Does Whatever a Franchise Can: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy

Here’s the latest guest blog in our Movie Zone feature…from the talented and irrepressible screenwriter and blogger Adrian Reynolds.  Adrian’s thoughts on life and movies and other stuff can be found on his beautifully named youdothatvoodoo blogsite.

Take it away Adrian:

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DOES WHATEVER A FRANCHISE CAN: SAM RAIMI’S SPIDER-MAN by Adrian Reynolds

Timely Comics, established in the 1940s, produced titles about crime, romance, monsters, and cowboys as well as superheroes, whose role was to take on the Nazis in wartime pulps.  It was under the guidance of Stan Lee two decades later that the publisher — by now known as Marvel — created a new generation of winning superhero titles: Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man.  They were a clear departure from DC’s heroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, who were archetypes seemingly divorced from regular human experience.  By contrast, the characters Stan Lee concocted in collaboration with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were easy for their teenage readers to identify with.  The Hulk was effectively a teenage boy struggling to control a body undergoing transformation.  The Fantastic Four were a family as dysfunctional as your own.  And as for Spider-Man

Spider-Man artwork by Steve Ditko

Peter Parker is a high school kid consumed by unspoken love for Mary Jane Watson, a science nerd living with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben.  Then he is bitten by a radioactive spider and rather than acquire leukaemia gains arachnid powers for himself, gifted with impossible acrobatic skills, heightened strength, able to scale vertical walls and sense danger.  Adding to that nifty repertoire, Peter’s invention of webfluid allows him to zip round the city suspended from ropes of web.  But…he still can’t talk to Mary Jane, and adding superheroics to his repertoire just means he has less time for college work, and that his life gets more complicated.   

 OK, the characterisation might be as two dimensional as the pages Spider-Man’s stories appeared on, but that’s one more dimension than DC’s leading icon, Superman, had back then.

 All of this, more or less, is present in Sam Raimi’s trio of Spider-Man films.  The first presents the story of Peter’s transition from human to superior human to superhero.  The distinction is important: he gains his powers first, but it’s following the death of Uncle Ben that he becomes a superhero, whose values inform his actions.  The bit about Ben telling Peter that “with great power comes great responsibility” is frequently quoted, but just as important is what Ben says before that: “these are the years a man changes into the man he’s going to become the rest of his life — just be careful who you change into.”

 Those two quotes anchor the trilogy, with every aspect of Peter Parker’s progress relating to those themes of maturity and honour.  The films chronicle a teenager growing into young adulthood, dealing with the responsibilities of work and the complexities of being a family member, and the distinction between the dream of love and its day to day reality.  Which serious business is thankfully leavened by a healthy dose of wisecracking, acrobatics, and fights with grotesque supervillains.  Phew.

 Something that distinguishes Peter Parker from the likes of Batman is that he has read superhero comics.  When Peter gets his powers, he tries out catchphrases such as ‘Shazam’ and others associated with classic comics heroes in the hope that it will reactivate his webbing — produced organically from his body in the films…adding to the squicky adolescence of this singular hero, Peter oozes sticky fluids — which takes a while to get under control.

 

 Reading comics is one thing, emulating their protagonists is quite another.  Bringing together superheroics with teenage tribulations was a stroke of genius on Stan Lee’s part.  Buzzing on his new powers, and realising he can use them to win money to buy a car to impress Mary Jane, Peter takes part in a wrestling tournament — and wins.  His jubilation is short-lived: the fight organiser weasels his way out of giving Peter the full prize money, and the consequences of that form a straight line to the murder of Uncle Ben. 

Not only that, but they have repercussions in the third film, when career criminal Flint Marko — who becomes the supervillain Sandman (no relation to Neil Gaiman’s fey creation: this one is a bruiser with a striped jersey, not a tousle-haired fop) –also turns out to be connected to the events of that tragic night.

So, Spider-Man is haunted by his past actions, giving him the requisite dose of angst that adolescents thrive on.  And at the same time, he — literally — masks that guilt and adopts a joke-a-minute persona with the bad guys he takes on, seen to its fullest effect in the second film, when Peter is relishing his powers.  That mix of jauntiness and emo despair will be familiar to anyone who has been a teenager, or has one in their house.

