28 June 2012

WITH GREAT POWER...

I feel like ten years is about the shortest amount of time you need in order for a statement like this to come off as well-considered and lofty, rather than fannish hyperbole: the 2002 Spider-Man is, to me, the best comic book movie of the 21st Century. I mean something fairly specific by that statement: not that it is the best superhero movie (I consider that to be The Incredibles) nor that it is the best movie to incidentally, almost superficially, include superheroes and to derive from comic books (I see no reason to deny that honor to Christopher Nolan's Batman films). Instead, that Spider-Man is the comic book movie that most effectively, thrillingly, and most importantly, joyfully captures the essence of what reading a comic book is like - specifically, what reading the Silver Age comics of director Sam Raimi's youth was like, all bright pop colors and playfully obnoxious attitude and simple situations laden with the sorts of emotional trials a 12-year-old could easily grasp. It, and its first sequel are in this respect perhaps the most Stan Lee-ish of all modern comic book movies, and in a post-Batman Begins world, when a strained, gritty realism undergirds very nearly every superhero movie out there, even a straight-up fantasy like Thor, what most stands out about Spider-Man is how very good it is at being extravagantly fun.

This proves, as though it weren't obvious, that movies are best made by people who want to make them: Raimi's affection for Spider-Man, created by Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, was well-publicised at the time, and that affection is surpassing obvious in the care taken to get the thing "right", and in the sheer enthusiasm of how the scenes are assembled, a kind of "holy shit, can you believe we actually get to this?" sense of possibility (and perhaps that enthusiasm owes to how, in 2002, comic book movies were still a new thing, and not a dismally overplayed money machine, but that can't account for all of it). Simply put, it remains more entertaining than, basically, every other movie in the genre, and that's even factoring in some CGI visual effects that weren't exactly the very best thing in the whole wide world when the movie was new, and have aged rather terribly altogether. That's what passion and commitment will do for you: Raimi wanted to make a Spider-Man that would capture the high-energy, pulpy effervescence of Marvel when it was young and feisty, and that's exactly what he achieved, and whatever imperfections the film picks up along the way, they practically demand to be hand-waved aside with a brisk, "oh, but that doesn't matter".

A lot of things carry the film to that point, but we're going to start with one that, in my estimation, not only hasn't gotten enough credit over the years but is viewed as a downright problem in some quarters, and by that I mean the leading man, Tobey Maguire, a dewy-eyed 26-year-old when he played the quintessentially teenaged Peter Parker, nerd and social outcast who finds his fortunes changing when, on a class trip, he's bitten by an experimental spider that infects him with a genetic mutation, giving him the proportional strength of a spider, the ability to cling to walls using his hands, a precognitive awareness of danger, and the ability to shoot tendrils of webbing out of his wrists.

Now, Maguire is not the world's best actor. Nor its worst! I will defend the sharpness of his performance in Wonders Boys against all comers. But it is the case that for the most part, knowing that Maguire is in a movie should inspire none of us to think, "well, we're in safe hands now, thank the Lord". And that being the case, I still think he was quite possibly the best actor in his age bracket to play Peter - whether it would have been worth the hunt for an actor in the next bracket down we can leave aside as a question that doesn't matter - for the character is precisely attuned to all of Maguire's limitations as a performer. For one thing, Maguire isn't movie star pretty, and it is an essential component of Peter Parker's makeup that he is believably an outcast. This is something much harder to sell with a pretty person. Try to imagine Jake Gyllenhaal playing a socially discarded nerd (and he almost jumped into Maguire's shoes during the three-picture run); it doesn't work. But Maguire, who has a somewhat squishy face, and who always gives off the impression that it takes him a whole hell of a lot of work to keep his eyes all the way open, he looks a little bit funny. Besides that, there's the actual "acting" involved: what is Maguire's default performance mode, but to seem really enthusiastic and smiley but he does it in a way that's sort of grating and overdetermined and insincere? Is this not one of the very reasons that The Cider House Rules is an emotionally hollow slog? And yet, how would you expect someone to act when he is not very good at being socially outgoing, but wants very badly to become that way, and so he acts really open and happy and friendly even though it's unnatural to him? And thus it is that I find Maguire to fit this film's conception of Peter Parker like a glove. Maybe not so much its Spider-Man, who is required to be more confident and airy, but since Spider-Man is frequently played by a CGI cartoon, this is of little matter.

