#8: Spider-Man (2000)
I think we sometimes forget that the Star Wars prequels were so bad that we actually overreacted to them. We would come to make sense of their awfulness through the gradually-revealed narrative that George Lucas should never ever have complete creative control over anything. Yet the anticipation for these films had been so rabid, and the actual product on the screen so profoundly bad, that they became the vocal point of a much broader critical narrative: special effects, and computer-generated special effects in particular, were killing movies.
This is going to sound unforgivably silly to modern audiences, but we needed proof that groundbreaking special effects and brilliant acting and storytelling could coexist. The Matrix was a nice start, but its effects were too distinctive to serve as a general referendum on this issue, and no one has ever accused Keanu Reeves of being a brilliant actor. Besides, what made The Matrix such a hit was that it was interesting conceptually. We needed a traditional blockbuster with big special effects and great acting.
We needed Spider-Man.
Spider-Man fans were spared the monstrosity that James Cameron almost put on the big screen in the early 90s. Instead, we were given the now-familiar Sam Raimi feature. After an opening credits sequence rather heavy on that computer-generated imagery we had grown so dubious of, the film opened with a voice-over by Peter Parker (Tobey Macguire) telling the audience, “Let me assure you: this, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl.”
This opening wasn’t merely a calculated stylistic choice (though it was probably also that), it set the tone for the entire series. Far from disappearing into a film dominated by special effects, the emotional story of Peter Parker and Marry Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) gave the series an emotional core that kept it grounded and about these characters. It was as much (if not more) about Peter’s life as Peter, not just Peter’s life as Spider-Man. Spider-Man stories have always been at their best when they’ve been about how being a superhero affects Peter’s life as much as they’ve been about the superheroics themselves. And it’s this key element that Raimi’s films were so spectacular at portraying.
I ended my review of The Dark Knight by talking about the “Holy Trinity” of Singer, Raimi, and Nolan. How these filmmakers had a strong vision of what they wanted to do with their films, and were excellent at bringing that vision to life. In Raimi’s case, he seemed to care most deeply about character development and relationships, which obviously works quite well for a Spider-Man film. Where Raimi differs from Nolan (and even, to a certain extent, from Singer) is that he seemed largely committed to bringing the mythology of Spider-Man to the screen unfiltered, unembarrassed by his source material. It is clear that Raimi believed he could bring these believable characters and relationships to life without fundamentally altering their comic book world, and I would argue that he succeeded brilliantly. In this way, he actually came very close to the same formula Marvel Studios would employ in their Avengers films, most notably in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.
Raimi also made the unusual, but effective, decision to utilize the adversary most see as Spider-Man’s “arch nemesis” in the first film, rather than “saving” him for the sequel. This was largely responsive to the demands of the story, tying in to Peter’s relationship with his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco.) And Willem Dafoe was simply brilliant as Norman Osborn (aka Green Goblin.) He was quite a bit more “over the top” than many villains in recent superhero films, but it worked quite well with the tone of the film. And presenting this character unironically as a villain didn’t prevent him from being a serious character with serious development and conflict.
It’s all about relationships in this series. Norman’s relationship with Peter, which starts off with Norman as a proud mentor but ends tragically, deeply affects Peter, and will come to affect his relationship with Harry. Although Peter has been pining for Mary Jane for years, it’s Harry who will initially end up dating her, which strains their friendship. Fortunately, Raimi doesn’t fall into the trap of making this the defining factor of Peter and Harry’s relationship, but we’ll go into that further when we get to Spider-Man 2.
And, speaking of relationships, if Mary Jane is the most important relationship in Peter’s life, an extremely close second is Peter’s relationship with his aunt and uncle. Raimi decided to essentially lift Peter’s relationships with his guardians right out of the comic book pages, while merely fleshing them out a bit more. (Unlike that… other film that felt the need to completely reinvent them. But we’ll get to that in a few days.) Peter’s relationship with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and the circumstances of his death were nearly identical to Amazing Fantasy #15, the comic that introduced Spider-Man. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is also nearly directly drawn from the comics, often serving as Peter’s moral compass and offering profound wisdom.
Speaking of fidelity to the source material (and one of the many “comic booky” elements that that other film ignored), J. K. Simmons does an exceptionally hilarious rendition of J. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper editor Peter works for as a photographer who considers Spider-Man a menace.
In this film, Raimi laid the foundation for a future of unironic superhero films that were not in any way ashamed of themselves, and had no reason to be. The real shame is how few films have followed this example, and how much of Raimi’s blood is all over Sony after stabbing Raimi in the back so thoroughly. But don’t worry: we’ll get to that later.