Thursday, 8 May 2014

Revisiting the Spider-Man Trilogy

2012 was undoubtedly the year of the comic book movie with a blockbuster season that saw Marvel bring together all of it's greatest heroes in one film for The Avengers, Christopher Nolan conclude his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises and Marc Webb reboot the Spider-Man franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man.

The Avengers ran away with the title of best comic book film that summer, and for some reason most people maintain that The Dark Knight Rises was a strong second place and equally great. As a result it became the cool thing to hate on The Amazing Spider-Man. I'm not claiming that the film was without flaws or on par with The Avengers, but it was a much better film than many considered it and suffered greatly from being released amongst such heavy-hitters that had the advantage of being hyped up by previous successful films in their respective series'.

Three weeks ago, and then again last week, I went to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film which I was incredibly excited for and enjoyed just as much as the first. Unfortunately it seems that the general consensus on this series is staying strong and I've seen a steady stream of hate being thrown at the sequel. A common statement being tossed about by said 'haters' is that Webb's films will never match the greatness of Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films (I think we all know of his third films reputation), and so I thought it was time to revisit Raimi's trilogy and see exactly what Webb's films are supposedly failing to live up to.

Sam Raimi // 2002 // 121 mins

Telling the origins of a superhero can be a problematic task as however interesting said origin is, doing the story justice usually results in a slow pace as we patiently wait for the would-be hero to don his costume and take part in large scale battles with super villains. Just fifteen minutes into Spider-Man Tobey Maguire's nerdy Peter Parker has been bitten by the genetically enhanced super-spider that will give him arachnid-like abilities, and Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn has injected himself with a radical, untested formula that will warp his mind and bring about the villainous Green Goblin persona that makes him commit murderous acts. This surprisingly brisk pacing does not, however, continue as the film proceeds to plod along through a series of unrelated and uninteresting events.

The main problem here is Tobey Maguire, who fails to convince as Peter. Pre-Spiderman Parker should be an endearing geek that we can root for, but Maguire, along with most of the cast, opts for a more pantomimic portrayal of his character and comes across as too much of a dweeb to ever be endearing. Willem Dafoe should have been perfect as the Green Goblin, but also seems to have been bitten by the pantomime bug, struggling to make Normans personality disorder mood swings convincing. Then, when he is finally able to go full-throttle into the villainous role, he is restricted to a hideous metallic goblin suit that hides is face and distorts his sinister voice; making the casting of Dafoe seem fairly redundant. Supporting; Kirsten Dunst is decent but forgettable as Mary-Jane a prolific scream-queen and the love of Peter's life, James Franco is slightly better as Norman's put-upon son and Peter's best only friend Harry and Rosemary Harris does the best that anyone else could with Aunt May who doesn't have anything to do besides get upset one time and then scream another time.

Peter discovering his powers is an uneven mess that has him effortlessly wall-running his way downstairs one scene and then looking amazed that he can dodge a guys fist the next. It's also an incredibly drawn-out process that fails to maintain interest in the build up to him actually becoming Spider-Man. Obviously technical limitations of the time should always be taken into account when watching an older film, but the effects here are often distractingly dated, and shots of Maguire mid-air and waving his arms around aimlessly that are supposed to depict him swinging around the city are just plain ridiculous. Spider-Man is often considered the most humourous of Marvel's heroes, but the humour here consistently misses the mark, with the funniest moments being an unintentional product of the cheesiness this film has been doused in.

It's a shame that this film isn't better, but this is clearly Marvel finding it's cinematic footing and while it is certainly a sub-par film there is the hint of potential that was never fully tapped into it. It also features two truly terrible death scenes, both of which should presumably carry some weight, but really, really don't.

Spider-Man 2
Sam Raimi // 2004 // 127 mins

Two years after gaining his powers and fighting his best friend's father in a confrontation that ended in Norman's death, Peter is struggling to juggle his life as a student at college and his extra-cirruicular activities as Spider-Man. At the same time, Dr Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a renowned professor that Peter is planning to write a college paper on, is involved in a disastrous experiment that leaves him under the control of four murderous, bionic tentacles that he had created to help mankind.

Many of the problems that bogged down the first instalment of this trilogy have carried over to this follow-up. Maguire once again fails to impress as a leading man and action hero and his lack of chemistry with Kirsten Dunst also dulls any spark around this would-be romance (that never actually seems to be romantic in any way). James Franco as the orphaned Harry Osborn is now reduced to a one-note character who spends the majority of his screen time declaring revenge against Spider-Man for what happened to his father, very often through the exact same, repeated piece of dialogue. The one performance that elicits any kind of interest is Alfred Molina as the villain, Doctor Octopus. Despite similarities to Dafoe's Green Goblin (a tragic scientist who develops a Jekyll/Hyde split-persona through a bionic costume that controls him) he manages to prove himself as a worthy adversary. A scene showing the brutal nature of his bionic arms allows Raimi to tap into his horror roots, but what could have been an extremely dark and effective sequence is undermined by countless cringe-inducing close-ups of doctors and nurses screaming in the most over the top fashion.

