the disturbed Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, and unlike Christopher Nolan’s Joker or Tim Burton’s Catwoman or Brian Singer’s Lex Luthor, Sam Raimi’s Green Goblin has nothing much to say. His best quote is “There are eight million people in this city, and those teeming masses exist for the sole purpose of lifting the few exceptional people onto their shoulders”, but these words and their delivery offer none of the insightful chill of true villainy, and they inspire no populist defiance in the viewer.
The quote only works to the extent that it nicely foreshadows the thrilling elevated train sequence in Spider-Man 2, which ends with a group of men, women and children hoisting a battered, weary Spider-Man reverently above their heads and carrying him to safety in a show of unity far more powerful than the pandering New York propaganda from the first film. (A man on the train responds to his first look at the unmasked, unconscious Spider-Man with what might be the only legitimately stirring line of dialogue in the entire trilogy: “He’s… just a kid.”)
Spider-Man 2 features a cooler title sequence (including paintings by Alex Ross), a more sympathetic and plausible villain in Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, better acting, an improved story, action that’s more exciting, and special effects that are more convincing, though Spider-Man himself still looks discouragingly cartoony at times. The love story is also more poignant than the lumbering effort in the first film—Mary Jane’s claim of “I’ve always been standing in your doorway” is surprisingly touching—and the humor is superior in the sequel as well, as in a memorably awkward elevator scene which serves as a precursor to Iron Man 2’s delightfully surreal absurdities of Iron Man in a diner and Iron Man eating takeout donuts. Best of all, Spider-Man 2 finds time for the kind of quiet, technically unnecessary scenes that make even a superhero universe feel lived-in and believable, as when the lovably dorky girl next door brings Peter Parker a piece of chocolate cake, or the affecting scene wherein Aunt May tells Peter she knows he’s Spider-Man, without telling him any such thing.
Had you asked me just last week to name the greatest series of superhero movies, the Spider-Man trilogy would not have even warranted consideration—I have always found them overrated. Having revisited the first two entries in the trilogy, I’ll still insist that Christopher Nolan’s Batman is more compelling than Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but the Spider-Man movies not only have more heart than Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, they also pull off the enviable feat of growing more charming as they age. Spider-Man 2 especially gets more powerful with every viewing. Unfortunately, I opted to complicate things by watching Spider-Man 3 for the first time.
Spider-Man 3 is such a bloated, dissatisfying misfire that one can only respond to it with a tired relief that there will not be a Spider-Man 4. Everything that worked in Spider-Man 2 is supersized in Spider-Man 3: the villain in Spider-Man 2 was interesting, so Spider-Man 3 features three villains; Spider-Man 2 makes us care about the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, so Spider-Man 3 obsesses over their relationship; Spider-Man 2 had heart, so in Spider-Man 3 Peter Parker cries every ten minutes. Sam Raimi even pays tribute to Spider-Man 2’s elevated train scene with a derivative battle between Spider-Man and Sandman set against the backdrop of subway trains, and the same scene also mimics Spider-Man 2’s silent, plummeting fight between Spidey and Doc Ock with a similar bit of falling fisticuffs between Spidey and Sandman. All this masturbatory self-plagiarism only serves to show us with unnecessary, unfortunate specificity that Spider-Man 2 is vastly superior to Spider-Man 3.
If Spider-Man teases us with hints of better movies, Spider-Man 3 reminds us of poorer movies, including not only the works of M. Night Shyamalan—Sandman is temporarily destroyed by water, which is David Dunn’s kryptonite in Unbreakable and the unlikely Achilles’ heel of the invading aliens in Signs—but also the first Spider-Man movie; Spider-Man 3 revisits Peter Parker’s first-person narration, which was wisely abandoned in the second film, and we get another tacky shot of Spider-Man posing before the American flag.
Where Spider-Man 3 most closely resembles Spider-Man is through its paper-thin villains. Flint Marko is only a criminal because he needs money to save his sick daughter, but setting aside those scenes starring his monstrous CGI “Sandman” stand-in, Thomas Hayden Church is only onscreen for 15-minutes or so, with the result that we don’t really care why he’s committing crimes. Marko’s ailing daughter appears in a brief scene near the beginning of the film, and then occasionally as a photo in Sandman’s locket; she represents the shallowest use of a villain’s tortured motive since Joel Schumacher had the audacity to steal Paul Dini’s Mr. Freeze origin for Batman and Robin. Consider: Flint Marko misses his daughter at the start of the film, and two hours later he’s a giant Stay-Puft Sandman, smashing skyscrapers and growling like the Incredible Hulk.
James Franco’s turn as Harry Osborn is too reminiscent of Hayden Christensen’s whiny, sullen performance as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels; you want Peter Parker to just say to him, “Yes, I killed your dad, now stop being such a petulant bitch!” The tiresome friend-versus-friend plotline is eventually abandoned… when Harry Osborn bumps his head and suffers amnesia. Hoo boy.
Finally, Topher Grace seems to enjoy portraying the cocky, cutthroat Eddie Brock, and the effects and makeup make his Venom monster suitably disturbing, but there is simply not enough space or time in this movie to accommodate three villains, and Eddie Brock suffers the most. His only wicked deed is doctoring a stolen photo to win Peter Parker’s job, but when Parker rats him out—taunting him afterward with the smug dismissal “You want forgiveness, get religion”—Brock goes to a church and asks Jesus to kill Peter Parker. It seems an unusually steep and sudden ascension to villainy.
Watching these movies today, one recognizes that the Spider-Man trilogy follows a pattern established by Sam Raimi’s previous trilogy, The Evil Dead: the first entry is serviceable, but also flawed and somewhat self-conscious, and like Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, Spider-Man 2 is less a sequel than a remake of its predecessor. Finally, Spider-Man 3 is the Army of Darkness of the Spider-Man trilogy—it is massively if not competently entertaining, but it’s so different from the first two installments that it almost qualifies as a different genre. Really, Batman and Robin and X-Men 3 and Iron Man 2 and Spider-Man 3 seem to have more in common with one another than they do with the other films in their respective series.
Perhaps we should classify sequel as a genre.