I’m going to begin by going on record with this statement: I don’t like the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. One-half of Spider-Man 2 is almost a good film, and that film is primarily about Peter Parker and Doc Ock; the rest of the trilogy is somewhere between mediocre and outright terrible.
***spoilers for all Spider-Man films to follow***
I saw Spider-Man in the cinemas on its opening weekend way back in early 2002, and it didn’t think much of it. Within days it was clear that Spider-Man was a phenomenon; it made $100,000 in its opening weekend alone, and in the pre-3D days, that was nothing to sniff at.
But its success baffled me. Spider-Man is a flimsy, cheesy film beset by mediocre special effects and some truly ham-fisted writing (and acting). It felt to me then – and feels to me now – like a kids’ film gone wrong, what with the heavy-handed moralizing, fluffy plot, and utterly gruesome, left-field death of the Green Goblin. Perhaps, at 22, I’d already started my turn around the middle-aged bend: I just didn’t get the appeal.
But then Spider-Man 2 came out, and I went to see it in the cinema, too. And it was… well, it wasn’t as bad as Spider-Man. Parts of it were actually even good. Indeed, while watching it, I remember thinking to myself that it was a good film (brilliant scientist goes bonkers; kid who looks up to him finally forces him to take responsibility for his actions) trapped inside a particularly shitty teen tv show (but will MJ ever learn the truth about Peter Parker???!!!?!?!). And, during the credits, I saw why: the story was by Michael Chabon (great author! Wrote wonderful, sensitive Cavalier & Klay!) and Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (two words: motherfucking Smallville). Being familiar with both Cavalier & Klay and Smallville, the film’s identity crisis made a little sense.
Point being, despite all that (SMALLVILLE) it felt like maybe there was something in the franchise for me after all.
And then came Spider-Man 3, and if it were physically possible for a coffin to nail its own lid to itself, Spider-Man 3 was that coffin. I mean, Spider-Man 3 is some atrocious shit. I have been more disappointed by films, but those more disappointing films were things like Phantom Menace and The Matrix: Reloaded. And I hadn’t gone into Spider-Man 3 expecting a hell of a lot.
And that, I figured, was probably it for my relationship with Spider-Man – the character and the franchise. I’d never cared much for the character, so I didn’t feel the loss too keenly.
But Spider-Man wouldn’t let me go.
One of the first things I learned about Jared, back in the early days of our courtship, is that Jared is a Spider-Man fan. The character, not the films. He loves Peter Parker, the goofy, geeky, sarcastic kid who never really made it into the Raimi films. He’s gotten me to read some classic Spider-Man, and I have to agree: that Spider-Man is fun, and funny. He’s about the most relatable teen character I’ve run across in a Marvel book, and I can see why Jared likes him. Reading those books really highlighted the issues with the Raimi films which – despite Raimi’s self-professed love for the character – never really captured what makes comic-book Spider-Man great. They’re heavy-handed, self-important films About Important Things, (a disease the X-Men franchise suffers from, as well), and they buckle under their own weight. Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker is a gloomy geek without much of the fun – or verve – of the original. James Franco’s Harry Osborn is seriously stalker-level obsessed with Spider-Man, and the less said about horrid, gooey Mary Jane Watson the better.*
Years passed, etc., etc.
And then the news broke that another Spider-Man film – a non-Raimi Spider-Man film – was in development. Ten years after Spider-Man first took us by storm, The Amazing Spider-Man hit the cinemas. Jared and I, exhausted by ten years of cinematic Spider-Man (and overwhelmed by the idea of a franchise reboot ten years after the franchise began) skipped it.
Until last night.
And you know what? The Amazing Spider-Man is pretty good!
1. Andrew Garfield looks like an actual teenager. I mean, I realize I’m now An Old and so anyone under 45 looks like a teenager to me, but Toby Maguire never looked like a 16-year-old in any universe ever, even when he was a teenager, and Andrew Garfield at least looks like a network TV version of a teenager. Sold.
2. The film Peter Parker is a closer approximation of the comic book Peter Parker. Yes, he’s a totally tortured teen. But he’s also… funny.
3. No MJ. Fucking MJ. I hate the girl next door trope. And I realize the character is forever poisoned for me because of Kirsten Dunst’s droopy, dead-eyed performance (and Marvel’s insistence on sexualizing the ever-living shit out of the character), but I’m glad they didn’t try to reboot her. At least, not this time around. Just let sleeping dead-eyed dogs lie.