 Any hero is defined by the calibre of their villain, and Spider-Man has a rogues gallery of bad guys on his tail.  In the first film it’s Norman Osborn, a zillionaire scientist entrepreneur whose son Harry goes to high school with Peter.  Norman sees Peter’s intellect as outranking his son’s, and the two get on fine initially.  But in designing a weapons system for the military, Norman Osborn is driven mad and becomes the Green Goblin, who after being thwarted by Spider-Man appoints himself as Peter’s nemesis.

As a rationale it works well enough, but there’s another motivation underlying the Green Goblin: merchandising.  Conveniently, Green Goblin’s armoured outfit looks just like a kids’ toy, complete with accessories.  Ideal for rolling out as actual toys to children worldwide, accompanying Happy Meals, essential in a franchise like Spider-Man.  Ho hum. 

Green Goblin gets killed in the first film, and Harry takes on his father’s mental mantle in the third, sworn to take down Spidey, who he mistakenly believes murdered him.  That kind of continuity is exactly what superhero comics are made of, somehow straddling soap opera and Greek drama at the same time.  Which is good: it gives the films a feeling of connectedness, and there are all kinds of easter eggs dotted in the trilogy for readers of the comics. 

One of the biggest assets of the trilogy is its lead actor, Tobey Maguire.   

 

It’s an inspired piece of casting: Tobey is credibly nerdish as Peter Parker, and has a physicality that suits Spider-Man, very much in line with the way that Steve Ditko drew him — he’s got a wiry build, not a muscle man’s.  

 

Maguire convinces as a harried young man trying to do the best he can, with a touch of puppy dog in his genetic make-up, quizzical at the curve balls life throws him.  And if he doesn’t always perform to his best as Spider-Man, that’s because in a lot of the longshots when he’s swooping through the city you’re actually looking at a digital simulation that sometimes has a rubbery feel. Other actors also turn in strong performances.  Kirsten Dunst is delectable as Mary Jane, and has her own character arc across the trilogy, experiencing the ups and downs of the acting profession, falling for Spidey and discovering that he and Peter are one and the same.  She has such a transparently good heart that it’s credible when, under her watchful eye, a bank employee puts back cash that bursts out everywhere during a robbery.  Of the supporting characters, the best is newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, brilliantly brought to life by actor J.K. Simmons, a foghorn-voiced penny-chiselling petty tyrant who hires Peter Parker to take photos of Spider-Man, only to use them in a campaign against Parker’s alter ego.  Which is typical of Peter’s luck, and gives rise to some great scenes in the offices of the Daily Bugle. The third film sees a rival compete with Peter to bring images of Spidey to Jonah’s attention — Eddie Brock, whose emnity towards Parker has tragic consequences. 

The relationship between Peter and Mary Jane is at the heart of the films.  That and the bond between Peter and Aunt May provides an emotional core to the story that grounds it in recognisable human feelings, important when there’d otherwise be a danger of getting lost in larger than life action.  One of the keynotes is a special moment between Spidey, hanging upside down, and Mary Jane, who pulls up the bottom half of his mask to give the hero an iconic kiss.    

 Comparing that kiss to one from her beau in the second film proves to Mary Jane that she really isn’t committed to the relationship — but she doesn’t get to kiss Peter and discover the whizzbang she feels when they lock lips as that’s when the bad guy turns up, a perennial problem of dating superheroes.  And the kiss is a touchstone once again when Spidey demonstrates the same move with a rival in front of a crowd celebrating what he’s done for New York — the city might be impressed, all Mary Jane sees is Peter cheapening ‘their’ kiss.  Impressive, on director Sam Raimi’s part, that something so apparently simple can be called back through the trilogy to demonstrate different facets of Peter and Mary Jane’s romance over time. 

