I, for one, am glad Sony has decided to scrap plans for a fourth Spider-man movie. As much as part one jumpstarted the sagging “comic book as serious source of drama” dynamic in contemporary cinema (leading to classics like The Dark Knight and Watchmen), and as much as the second film showcased director’s Sam Raimi’s remarkable range as an artist, the third effort indicated that the concept had run its course. Naturally, the studios don’t think so. They wanted more money…sorry, movies, and were counting on the original creative team to keep the coinage flowing.
Since it was announced, Raimi struggled to bring Spider-man 4 to life. There were rumors of villains (Vulture), actors (John Malkovich), and direction (back to brooding and darkness). But something interesting happened along the way. Sony got a script they liked better. Now, Raimi is out, and the studio is going to “reboot” the franchise, taking the character of Peter Parker back to high school. Call it the tween Twilight approach to the famed Marvel icon and you’ll get the basic idea. Naturally, messageboard nation remains significantly up in arms.
So, as the dedicated argue over who should (Neill Blomkamp) and shouldn’t (Chris Weitz, Brett Ratner) take charge of the reinvention of the webslinger (again, a screenplay is already in place - more on this in a moment), let’s look back - and forward - about where Raimi, the stars, and the franchise came from, and where they go from here. Perhaps the most unusual part of all the backstage machinations is how we got to this point in the first place.
According to sources, Sony did not like Raimi’s continuing exploration of Spidey’s melancholy. Instead, they wanted to take the material in a more light and frothy direction (read: dumbed down and youthed up). Having already committed to Raimi, they allowed him to work on part four while hiring a scriptwriter James Vanderbilt to scribble away on parts five and six. If you read the original Variety story on the subject, you get the distinct impression that Raimi and his take was a reluctant “thank you” for all the commercial cache the director created. Indeed, with Vanderbilt taking the material back to the origin (way back - all the way to puberty, some sources say), one thing was clear - Raimi would probably balk. He had briefly covered this material at the beginning of the original Spider-man. Why would he want to revisit it?
The bigger question is - why would the studio? It seems pointless to repurpose the franchise as something more kid-oriented when it is clear that, the minute Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive insect, his entire adolescence disappears. Oh sure, it was fun to see him save flying food and lunch trays and take on obnoxious bullies, but can you really build an entire film (or in this case, rebooted franchise) off of this? While the TV series Smallville was successful in taking Superman and his main supporting characters/villains back to the classroom, does Spider-man have the same possibilities. And if so, will fans of the original three films like how Vanderbilt and a new director handle all the cliquish school set-up?
At this point, it’s important to recall how Spidey flummoxed previous “visionaries”. James Cameron, for one, was constantly struggling with his interpretation of the material, so much so that he eventually abandoned the idea of bringing the character to the big screen. Other major names in the industry also fussed over the right way to realize the superheroes various powers and personality traits. Raimi’s interpretation was both reverent and instructional, since it followed Stan Lee’s original concept for the character as well as bringing much of the sentimentality up to date. Sure, some can argue over the Green Goblin’s costume, the handling of Mary Jane Watson, or the entire Harry Osborn arc. But with Spider-man, and more importantly, Spider-man 2, Raimi found the right balance between spectacle and the interpersonal.
Granted, Spider-man 3 was a fiasco on many levels, from the “too much power and too little editorial control” angle to the unnecessary need to have two villains (even if Topher Grace’s Venom waiting until late in Act III to make an appearance). It also showed that Raimi was hemmed in by the material - case in point: Drag Me to Hell. Free of the pen and ink boundaries of the source, the director reinvigorated his oeuvre with an amazing, masterful horror romp that, PG-13 or not, showed he had not lost his stinging artistic verve and audacity. It also explained to the numerous fright filmmaking wannabes out there how to do things properly. Fans who really enjoyed this otherwise underappreciated return to form were, naturally, saddened to see him return to Spiderville. But dollars talk and bad box office walks (Drag Me to Hell was NOT a hit), so it was back to the cinematic bank vault for all involved.
As for Raimi, he will definitely survive. There have been lots of announced projects of late (including a World of Warcraft epic) and as a producer, he has a vast network of possibilities he can tap into and guide. While he will always be an amazing director, he could definitely state behind the scenes for the foreseeable future and continue to establish the Raimi/Ghost House name. Like Christopher Nolan, Sam the Man doesn’t need Spider-man to validate his talent. He was one of the lucky few whose vast ability was recognized and rewarded with such a shot. Unlike someone such as Bryan Singer, however, working in popcorn cinema didn’t stifle his muse. Raimi has proven that he’s ready for the next half of his already amazing career. Few who’ve suffered through the genre can say that.
And what of the cast? Well, that’s another bit of luck. Raimi didn’t cast an unknown (like, say Brandon Routh) to play his hero. Tobery Maguire had a solid career before donning the red and blue tights, and he continues to have an impression one to this day (his recent turn in the war drama Brothers has brought a great deal of year-end awards consideration). Sure, some opportunities may slip by him once the commercial patina wears off, but he had been in the business for nearly 10 years before Spider-man came along. Like Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, and anyone else in the original trilogy cast, his prospects seem safe with or without the webslinger’s added emphasis.
But the same can’t be said for the franchise itself. Spider-man was always a tricky title to crack, the need to balance adolescent angst with high flying ass-kicking. Raimi didn’t always get it right, but he did come pretty damn close. One can only imagine an X-Men Origins: Wolverine like look where a flashy filmmaker, all style and little substance, walks in and weakens everything fans and film lovers enjoyed about the franchise. Even worse, casting will be crucial, and it’s not inconceivable that Tinseltown would use this opportunity to give some relatively unknown (read: cheap) actor their big break. History shows how successful that approach can be. Here’s hoping that Mr. Vanderbilt’s script is really that good. Otherwise, your friendly neighborhood Spider-man could become a cinematic persona non grata rather quickly…that is, if he isn’t already.