The bizarre decision to make Peter's webbing come from his body rather than a device he creates himself is expanded here through a completely unnecessary sub-plot that has him discover his powers only work when he feels confident. This is nothing more than the writers padding out the script and it shows. It is a poor attempt at giving Peter some extra turmoil that could have easily been achieved by fleshing out his troubles with both Mary-Jane and Harry, but instead takes precedence over both of these personal conflicts and in doing so lessens the drama surrounding these supporting characters.

The special effects take a clear step forward, with Doc Ock's tentacles being the the films biggest success. The score is decent enough but, much like in the first Spider-Man, Elfman's distinct sound means that it all feels a bit too similar to Tim Burton's Batman film's. Their is never any real sense of threat to any of Ock's actions as once again the only two people in New York City that get targeted by the villain are Mary-Jane and Aunt May, and the franchises unwaveringly light tone would never allow anything bad to happen to either of them.

Just like it's predecessor Spider-Man 2 feels like a wasted opportunity. Molina's performance isn't note-perfect but it is far and away the most impressive and exciting of the series, sadly his work is let down by bad direction, a shoddy script and a collection of lacklustre performances from his peers.

Spider-Man 3
Sam Raimi // 2007 // 139 mins

Where the first two films in this trilogy held great potential but were dragged down by questionable choices in direction and performance Spider-Man 3 revels in it's own farce, taking everything that was bad about it's predecessors and amplifying them to unbearable levels.

To offer a plot synopsis would be to give credit where none is due and suggest that this film has an overarching structure and direction. It doesn't. Instead, the film disregards many story lines that have been building over the course of the trilogy and downplays them in favour of cramming in a host of characters and plots that could easily have filled their own separate trilogy. This is the film that tainted the use of multiple villains in a superhero film, and has become the calling card for anyone who protests the use of more than a single antagonist in a film. The fact is that this film does not fail because of the number of villains it has, it fails because it has three villains with completely different stories that in no way blend together until painfully contrived unions are made in the final act in order to tie up these countless story strands with a neat bow.

Harry Osborn adopting the New Goblin persona should have been an emotional and affecting story due to his relationship with Peter and the fact that the last two films had been building to this. Instead he gets one early fight sequence loaded with terrible CGI and then hits his head and forgets everything that has happened over the last two films only to regain his memories a few scenes later and revert back to a maniac only to then change his mind about Peter and die a hero (sorry, spoilers). This complete betrayal of his character arc is both a disservice to the fans and to Franco, who has been one of the only consistent aspects of the franchise. The awfulness doesn't stop there though. The epic romance that was never really a romance between Peter and MJ is finally allowed to blossom for a whole twenty minutes before more pointless drama swiftly splits them up for the majority of the films runtime. Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only love interest who could rival MJ has also been shoe-horned in as a source of distraction for Peter and jealousy for MJ, with not effort at all to make her even slightly remarkable or more than a generic pretty girl who shows up every now and then.

Then there are the other two villains. Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman is a brave choice given his less iconic standing amongst Spidey's rouges, but he never seems more than a common thug with a gimmick despite having a solid personal conflict and a poorly contrived connection to Spider-Man's origins. He does boast the great honour of being the focus of the single scene in this film that I actually liked, which comes in the form of his re-birth as the sandy villain. It is a perfectly choreographed single shot that rotates around him as he struggles to reform into his human shape accompanied by the best piece of music made for the entire series, and is only let down by CGI that unfortunately does not hold up too well today.

The introduction of Venom and the black Spider-suit should have been awarded it's own film if only for it's sheer popularity amongst fans. Unfortunately the entire story is completely butchered by the decision to have the symbiote transform Peter into a goth version of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Career-worst acting from the regularly terrible Tobey Maguire, coupled with painfully cringe-worthy dance numbers make a mockery of a well loved comic storyline. For Venom to only then occupy the very final scenes of the film, played by the equally awful Topher Grace, just adds insult to injury and seals the fate of this film as one best forgotten.

There are countless other aspects of this film that are just as noteworthy in their crapiness, Bruce Cambell's longest and worst cameo of the three films for example, but it should simply suffice to say that there really are no redeeming features in this film and it fully deserves the terrible reputation it received.

Obviously it goes without saying that all opinions about any given film are entirely subjective and personal to each viewer. However I have developed a very personal anger over the countless comments I have read about how Marc Webb's Spider-Man films will never be as good as Raimi's.

I know that I will not be able to change anyones mind about these films, but I felt an obligation to give my two cents on the films that everybody seems to hold in such high esteem, as somebody who really fails to see what is so great about them. I'm sure many have a nostalgic fondness for these films, but for me they are just 7+ hours of girls screaming, Tobey Maguire looking goofy, cheesy one-liners, overacting and more girls screaming.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Aha! I don't think I was ever really a fan of these films but yeah, when the third came out I was definitely old enough to recognise how awful it was.

  2. Gotta say, I think you're underselling Spider-man 2 quite a bit! Still an ace superhero film. But the third one - yeah, it's pretty crap. And that's putting it lightly!

    1. Of the three, Spider-Man 2 was the one I most wanted to rewatch because most people do really love it, but it still did nothing for me. I just can't get past how campy/cheesy the whole series is. I agree with most that Molina was a great villain though.