Monday, July 2, 2012

Stubs - Spider-Man

SPIDER-MAN (2002) Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kristen Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons. Directed by Sam Raimi. Produced by Laura Ziskin, Ian Bryce, Grant Curtis, Avi Arad, and Stan Lee.  Screenplay by David Koepp. Based on characters by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Music by Danny Elfman. Run Time: 121. Color. USA. Action, Adventure

When this film was first released, Spider-Man was considered by many to be the best comic-book based movie of all time. In the past decade, the film has been eclipsed, in my eyes at least, by its sequel Spider-Man 2 (2004), Iron Man (2008) and this year’s The Avengers. Now, only ten years later, Spider-Man, like Batman and Superman before it, is rife for a reboot. With this in mind, it is a good opportunity to revisit the original film to see how Spider-Man’s origin story was handled as a way to compare how it is handled in the reboot of the franchise: The Amazing Spider-Man.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a nice kid who finishes last. Peter lives with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). They love Peter, but they seem to be practically the only ones. Not only does the bus driver not stop for him, but even the nerdiest kids on the bus don’t want him to sit next to them. Peter is a photographer for the school paper who dreams of a career as a photographer. He is madly in love with the girl next door Mary Jane Watson (Kristen Dunst), who is dating one of Peter’s bullies, Eugene “Flash” Thompson (Joe Manganiello). Peter’s best friend is Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of scientist/industrialist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe).

On a field trip to a university genetics lab, Peter, while trying to take a photo of Mary Jane, is bitten by a genetically altered, red and blue spider. The effect on Peter is that his DNA and that of the spider’s mesh creating the Spider-Man persona. At school, Peter is once again bullied by Flash, but manages not only to elude his punches, but with one punch he sends Flash across the room. So enamored with how good he feels, Peter runs from school, climbs a wall and runs across the rooftops, effortlessly leaping from roof to roof. When he finds that he can shoot a web from his own body, it takes a little doing, but soon Peter is able to control it.

With his new found powers and prowess, Peter looks for a way to impress Mary Jane. He notices how enamored she is with Flash’s car, so he vows to get one himself. Entering a contest to stay three minutes in a ring with a professional wrestler called Bonesaw (“Macho Man” Randy Savage), Peter wins the contest, but the promoter refuses to pay him the $3000 purse, because he was only in the ring for two minutes not three. When a criminal holds up the wrestling promoter of that day’s take, Peter does nothing. But when the criminal kills his Uncle for his car, Peter vows revenge and dedicates himself to being Spider-Man.

Meanwhile, Oscorp is facing its own problems. The U.S. Military, the firm’s largest customer, is pushing for the super soldier it has contracted for. In an effort to speed up the development, Norman voluntarily takes the serum himself. But rather than a super soldier, a la Captain America, he is turned into a super villain, Green Goblin.

Spider-Man has been making quite a name for himself, as he flings around New York stopping petty crimes. J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), editor of the Daily Bugle, a tabloid, thinks Spider-Man is a criminal, but one that sells papers. He puts in an ad looking for photographs. This is the opening Peter has been waiting for and he takes photos of himself to Jameson.

As the Green Goblin, Osborn manages to disrupt his main competitor Quest’s own program for the US Defense Department, thus leaving Oscorp as the military’s largest supplier. But while Norman is celebrating, his board of directors has been selling the company to Quest and kicking Norman out as chairman. As the Green Goblin he shows up at an Oscorp event to get his revenge, vaporizing the board of directors. He manages to nearly kill Mary Jane, who is there as Harry’s date, before Spider-Man appears on the scene.

Mary Jane starts to fall in love with Spider-Man and when he saves her from a gang of supposed rapists, she and her superhero share one of film history’s most memorable kisses.

The Green Goblin wants Spider-Man and tries to get to him through the photographer that supplies the photos to the Daily Bugle, but Jameson refuses to divulge Peter’s name. But despite that, Norman does finally discover that Peter is Spider-Man and in an effort to draw him out, the Green Goblin attacks Aunt May. While she is in the hospital recovering, Peter finally tells Mary Jane how he feels about her. Harry happens to see Peter and Mary Jane holding hands and tells his father about the love affair.

