Directed by: Sam Raimi || Produced by: Avi Arad, Laura Ziskin, Ian Bryce
Screenplay by: David Koepp || Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Joe Manganiello, Elizabeth Banks
Music by: Danny Elfman || Cinematograhy by: Don Burgess || Edited by: Bob Murawski, Arthur Coburn || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 121 minutes
While the original X-Men (2000) by Bryan Singer was an excellent film, which heralded the return and generation-long dominance of the big budget superhero film, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was the first global smash success of a major American superhero, and opened the floodgates for dozens more likeminded films, including Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) and of course the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-present).
Sam Raimi has been around as a writer, director, producer, and cinematographer for years, having made his career landmarks with The Evil Dead trilogy decades ago (1981, 1987, 1992), but Spider-Man was his first Hollywood tent-pole blockbuster. Resting on the foundation of a solid script by David Koepp and good casting, Raimi shoots this film like the pro that he is and brings his low-budget, B-movie genre roots to a superhero tale featuring both big-budget effects and intimate character growth.
Raimi understands that every character-driven narrative is inherently the same, and the general guidelines of cinematography and filmmaking apply to every picture. He takes the story and the film’s world seriously, while at the same time embracing the character’s roots and the style of the source material. Spider-Man in both the comics and television has always been more of an adolescent soap opera than a dark, brooding, philosophical tale of crime and punishment and society’s seedy underbelly like, say, Batman. The reason why Raimi’s trilogy works (yes, including the much maligned third film) above all else is that it’s primarily about Peter Parker and how his powers, specifically his taking on the role of Spider-Man and the responsibility of being a superhero, affects his private self and personal life. For one, Spider-Man is the only notable mainstream superhero who is an adolescent (later young adult); he grows up as Spider-Man, rather than growing up to be Spider-Man. Additionally, his relationships with his family, friends, and love-interests are directly affected by his vigilante career, and Peter has to make tough choices about how he should juggle his individual needs as a person and his responsibility to society and those around him as someone blessed with great power.
All three installments of Raimi’s trilogy trace the arc of Parker/SM as he grows, develops, and learns to come to grips with who he his and how he should use his incredible gifts, if at all. Spider-Man 1-3 feature epic spectacles and pulse-pounding action-scenes, but the focus of Raimi’s character is always kept on Tobey Maguire’s dorky Peter, because that’s where the heart of the story lies. Regardless of what you think of Maguire’s goofball public persona, he plays an incredibly relatable character who we learn to like, root for, and see ourselves in his troubles, growing pains, and fights against his supervillain nemeses. The reason why the original Spider-Man trilogy was such a hit was because we grew up with Peter; his life-obstacles, both as a normal young adult and as a superhero, felt incredibly real. These films had real heart, and it all started with this gem.
Unlike many of the current massive superhero blockbusters (e.g. Age of Ultron , Furious 7 ), the original SM keeps control of its story with great pacing and an appropriate running time at just above two hours. It starts out small and quaint as Parker transitions from a normal skinny teen into the superhero we know and love, and then gradually expands as both his social life and that of his nemesis and former mentor (a great Willem Dafoe) become consumed by their clashing alter egos. Again, like Star Wars (1977), SM is well executed monomyth.
Speaking of Parker‘s social life, Maguire’s supporting cast is beaming with big names and small who fill out the comic world organically and colorfully. I’m well aware most general audiences nowadays don’t have the biggest respect for Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson) and James Franco (Harry Osborne), but for a soap opera-type diegesis like this, they’re perfect. Moreover, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, respectably, are impeccably cast, as is Dafoe’s sardonic, malevolent Norman Osborne/Green Goblin.
Though the Goblin dresses like a Power Rangers villain, Dafoe plays him both mask-on and mask-off like a fiddle, tip-toeing between hammy and psychotic glee and never missing a step. His masquerades with his split personality and those devious eyes of his behind the Goblin mask are terrifying in a crazy clown (Joker?) kind of way; by the time he stands over Spider-Man at the end of the film, taunting him with threats of torturing MJ to death, you really want Parker to kick that guy’s ass. That’s a great villain!
Rounding out SM’s stellar features are some solid action-scenes depicting rather subdued and refreshingly low-key violence. By low-key I don’t mean boring or unimpressive, but rather grounded and well shot. Though a Spider-Man movie necessitates certain special effects and CGI characters, Raimi directs around them with his veteran touch; he keeps the digital web-slinging at long or medium shots in faded or low lighting, and frequently switches to stunt doubles and real actors during close-ups and most of the close-quarters combat. Great blockbusters are able to take epic stakes and big action and keep them relatively realistic and relatable, so the audience can project themselves onto the screen. SM does that in spades, so much so that it’s final battle consists of a fistfight between Goblin and Spidey in an abandoned warehouse. It’s effective, actually violent action that doesn’t have to rely on bombastic, bloated set-pieces that go on for 45 minutes and feature ludicrous, cartoony choreography. Again, I’m looking at you, Marvel Cinematic Universe! You too, Man of Steel (2013). Fuck!
The bottom line is this: Rami’s original Spider-Man, like its two sequels, stuck to its auteur’s (and to a lesser extent, its source material’s) bread and butter by focusing on the human drama at the heart of all this superhero madness, giving us a genuinely thrilling soap opera adventure to which we could all relate. Sure, many of the lines and situations are corny, and numerous elements of the spandex and Halloween-mask antics are dripping in cheese, but it all fits in this wonderful, colorful world Raimi has created; you take them just as seriously as a hopelessly grim Dark Knight tale. To that end, Spider-Man’s story arc requires half the exhaustion and sheer mental fortitude that today’s Macbeth-toned superhero films require. Sometimes the original films got it right the first time around.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Raimi nails the right Spider-Man comic book vibe and uses the cinematography to emphasize the narrative’s soapy melodrama. It’s a comic book movie, but not the absurdist Joel Schumacher-esque “they’re called comic books not drama books” kind of way, nor the MCU explosionsexplosionsexplosions kind of way — just right. Not too hot or too cold. Maguire, Dunst, Franco, and Dafoe lead a bright, expressive cast bursting with emotion in an almost Bollywood-type ensemble. Danny Elfman writes a brilliant score and Raimi directs some potent action. Also, J.K. Simmons stars as J. Jonah Jameson.
— However… some of the dialogue can be too cornball at times. Franco’s misunderstanding and subsequent hatred of Spider-Man at the end is a tad unbelievable and tacked on.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED