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Looking Back: Spider-Man (2002)

Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” was a game changer for comic book movies, as its staggering success, high caliber as an adaptation and overt (but never obnoxious) efforts at world building and franchise set-ups established the model Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” would maintain six years later. If Richard Donner’s “Superman- The Movie,” Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” were colossal hits that suggested the vast appeal of comic book cinema, then Raimi’s movie was the one that resulted in the all-hands-on-deck, we-gotta-make-one-of-these business model that rival studios jumped at. Raimi’s film, which is dated in some ways but timeless in others, still stands far above most in the comic book film genre for a simple but essential reason: it’s a character-driven story, emphasizing painful decision making over spectacle. Not for nothing, the most iconic moment in Raimi’s film isn’t one of the fleeting action scenes but a rain-soaked, upside kiss between a grateful damsel in distress and the young man who has been in love with her his whole life.

Tobey Maguire is the first actor to embody Spider-Man in a major motion picture, coming off his triumphant performances in “The Ice Storm,” “Pleasantville” and “Wonder Boys.” His Parker is a bullied loner, raised by his aunt and uncle and has been carrying a lifelong crush on his neighbor, Mary Jane (played with real feeling by Kirsten Dunst). Parker’s best friend, Harry (an alarmingly young and quite good James Franco) is also infatuated with “MJ,” though a bigger problem lies with his Harry’s father, Norman (played by Willem Dafoe). While Harry tries to delicately inform the nerdy Peter that he and Mary Jane are an item, Norman’s scientific experiments have caused him to develop a split personality. Indeed, the name “Norman” is apropos, as the menacing Green Goblin persona lives within the haunted father who struggles to keep his insanity a secret. All of this develops as Parker is still recovery from that mysterious spider bite…

We’re now two Spideys removed from Tobey Maguire’s vulnerable, endearingly goofy take on Peter Parker but the depth in his performance still resonates. Everyone here looks a little too old to still be in high school, but Maguire, Dunst and Franco make me believe in the angst and struggles of their characters. Cliff Robertson is quite affecting reciting the film’s now-legendary piece of advice and J.K. Simmons is so sensational as J. Jonah Jameson, it’s a wonder why it took “Whiplash” to make him a household name. Raimi manages to assemble a supporting cast that includes Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Octavia Spencer, Elisabeth Banks, Lucy Lawless and the late, great “Macho Man” Randy Savage! There’s also a quick, unpretentious Stan Lee cameo (because this is a Marvel movie, after all) and an appearance by Macy Gray (because this movie was made in 2002, after all).

Looking at this film for the first time since the day it opened, I was happy to see how well it holds up. Danny Elfman’s score is better than I remembered, though some of the visual effects run hot and cold (particularly the shots of Parker doing early building hops after discovering his newly acquired powers). David Koepp’s screenplay keeps the events piling up, but this still feels sluggish in the early going. Yet, the zip in Raimi’s characteristically playful direction makes this feel more like one of his cinematic carnival rides than an impersonal studio product. At times, “Spider-Man” reflects the electric, funhouse mirror feel of his “Darkman” (still his best film outside the “Evil Dead” trilogy).

The portrayal of the Green Goblin as a Jekyll and Hyde figure was a real risk. It would have been easy (and, perhaps, ill considered) to have Dafoe sport the Green Goblin comic book designs and make-up. Instead, Dafoe, playing the “good” Norman, has sinister conversations with a devilish mirror image and the Green Goblin mask. It’s all pretty ridiculous but Dafoe (and the movie) has fun with it. Dafoe is too good an actor to ever play empty, one-note villainy and he avoids that trap here as well. A consistent quality to his take on the Green Goblin is that, while there is visible joy in his performance, he plays the role with total conviction. I especially liked the bit where the Green Goblin recites his take on “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” though it’s one of the few moments where the character openly evokes campiness. The scenes of the hero and villain conversing, with their faces masked and their arms doing most of the acting, sometimes resembles confrontations from “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” Still, I think Raimi’s movie gets away with it, because we truly care about the people behind the disguises.

The best scenes are the surprisingly brutal, mano y mano fight between Spider-Man and Green Goblin and the concluding sequence at a sad occasion. To address the former sequence- it’s always jarring to see a masked hero have their costume shredded and even more so to see a brawl with so much at stake, physically and emotionally. The latter sequence is what makes this truly special.

“Spider-Man” was not only the top grossing film of the summer of 2002 but the first significant post-9/11 blockbuster. Although set in New York, the film never references the recent tragedy, nor does it include the infamous scene (from the now-discarded teaser trailer) in which our hero uses the Twin Towers to aide a helicopter capture. Instead, while Raimi’s film avoids direct commentary on 9/11, it nevertheless meditates on the definition of a hero and healing from a crippling loss.

The climax takes place at a funeral, a most unusual setting for a summer comic book movie, and it’s a sad, beautiful and complex scene. The hero is struggling with his role as a savior of the city, considers the cost of taking the life of the villain responsible and decides not to give himself the happy ending he actually deserves. It’s a scene about survivor’s guilt, respecting the dead and doing the right thing, as hard as that sometimes is. Despite how somber and inconclusive this closer is, it leaves the viewer with such a rich, satisfying end (and, of course, a wide open door for the inevitable sequels). Raimi’s film finishes not with a cynical advertisement for a franchise to come but a powerful confirmation that it fully understands who Peter Parker (and Spider-Man) truly is.

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