Using Mary Jane as bait, the Green Goblin lures Spider-Man to the Queensboro Bridge. There he must choose to save Mary Jane or a Roosevelt Island Tram filled with children. The Green Goblin lets both go simultaneously, but Spider-Man manages to save them both. Undaunted, the Green Goblin takes Spider-Man to a deserted warehouse where they fight to the Green Goblin’s death.

Spider-Man takes Norman’s body back to the mansion he shared with Harry. But Harry sees Spider-Man hovering over his father’s body and jumps to the conclusion that Spider-Man killed his father.

At Norman’s funeral, Mary Jane finally confesses her love for Peter. But Peter, knowing his destiny as a superhero puts those he loves in peril (see Aunt May), tells her in essence that they can only ever be friends. Because of who he is, he has to walk away from the woman he wanted since childhood.

Despite some critics who didn’t like the film, Spider-Man was a huge success on its initial release and would spawn two more sequels with the same director and cast. A lot of the credit belongs to Sam Raimi. While I will confess that I had not seen his previous films, as they never seemed to appeal to me, he is obviously more than a capable director. The pacing of the film is good and there is a good mixture of humor amongst the action.

The cast is also very good together. Despite the fact that Tobey Maguire was much older than the Peter Parker he played, he still managed to play a convincing conflicted teenager.  By the time of Spider-Man, Maguire had been in films since 1989, having appeared in such films as S.F.W. (1994), The Ice Storm (1997), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Pleasantville (1998) and The Cider House Rules (1999). His career post the Spider-Man trilogy has slowed considerably, but he is scheduled to appear in The Great Gatsby and Life of Pi.

I initially thought that Kirsten Dunst was also a little old to be playing a teenager, but it was just that she had been in films from an early age. She too had been in films since 1989, but by the time of Spider-Man she was only 20 years old. Her film debut was in New York Stories in the Oedipus Wrecks segment directed by Woody Allen. She had gone to appear in such films as Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Little Women (1994), Jumanji (1995), Wag the Dog (1997), Dick (1999), The Cat’s Meow (2001). Kirsten is cute enough to be the crush of Peter Parker’s life.

James Franco, also in his twenties at the time he filmed Spider-Man, was perhaps best known before that film as the titular character in James Dean (2001), a TV bio film. Franco seems to be perfectly cast as both Peter’s friend, but also as Willem Dafoe’s son. Franco has gone onto a very eclectic career, including starring in Pineapple Express (2008), 127 Hours (2010) and a recurring role on the soap General Hospital. He may also be remembered for his near disastrous turn at co-hosting the Academy Awards.

Willem Dafoe brought quite a lot to the character of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. Having been in films since the early 80’s, Dafoe has been a busy actor on stage and in films, appearing in numerous films. To list them all would take too long. But it is safe to say that Dafoe had made a career playing sometimes off beat as well as mainstream characters, and has worked in big films and independents as well. I’ve never heard anyone criticize him for not bringing his all to any role he’s played.

But the casting doesn’t stop with the major stars of the films. You couldn’t ask for a better Aunt and Uncle than Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson. And special merit should be called out to Bruce Campbell, not so much for his part as the wrestling announcer who gives our hero his name, but for the other roles he plays in the subsequent sequels. He brings a little bit of humor to the parts he plays in this series of films.

All that said the actor who steals the show is J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. He is a throwback to the fast-talking newspapermen depicted in screwball comedies like His Girl Friday (1940). Simmons, who I had seen play the psychiatrist on numerous episodes of Law and Order, is a delight to watch as the over the top editor of a tabloid that knows a good thing when he sees it.

When making a comic book into a movie, special effects play a part. While it is sometimes very obvious that it is a special effect, such as the scene of Peter leaping from rooftop to rooftop or flinging from building to building as Spider-Man, they are mixed very well with the live action actor that it is acceptable and not jarring.

As I stated before, when Spider-Man was first released, it was number one on my list of comic-book related films. While it has slipped down that list so slightly over time, it has not diminished the movie itself. It is still a great introduction to the Spider-Man story, especially, if you’re not a fan boy of the character.

The movie is so good that it makes one worry for the reboot. Unlike the 80’s Batman cycle, which had worn out its welcome and become a joke, Spider-Man had not reached that point when the third film played out. While there is a buzz for any superhero movie, The Amazing Spider-Man has a lot to live up to, not only as part of the Spider-Man series, but because it  comes out between the fantastic The Avengers, which opened in May and the highly anticipated The Dark Knight Rises, which opens next month.

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