The Amazing Spider-Man hits theaters today. It’s kind of funny to think that this is the fourth Spider-Man film released in just over a decade, especially when you consider that Marvel first sold the film rights to the character in 1985 and Spidey didn’t swing his way onto the big screen until 2002. Crawling his way through protracted legal battles, four movie studios, a half dozen directors and twice as many writers Spider-Man finally made it to the big time with three movies that each set a new opening day box office record when they were released. As the site’s resident Spider-Man expert, I’ll be taking a look back at those three films before I jump into seeing the new film at some point this week.
Onward, true believers!
If you didn’t already know, Spider-Man’s my favorite super hero. What I like best about him is that he’s a normal guy forced into a spectacular situation. None of us were born on alien world or with powerful genetic mutations; and most of us don’t have vast family fortunes to be spent building suits of armor or training our bodies into crime-fighting perfection. But anyone of us could be bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly have to struggle with powers that we don’t know the best way to use. Top that off with the fact that he’s socially awkward and it’s very easy for the average comic reader to put themselves in Peter Parker’s shoes.
Star Tobey Maguire captures this everyman quality, maybe a little too well. I get that Peter Parker isn’t supposed to boisterous & charismatic, but Maguire’s performance comes across as a little bland. I didn’t think this when originally seeing the films, but it hit me as a revelation while watching Spider-Man 3 (more on that later.) Fortunately, business picks up when he transforms into Spider-Man although not as much as I’d like it to. One of Spidey’s defining character traits is that he’s a smart ass and that’s something that Tobey Maguire never fully captured.
On the other side of the good/evil spectrum, Willem Dafoe brilliantly captures the batshit insanity of Norman Osborn. It’s just a shame that the character’s costume has a frozen face mask that makes him look like a Power Rangers villain.
When Spider-Man first defeats him in their first encounter, I half expected this to happen:
The rest of the cast fills out with Kirsten Dunst as a passable Mary Jane Watson, James Franco as a wooden Harry Osborn, and Rosemary Harris as lovable old Aunt May. But the only pitch-perfect piece of casting in this J.K. Simmons as Daily Bugle boss J. Jonah Jameson. I know Amazing is a reboot of the series but if they cast anyone else in the role of JJJ for the sequels it’ll be a crime.
Director Sam Raimi, previously best known for the Evil Dead trilogy, balances just the right mix of action, drama, and comedy that a Spider-Man movie needs. This being Raimi’s first time working on a big budget blockbuster and the first time Spider-Man hit the big screen, you can tell there were a few kinks that didn’t get completely worked out. The special effects look a little cartoony and the acting leaves a little to be desired but overall this was a very fun movie that satisfied me as a long-time Spidey fan. It established the characters & the universe they lived in and only just started ball rolling. I remember seeing this and thinking, “Imagine what they could accomplish if they put the same kind of effort into the sequel.”
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
If the first movie was Sam Raimi & company learning how to make a Spider-Man movie, the sequel was them showing that they had mastered the concept. To this date, Spider-Man 2 is still the best super hero movie I’ve ever seen. The story elements of both Peter Parker & Spider-Man are equally compelling. One influences the other and makes it more important. From the lessons learned about power & responsibility in the first film you learn just how important being Spider-Man is. In this movie, you learn just how much that makes life suck for Peter Parker. Thanks to his extracurricular activities as Spider-Man he can’t hold a job, his grades are slipping, he can’t tell Mary Jane how he really feels about her, and everyone thinks he’s completely unreliable. But he can’t just stop being Spider-Man. As long as he’s got the power, he’s got the responsibility. That’s the theme that lies at the core of what the character is. This lesson is further reinforced when he does give up on Spidey for a while and sees how much worse things get without him.
The entire cast settles into their roles a bit more comfortable this time around, but the best performance here is Alfred Molina’s Dr. Otto Octavius. Octavius is a tormented genius who is willing to go to any means to prove that his ideas work and Molina pulls it off brilliantly. Everything about the character’s origin story is so well executed that you completely understand his feelings & motivations. You don’t root against him just because he’s the bad guy, you root against him because he’s going about things completely the wrong way and you understand why he has to be stopped.
The special effects are much more polished and the action sequences all have much more gravity than the original. Each confrontation between Spidey & Doc Ock is more thrilling than the last, especially the runaway train scene.
I really can’t think of anything I don’t like about this movie. I’ve heard some people complain that the scenes involving Peter’s powers failing him seemed unnecessary & out of place, but I think they serve to point out the tremendous psychological burden that being Spider-Man is and how Peter has to struggle to overcome it. Plus, it leads to this scene:
If Spider-Man was good & Spider-Man 2 was great, then Spider-Man 3 must be the best thing since sliced bread, right?
SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)
If sliced bread is a stinky, muddled pile of crap with way too many characters, needless subplots and incomprehensible casting then yeah, maybe Spider-Man 3 is better by comparison. It’s only a muddled pile of crap with way too many characters, needless subplots and incomprehensible casting. Whereas the last movie only introduced Doctor Octopus to play with the already established characters, this movie introduces five new characters and doesn’t really do a good job of fleshing out any of them. There’s the Sandman, Gwen Stacy, her father police Captain George Stacy, Eddie Brock, and Venom. There’s also Harry Osborn as a new Green Goblin that looks more like a mascot for Mountain Dew & the X Games than a goblin.
Flint Marko, also known as the Sandman is revealed to be the actual killer of Peter’s uncle Ben Parker and not the thief he failed to stop in the first movie. This would fundamentally change things, as him not stopping that particular thief and then that particular thief going on to kill Uncle Ben is the crux of every version of Spider-Man’s origin story. The movie fails to address that. Even more perplexing is when Marko apologizes and says he didn’t mean to do it and Spider-Man forgives him and lets him go.
Gwen Stacy is tossed in as a new love interest for Peter Parker. The first two movies were spent trying to get Peter & Mary Jane together and they only get about 25 minutes of romantic bliss before something comes along to tear them apart. Peter’s unknowingly bonding with an alien symbiote. In the comics it made him quick to anger and prone to violent mood swings. In Spider-Man 3, it turns him into a hipster douche with emo hair.
When Peter realizes he’s becoming too douchey for his own good he rids himself of the symbiote and it bonds with Eddie Brock, played by Topher Grace. The thought had never crossed my mind before, but seeing Grace in a Spider-Man movie I realized that he would have made a much better Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire. What he does not make, however, is a convincing Venom. It doesn’t help that we rarely actually get to see Venom’s face and instead have the symbiote retract to show Brock’s face whenever he’s talking.
The movie just tries to cram in far too much and turns the whole thing into a big mess. Ideally, you’d introduce the symbiote in one movie and then have that develop into the character of Venom in another. There’s definitely enough to him as a villain to warrant his own movie.
The best I can say about this movie is that it still looks great. Spider-Man 3 is just a hot mess.
Stay tuned for a review of the new movie, coming soon.