4. No moralizing. Well, not so much moralizing. Uncle Ben and Aunt May felt like real people, not plot-points. Raimi used the characters to inject about fifty pounds of saccharine into his films. In TASM, they felt almost like real people.
5. Fewer jarring tonal shifts. Hell, ‘jarring tonal shifts’ is probably Sam Raimi’s middle name. But while I missed JK Simmons’ spectacular J. Jonah Jameson, the character never felt like he was inhabiting the same universe as Maguire’s mopey Parker. Which was one of the major problems with the Raimi films, which would switch between broad comedy to the afore-mentioned ham-fisted moralizing so fast you could get whiplash trying to keep up.
6. Slightly better female characters. TASM’s female characters are an improvement, not a perfect example of how to write female characters in a comic book film. Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is smart and has some agency, and Sally Field’s Aunt May… well, she’s not the apple-cheeked judgment-machine of the Raimi films, so she’s necessarily a little better. Not much, but a little.
7. Slightly better villain (than everyone except Doc Ock). The Lizard is an interesting character to kick off a reboot with, considering how he’s written in the comics – there, Peter feels sorry for him even as he fights him, because Connors doesn’t really have any control over his villainous impulses. The Raimi Spider-Man films feature so very much Green Goblin nonsense, almost all of which is driven by the characters (Green Goblins senior and junior) being totally obsessed with Spider-Man. And that’s problematic motivation, you guys, because it’s boring motivation. It’s dead-end characterization. Doc Ock works because he has something else going on – even if that something else is a completely insane plan to build a, like, mini-star thing (“fusion reactor”) in an abandoned warehouse in the middle of New York City, at least he’s doing it for some reason beyond “fucking Spider-Man; I hate that guy.” If you check the script for Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3, you’ll find that both Franco and Dafoe have “fucking Spider-Man; I hate that guy” written out as their character motivation.)
ANYway, the Lizard almost works, except he’s kind of a weak retread of Doc Ock. But he’s given some real depth by Rhys Ifans, which: who knew?! And who knew there were so many lizards crawling around in the New York sewers?
Ladies and gentlemen: the Lizard
8. Science! I dunno, movie science is movie science, and always total fucking nonsense. I am glad they let this Spider-Man be really good at science but, like, it wasn’t a big thing. He just… was. And he built his web-slingers himself, which was like the comic books, and gave me the viewer one less thing to fret about, re. Peter Parker’s altered physiology, while watching the film. (Honestly, how much protein must Maguire’s Spider-Man have to eat to generate all that web?) I liked the snappy little red flashes of light whenever he used his web-slingers, too. Good touch, costume designer.
9. Plot? Schlot. Scientist goes nuts; tries to turn the citizens of New York into lizard people. If we're watching superhero films for the plot, there's something wrong with us. TASM had a ridiculous plot, but really: it held together for two hours; who cares; the end.
So there it is. I avoided TSAM because I didn’t like the first three films much (and boy, even the good half of Spider-Man 2 hasn’t really held up all that well), and I shouldn’t have, because it was honestly pretty good, and fun, and well done, and overall a nice surprise.
And one of these days maybe someone will finally make a superhero film about a girl.
*And oh my god, I have so much to say about Mary Jane Watson. And Aunt May, while we’re at it. I mean, let’s just digest the fact that all three fucking films feature huge plot points about male characters making decisions for the female characters. Like, that’s Peter’s emotional baggage throughout all three movies – if MJ and Aunt May know about him, they can be put in danger (true) – so he’ll just decide for them that they don't get to know his secret identity and can’t spend time with him. MJ? Go date someone else. MJ? Go marry someone else. MJ? I’m Spider-Man, and I looooooooove you, but you can’t be with me. Go away. Aunt May? I’m Spider-Man, and I’m utterly shitty at keeping my secret identity secret, so if I live with you I will put you in danger. So I’ll go live in some shitty one-room apartment in the middle of nowhere and live off of old pizza and charity-cake from my landlord’s weird daughter BECAUSE THAT SOMEHOW KEEPS YOU SAFE AUNT MAY BECAUSE SACRIFICE SACRIFICE GREAT POWER GREAT RESPONSIBILITY SACRIFICE SACRIFICE SACRIFICE UNCLE BEN IS DEAD BECAUSE OF ME I CAN’T HAVE A GIRLFRIEND AND THE GIRL I LOVE IS A JUDGEMENTAL BITCH WHO DATES ALL MY FRIENDS BUT NOT MEEEEEEEEEE SAAAAACCCCRRRRIIIIIFFFFFIIIIICCCCCEEEE.
Shut up, Peter.