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This summer Peter Parker is making his second MCU appearance in his first MCU solo movie. This has really been a long time coming, considering Spider-Man’s place in Marvel Comics: even if Spider-Man isn’t the greatest comic book superhero ever, he is certainly the most bankable one! When Marvel sold off the rights to many of their characters back in the ‘90s, Sony grabbed up the rights to Spider-Man and turned them into five different movies. In the 5 weeks before Spider-Man: Homecoming is released in July, I am going to go through those five movies and review them. I’ve seen all of these movies before (maybe just bits and pieces of Spider-Man 2 and 3), but I’m going to rewatch them all to give my thoughts.
Today, we are kicking it off with the original Spider-Man.
Ah, Spider-Man. I forgot just how campy you are. There are so many moments that are just so dumb that they are funny—and a lot of them involve Willem Dafoe. I’m pretty sure that Sam Raimi just told Willem Dafoe to “act natural,” started rolling the film, and just worked it into the script afterward! The level of melodrama that he brings to the character of Norman Osborne is absolutely ridiculous, particularly when he is arguing with himself. And yet, that level of melodrama and over-the-top acting really does work for the villain in this movie. Both in terms of acting and in terms of costume, the Green Goblin himself looks like he just stepped right out of a comic book—as does Spider-Man.
That is one of this movie’s best qualities: it is a very “comic book-y” movie. There are so many comic book movies that try to avoid looking like their source material that is it refreshing to see a comic book movie embrace the style of comics. It is also nice to see a comic book movie with so many bright, flashy colors, instead of muting everything. I understand why the modern comic book movies change their color palette so much—it makes it more “realistic”—but the bright colors work really well with Spider-Man.
Tobey Maguire’s take on Peter Parker is pretty much what I grew up with: Peter is a shy nerd who suddenly loses his inhibitions when he puts on a spider costume. On the first part, this movie is excellent; I’m pretty sure Tobey Maguire was the original bullied nerd! By comparison to Willem Dafoe, he is extremely subdued (but by comparison to him, anyone is extremely subdued!) and doesn’t show nearly the same range of excitement and emotion. However, what he does show feels very natural, even if it involves a little too much crying. He isn’t a bad Spider-Man, at least when it’s actually him and not a CGI construct, but he really does stand out as Peter.
The effects are very much “of the times.” In several places the effects look really good and stand up surprisingly well for being an early-2000s movie. When Peter is first discovering his powers and jumping across rooftops it looks fairly real, even it is obvious that this is special effects. Of course, there are also plenty of places where to looks like everything is suddenly computer-generated and it feels like we’ve accidently changed the channel to a Spider-Man cartoon. However, this was what we had to expect at this time. The effects for this movie are not as bad as some of the terrible movie effects from the period, and they are probably about as good as anything at this time. Looking back 15 years later, these effects are really dated, but the first Iron Man movie also looks pretty dated when you watch it 10 years later!
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The plotting of the movie is very tight and very good. I like how closely the movie parallels the development of its hero and its villain: both receive their powers and are given a choice: use them for their own benefit or for the benefit of others. Peter chooses to use them for himself, sees the consequences, and chooses to help others; Osborne uses them for himself and continues using them to hurt others. This is the main difference between them: Peter makes the choice to be better, and then must live with the consequences as the Green Goblin works his way through first Aunt May and then MJ to “punish” Peter for refusing to join him.
This movie as a whole is a lot of fun, but there are still plenty of elements that don’t work so well for me.
Harry’s character in this movie is not given nearly the amount of development that he perhaps deserves. His entire character in this movie is the jerk who “steals” the girl his best friend has a crush on and doesn’t bother to tell him. Then he can’t stand up to his father when he insults that girl, leading to her leaving him and going to his best friend, at which point he is just bitter and upset—when it’s kind of his fault in the first place. That Harry would be eager to please his father and unable to stand up to him is not terribly surprising. That Harry would then turn around and get angry at Peter for “stealing” the girl he’s had a crush on for 10 years, is.
The relationship drama in this movie is another of those things that just doesn’t work for me, at least not now. Kirsten Dunst plays a good Mary Jane—though I didn’t realize MJ was such a screamer! However, I’m not sure about the character itself. Half the time she comes across as the stereotypical “girl next door”; the other half she… isn’t. That her father is abusive and her parents fight could have been an interesting element to her character if they explored it more, but as it is I don’t know what purpose it serves. The number of times that Peter mistakes MJ waving to someone else as directed at him is kind of funny, but they do it a little too often. And why is she flirting with everyone when she always seems to have a boyfriend? Of course, that last bit does feel natural to the source material: Mary Jane was created to be the embodiment of what a couple slightly-out-of-touch comic book creators thought “sex appeal” meant!
But why does all the Mary Jane stuff have to feel like such a soap opera? And why on earth would she be thinking about the creepy stalker next door when she’s about to die? Half the movie she acts like he doesn’t exist, and he’s her true love in this moment of crisis?
The bullying in the high school scenes is also really over the top. I remember being in high school when this came out, and I’m pretty sure my high school wasn’t anything like this kind of bullying.
Finally, the scene of regular New Yorkers helping Spider-Man is all kinds of sweet and motivational (particularly in this post-9/11 environment), but there was one thing the regular guy said that just didn’t make sense: he shouts at the Green Goblin something to the effect of “why are you messing with a guy trying to save a bunch of kids?” The only response that comes to mind is, “BECAUSE HE TRIED TO KILL THE KIDS IN THE FIRST PLACE!” It’s disappointing that this has to become a common thing for Spider-Man movies—regular people helping him—but in this first movie it really does feel like a novel concept.
Spider-Man is absurdly dated, watching it 15 years after its original release, but we really can look at it as one of the first modern comic book movies and a precursor of the current CBM boom. It’s faithful to its source material and embraces the comic book origin. It throws in all the cheeky little nods to the comics (everyone and their Bruce Campbell calls Spidey “amazing,” MJ calls Peter “Tiger,” The phrase “Web Head” gets used at least once). And on top of all that, it is actually a good quality movie in its own right. For as campy as it is, it has surprising heart. If you are looking for something to get you hyped up before Spider-Man: Homecoming, you could certainly do worse than this!