Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #8: Spider-Man

How timely.  Fast on the heels of this summer's Amazing Spider-Man release we find its predecessor, the original Spider-Man movie dialing in here at #8 and unsurprisingly they both suffer from the same shortcoming: the plight of the origin story.

Spider-Man is the poster movie for what can go wrong in an origin story.  It simply tries to do too much. Since no one could be sure that this movie would not be Spider-Man's one shot at the big screen, there was a lot of pressure to cram every single iconic thing about Spidey into this film and it really shows.  The Origin, the Green Goblin, girlfriend goes off the side of the bridge, death of Green Goblin, Aunt May has money problems, Peter Parker in high school, Peter graduates high school, Peter in college, MJ is an actress, MJ is a nerdy student, Peter and Harry share an apartment, Peter is a prize student, Peter is a photographer, the Daily Bugle.  It's just too much for a single movie.  Toss in a huge World Day celebration (I think it held over from X-men) with Macy Gray (oh my have we just dated ourselves) and it;s just too much.

Despite this, Spider-man ends up being a pretty enjoyable movie that manages to capture many, if not all, of the things that have made the web-head my favorite super-hero since childhood.  The origin story is pretty much intact so the responsibility subtext (not always so "sub") is strong and gives the film direction.  Peter is sufficiently nerdy, even though Tobey Maguire's portrayal is a bit heavy handed.  My biggest complaint with Maguire is that his Peter is too emotional.  Peter in the early comics was a well meaning young man, but he was distant from almost everyone due to the burden of his responsibilities both as himself and as Spider-man and the difficult juggling act of keeping them separate. It was that distance that contributed to his awkwardness and made his a loner.  The Peter in this film wears his problems all over his soft exterior and comes across a bit weaker than his source material.

The Green Goblin is handled pretty well here as well.  The character design is smart replacing the rubbery goblin costume for body armor, even if the mask turns out to be laughable and very rigid.  Willem Dafoe is exceptional as Norman Osborn and does his best to overcome the difficulties of his costuming.  The downside is that the Green Goblin story wants two, maybe three, movies to tell, so the character is a bit short-shirted here.

Kirsten Dunst is a decent MJ, but she's not given a lot to do apart from being the girlfriend.  You feel for her character, but you don't get invested enough to have her tossed off the bridge in this film.

However, there is one thing that Spider-Man gets right, perfectly right:  The Daily Bugle.  J.K. Simmons nails J. Jonah Jameson like Hugh Jackman nails Wolverine.  He is spot on and he makes every minute in the Bugle offices an absolute treasure and leaves us wanting more time there and less at the Macy Gray concert.  A nod to Bill Nunn for his quietly perfect Joe "Robbie" Robertson as well.

I realize that this is the #8 film on our list and yet it reads harsher than our #15 review, but that is only because expectations were so very high for this movie.  Spider-Man is Marvel's flagship character and this movie came fairly early in the era, so it had to really knock it out the park or the entire future of Marvel Comics based movies could have been doomed.  I'm also particularly hard on this film because we are nearing the top five and being so-so isn't going to cut it.

Spider-Man is a great movie.  Lots of fun, packed with action, and true to the source material, this film gets the important stuff right even if it overachieves and fails on some of the finer points.  For an iconic character's origin story you could  do a lot worse.

Aimee's Take

I love Spider-Man, the character. I debated missing my senior prom to go see this movie (opening was the same day). In retrospect, I'm glad I went to prom, but it's not a reflection of the quality of this film. It's pretty good. At the time, I think I was just happy to see Spidey on the big screen.

Now that time has elapsed a little, I think Spider-Man suffers from the same issues that X-men has; overall, it's pretty solid, the characters are mostly right... but the story is a little lacking and overblown, and has to include an origin of sorts for the uninitiated. Stan already nailed it but for me the whole "World Day"/Macy Gray fiasco is my primary problem with the plot. There's no need to make these characters somehow globally relevant. It's passable for the X-men, I mean, they go to space and whatnot, but Spider-Man is a street-level guy with street-level problems. 

I'm also not a big fan of MJ in this movie. MJ was, in the comics, introduced as a ray of vibrant light in Peter's complicated life. She got more complex as time wore on, but initially she was a bubbly answer to his demanding life, not caring too much about anything and seeking only thrills. This MJ is a little morose for my taste. She's a good-girl/girl-next-door in the way that Gwen Stacy is, although Gwen is more upbeat and, frankly, more competent. All in all she's just too beaten-down and grounded to be believable as a struggling actress; this MJ would go to community college at least, and follow it up with an uninspired job.

What the movie does perfectly, in my mind, is capture the Aunt May character; it also manages to completely master the atmosphere of the Daily Bugle, as Stan mentions above. Enough elements are spot on in this outing that I'm willing to extend it some slack for trying to do far too much in far too short a time.

Spider-Man is fun. It does a lot of things good, some things, great, and most others passably. That's why it's #8. There's nothing glaring here, and it manages a very high production value without becoming bogged down in (too much) Hollywood nonsense.

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