Hell, man, I even have nice things to say about Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, but I'll save them for the next movie.

At any rate, Maguire's Peter is thus exactly the kind of gormless, eager kid at the heart of Silver Age Spider-Man, and this ends up proving critical to the overall tone the movie creates: as much as Raimi and cinematographer Don Burgess's use of color, as much as the gaudy visual matches and echoes in the editing that rather niftily recall the use of comic book frames, as much as David Koepp's cheeky, quip-laden screenplay - and I would like to say that of all the blockbuster screenplays in Koepp's singularly inconsistent career, the only one that can even think of challenigng Spider-Man as his masterpiece is Jurassic Park - and Danny Elfman's largely anonymous but effectively high-spirited musical score. It's a big, busy movie, that is to say, with just enough hard-edged Raimisms to feel like a personal project with real meat to it and not just an exercise in fizzy good times: a steel cage wrestling match anchored by an unctuous Bruce Campbell, the film's most warped sequence and also its best; the '40s newsroom sensibility of the Daily Bugle scenes, with J.K. Simmons* doing his best Adolph Menjou in comic patter routines that could only have been wedged into a big effects-driven popcorn movie by a director who knows his genre experiments; the unmistakable B-horror sensibility accorded to the film's villain in those moments when he's not played by a post-production effect.

And oh! that villain. It is frequently held that Spider-Man 2 trumps its predecessor; I don't agree. Though it's a remarkably close race, and what decides it for me is Willem Dafoe's ecstatic performance as Norman Osborn, the greedy but basically moral industrialist who goes insane when he takes an unproven super soldier serum and fancies himself the Green Goblin, a masked beastie with a hoverboard and hugely explosive bombs. I would, without a second's hesitation, rank his performance alongside Ian McKellen's in the first two X-Men movies and Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight as one of the very best comic book villain turns in the current century. He is certainly bigger and daffier than either of those two men, but so is his movie. What is fantastic about the performance is the way that Dafoe modulates three distinct registers that are all in flux simultaneously, all of them larger than life: the smart, savvy businessman and emotionally absent father; the terrified paranoiac who can't cope with his own acts of villainy, and the grandiose, snarling monster who exults in tormenting others and being just plain bad. In one showboating scene - a gimme moment, but just because something is handed to an actor on a plate does not mean that actor cannot do exciting things with it - Dafoe has to play opposing sides of an argument in a mirror, and he does it as well as it gets to be done (with The Two Towers coming out months later, 2002 was a banner year for "insane villains arguing with themselves" scenes). He is fun, he is garish, he is hitting exactly the right level of "threatening but unrealistic" to fit in with the poppy texture of the movie as a whole.

To this end, let us consider the design of the Goblin himself: a big, plasticky shell that looks really damn dumb, and offers no chance for Dafoe to act with anything but his eyes and teeth, thus encouraging him to really play to the rafters; it's the brilliance of the movie in one body. Even in 2002, not many filmmakers would have let something as goofy-looking as that Goblin costume into their gigantic summer movie; but Raimi, a B-movie maker at heart then and always, understands the matinee appeal of a ridiculous monster. To hell with realism and prestigious gloss; sometimes, the thing that is fun is to watch a guy in a squirrelly monster suit flail at a guy in a red and blue rubber unitard. And it is because Raimi and company always went straight and true for what was fun and not what was respectable, that their Spider-Man still crackles and rushes along after a decade of comic book adaptations have staggered about ineffectually in its wake.

11 comments:

Rob Niven said...

I've been defending Raimi's first two Spider-Man movies for years! I'm so happy that you're having a look at them!

This was a great review but I can't help but feel like it cut off early. It seemed to me like you were just getting started. Where'd the rest of the review go?