Raimi is an interesting director, who started out with the horror classic Evil Dead, but is also a pal of the Coen Brothers, co-writing their The Hudsucker Proxy and being a sounding board for them as they are for him.  He’s more steeped in pop culture than the Coens, with a love for comics and tv and genre films that clearly comes out in his own work: the first Evil Dead film (which Joel Coen worked on) was very much a cheap horror, its sequel had comic elements to give it broader appeal, and he’s followed that pattern since: shocks leavened by humour, as seen to good effect in Drag Me To Hell. Maybe it’s Raimi’s relish for pulp fiction that makes him so adept at handling villains.  None are better than the second film’s bad guy, Doctor Octopus, played magnificently by Alfred Molina.  He starts out as anything but plain old Otto Octavius, a scientist dedicated to harnessing fusion technology to create cheap power for the world.  But as soon as he declares that he holds “the power of the sun in the palm of my hand” you know that hubris is going to bite him on the ass.  And it does.  An experiment — funded by Norman Osborn’s son, and Peter’s friend, Harry — goes wrong.  Result: the four robotic limbs that Otto uses for his experiments are fused to him, and lose the ability to be overridden by his conscious mind.  The snakish extensions are an amazing creation, and bring out a darker side of Otto, fuelled by the death of his wife in the experiment that went wrong.  He’s a tragic figure, and one who with Spider’s guidance comes to redeem himself when it counts, humanity winning out over baser instincts, saying with dignity “I will not die a monster” as he seeks to right what he has done. 

The third film is perhaps weakened by having three villains.  Sandman is a stunning creation, run of the mill baddie Flint Marko escaping from the cops and leaping into a pile of sand that’s being used for an experiment (those scientists insist on messing with forces they can’t comprehend).  He gets zapped, and becomes a creature of sand, the effects for this transformation first class, and used to convey pathos as well. Less successful is the alien symbiote that turns Spider-Man’s costume black and boosts his powers, before moving onto another host in the form of photographer rival Eddie Brock.    

When the symbiote is with Spidey it’s a brilliant opportunity to showcase more of Tobey Maguire’s range, as a darkly seductive side to Peter comes to the surface, seen to fantastic effect in a scene set in a jazz bar where Mary Jane is singing.  Peter saunters in, accompanies her on piano (‘does whatever a spider can’ evidently includes keyboard wizardry), and launches into a dance routine in which he humiliates Mary Jane by flirting with a love rival in front of her.  The cad. But when Eddie Brock bonds with the symbiote, it’s not so interesting. 

Except, that is, for the matter of his defeat.  The crittur turns out to be vulnerable to certain sound frequencies, which Spider-Man discovers by accident when he wallops the Brock symbiote with a hollow metal pole.  Realising it’s effective, Spidey gets a bunch of similar poles and puts Eddie within a circle of them — the first time to my knowledge that an enemy has been defeated by tuned percussion since my uncle Len played the Mike Oldfield album Tubular Bells to drown out the carol singers at his door. 

The final villain of the trio is Green Goblin.  Kind of.  Norman Osborn died in the first film, and son Harry replaces him in the third.  But only after he has amnesia and forgets that he hates Peter, reigniting their former friendship for a while.  It’s a cute device, and of course it doesn’t last — Harry realises what the score is, and sets out to avenge his dad…or is that extend the franchise given the merchandising undertones of all this?  In the end, Harry has a change of heart and pairs up with Spidey to take on Sandman and the symbiote-boosted Eddie Brock. If it all seems rather fraught and melodramatic, it works because these costumed weirdos stay true to their characters.  Harry Osborn reverts to being Peter’s good pal.  Otto Octavius reasserts control over his serpentine limbs and dies a hero.  Sandman is forgiven by Peter for his involvement in Ben’s death and gets to live on, free to love the daughter he misses so much.  It’s only the symbiote that dies, and good riddance: it’s icky.  Besides, its function is to bring out the worst in people. 

The Spider-Man trilogy is a fine addition to the superhero movie canon, one of its more honorable entries given the amount of garbage out there (I’m looking at you Catwoman, you Daredevil, and — sad to say — Fantastic Four, whose comics can be fine stuff).  It’s a kinetic funfair ride with Spidey swooping between buildings, having cool fights in alleys, and on and in subway trains zooming through the metropolis, zinging out one-liners as he does.  What could be more fun?  Add an ongoing romance with a great looking girlfriend that takes us from teenage crush to real relationship with credible problems, and you’ve got a series that suits both genders, and every age.  Perfect family viewing, and worth going back to for some of the subtleties Raimi and his writers bring to the films that give the films a lingering fizz you might not be expecting. 

Copyright Adrian Reynolds, January 2010

THE MOVIES: 

Spider-Man (2002): Screenplay by David Koepp. Directed by Sam Raimi. 

Spider-Man 2 (2004):  Screen story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar & Michael Chabon, screenplay by Alvin Sergeant.  

Spider-Man 3 (2007): Screenplay & screen story by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi; screenplay by Alvin Sergeant. Directed by Sam Raimi.  

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