Either way, can't wait for your look at the sequel!

MrRoivas said...

While I do really like the first movie, I must confess I follow mainstream consensus in finding the second one superior. This doesn't detract at all from the triumphs you draw out.

Though that goblin suit was so goddamned goofy that it was really pushing it, even in a film with this tone.

The.Watcher said...

"Try to imagine Jake Gyllenhaal playing a socially discarded nerd"

Donnie Darko?

Yeah, the first two Spider-Mans (Men?) were awesome, but I would still have to give the best comic book movie award to X2: X-Men United. To me, that's a masterpiece. It's quite interesting to see that 3 Marvel movies so far (or based on Marvel properties) have had 2 successful entries and a third one that sucked: X-Men, Spider-Man and Blade (I'll take a bullet for Blade 1 and 2). We've yet to see how Iron Man will fare with its third release next year.

Also, judging by the tone of the review, it's apparent that you value SM 1 above 2, which is interesting since the sequel is generally considered to be the superior movie. Can't wait for your next SM review to see your reasoning for that.

Tim said...

Rob- No, that was pretty much it. It is good for the soul to occasionally just gush in enthusiasm, and when I'd ran out of gush, I tried to get it wrapped up quicky, before I hit 2000 words.

MrRoivas- Admittedly, the goblin mask is incredibly dumb. I don't know, it amuses me greatly.

The.Watcher- My reasoning is, honestly, basically what I've already said: the films are so close to equal for me, and it mostly comes down to preferring both Dafoe as an actor and Norman Osborn as a character to Alfred Molina and Doc Ock.

Also, while there are many things I enjoy about Donnie Darko, I have to confess that Gyllnhaal's performance doesn't really convince me.

dfa said...

Late for the ball, yet I must say I agree with everything The.Watcher stated, and the second film in this franchise does indeed capture the dualistic nature of a superhero like no film ever has. The great lesson to me, from these films, is to cast again type; this can most clearly be seen with Ironman's choices of both heroes and villains. It was a painful lesson, but after Batman & Robin, I guess they fired every casting agent in town and hired more effective folks.

Rick said...

Having watched all three Spider-Man films for my own retrospective, I find that Spider-Man is loved, Spider-Man 3 is despised, but Spider-Man 2 splits the fans I know. Some love it, some hate it.

I first loved it when I saw it, but now I'm split down the middle on Spider-Man 2. I cannot say it is better than 1 but no question it's better than 3.

Caleb Wimble said...

As well as he suited the awkward teenage nerd element of Peter Parker, I found Maguire wholly unconvincing in his turn at the quintessentially snarky Spidey, someone's whose "incessant, prattling quips, "as the Vulture once put it, should reflect the layer of confidence – and even arrogance – Parker found behind the suit and powers. Maguire mostly just sounded like he was either stoned or half asleep. I've yet to see Garfield's take, but I have a feeling based on his past performances and interviews that he'll prove much more capable in that transformation than did his predecessor.

That said, I very much liked Raimi's Spider-Man, and while I think Avengers has now surpassed it in capturing that particular fun sense of comic book je ne sai pas quoi, I do consider it the best of the naughts in that regard by a long shot.

Gotta part with you on the Goblin costume though. There is "good, goofy fun" stupid and just plain stupid stupid. I'd have much preferred some wicked silly CGI elastic creation more in line with his comic masks, furling purple dunce cap and all.

David Greenwood said...

I can definitely understand why you prefer the first spidey film to the second, though I disagree for two major reasons. The CG action sequences in the first were just distractingly terrible, and those in the sequel were not just markedly improved, but in a different class altogether. I feel like the second film really allowed Raimi to get his Evil Dead on with some imaginative action, especially in the "Doc Ock massacring a ton of doctors" and "WTF insane battle on the side of a building" sequences.

But the real thing is this: I loved Spiderman when I saw it the first time, then took my girlfriend the next night. The second time, Maguire's sad-sack "I'm so burdened and suffering" performance combined with my knowledge of that painful shove-off of MJ that I knew what coming at the end cast a terrible pall over the entire film. I've never been able to fully enjoy it since. I just couldn't believe the Peter / MJ arc in the first film, given that I know damn well they end up an item. Some movies I come to for fun and a happy ending, and Spiderman ain't Batman, if you know what I'm saying. For that reason, I have much more enthusiasm for Spiderman 2 than the original.

I will concede that Dafoe as the Green Goblin is truly excellent, one of my favorite of his performances (up there with The Life Aquatic and Shadow of the Vampire)

kevin said...

Nice observation on Maguire's casting. I've always thought he was perfect for the role. Better than Andrew Garfield, anyway, who looks like a friggin' underwear model. Maguire kind of sucks when the script requires him to fire off Spider-Man's signature quips, but it seems that everyone realized this in time to tone down that aspect of the character for the second movie.

I have to disagree, though, that Dafoe as the Green Goblin is more compelling than Molina as Doc Ock. Dafoe is hammy and fun, but Molina manages to create a genuinely human and (dare I say it) tragic figure out of a character named "Doctor Octopus" with robot arms coming out of his back. Different tastes, I guess, but Molina's more low-key performance worked better for me. And he does get a few fun "crazy evil" moments to play with himself.

Overall, I think SM#2 is the stronger film. My problems with SM#1 is that it includes some moments that just plain don't work: the Goblin getting pelted with garbage by random New Yorkers at the bridge climax, for example, is pretty embarrassing and deflates all of the tension from the sequence.

Tim said...

Clearly, the rule is to write more about ten-year-old popcorn movies when I want to fire off comment threads.

dfa- Against-type casting is always my favorite, but I think there are counterexamples, too: McKellen as Magneto, Michael Caine as Alfred, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. I suspect the real lesson is hire good actors, something the latter Batman films do not have in abundance.

Rick- I find that fascinating - I don't think I've ever heard of somebody hating it. For me, they're both 9/10 films, only one is more 9.2, one is 8.9.

Caleb- I will spot you that Maguire falls flat on the sarcasm, but I also think that Raimi isn't trying to play that up as much as it looks, just from the trailers, as TASM is. Also, I have to say, I much prefer SM and SM2 to The Avengers in every way, but that is a taste thing.

As is the Goblin, clearly; I just have too much affection for the resolutely chintzy approach to filmmaking to let it go. It's the same reason I'd rather watch a Roger Corman creature made from $20 of felt and plastic eyes than the coolest CGI effect ever put in a movie.

David- You have reminded me of something I forgot completely to put in, and I even had a note that I wanted to: this movie has terrible opening and closing narration, that is so much gloomier and more serious than the movie can bear. I do absolutely hate the final scene.

Kevin- As you say, different tastes: the added human tragedy is actually what I like less about Doc Ock.

I agree that the crowd scene at the bridge doesn't work at all: my understanding is that it was added - embellished, anyway - as Raimi and Koepp's tribute to New York in the aftermath of 9/11, and it feels really forced.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

Man, I feel like I'm alone in the woods here, but I *really* disliked Spider-Man (1), and I say that as someone who grew up on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I've only seen SM1 once, so perhaps I need to re-visit it, but nothing in it really seemed to click, and I was completely distracted by: A) Maguire's colorless performance; B) the awful CGI; C) the Goblin's terrible costume; and D) the weird "expensive-yet-cheap" look to the film's sets and props; E) dull action sequences (seriously, I remembered *nothing* from this this film other than the character-centered moments like the upside-down kiss and the Goblin's argument with himself); and E) hell, the way the entire story was constructed. The whole film seemed to be drenched in flop-sweat.

That costume was so distractingly bad, I really wish they had gone with a Goblin who wears a cheap dime-store rubber mask. That would at least have had a kind of Michael Meyers creepshow quality to it, and it even makes a kind of sense given what the film presents about Osbourne's creation of the Goblin persona.

SM2 was much better. I truly do not understand Spider-Man fans who actually like the first film.