One Liner Review:  

Director Sam Raimi delivers the corny, campy fun that was needed to launch this genre, and really get superhero movies rolling.

Brief Review:

This is by no means a great movie, and yet it does a lot for the genre while towing the line between campiness and silliness. Director Sam Raimi shows that if anyone knows how to do camp and is able to pull it off, it’s him. The movie is goofy fun in all of the right ways, including over the top dialogue, characters, and a villain who looks and sounds like he’s from the Saturday morning cartoons. Only Raimi never lets his movie get too basic, or too neutered and family-friendly. Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin might be silly at times, but he’s still somewhat menacing. And there’s so much happening in the story here that it’s hard to get stuck on any one moment. The tone and atmosphere might be a little ridiculous at times, but the fun is still there. The action is entertaining, and the movie keep energized the whole way through.

REVIEW:

Not counting the Richard Donner Superman movies (from the seventies,) or the Tim Burton Batman movies (from the late eighties-early nineties,) there are three Superhero movies that deserve credit for really launching the genre. And by genre, I mean the mega storm of superhero films (and Marvel in particular,) that we are still smack in the middle of to this day. Those three movies are Blade, X-Men and Spider Man. Each was two years apart. Blade was in 1998, X-Men in 2000, and Spider Man in 2002. Those three are the originals, whereas the Superman and Batman movies were like ancestors. Blade got things started, although many people don’t even consider that a superhero movie, and it’s R rating doesn’t help. Then X-Men really showed that a superhero movie could both feature an ensemble and be taken seriously. It was that  movie more than any other, that probably  deserves the most credit. And then Spider Man, launched, giving us the first big solo superhero film of this new wave. And suddenly the public was captivated. There was no going back.

Spider Man was directed by Sam Raimi, who is about as unconventional of a choice as you can get. Raimi was a horror movie director. And his horror movies were campy as hell. He fused the basic tropes of classic horror films (a zombie-like invasion on characters stuck in a cabin,) with elements of silly humor. His Evil Dead trilogy was an experimentation of how to do the genre in all different ways, with each movie having a different feel. And Raimi continued that genre hopping, making movies like The Quick and the Dead (a western,) A Simple Plan (A film noir,) The Gift (a thriller,) and Dark Man (a superhero movie.) His movies were strange, no doubt, but they definitely showed how talented he was. Here was a guy who could move in between genres, and pretty much always turn out quality.

And so, despite interest from a long list of other directors, including James Cameron and David Fincher, the studio went with Raimi.. And what we got is a movie as a result, is definitely a very Raimi film. There are no eyeballs flying through the air (like in Evil Dead 2,) but this one sure does go all out on the campiness. We’re talking about bright colors, cackling villains, ridiculous costumes, intentionally corny dialogue, and over the top performances. Now all of these things might sound like insults. But in Raimi’s hands, they are not. He knows how to do camp, so that it’s actually kind of funny. At least some of time. There’s a huge difference between the campiness here and the kind we get in something like Joel Schumacher Batman territory. In those movies, almost every line is a terrible pun, and the characters and plot elements don’t make any sense at all. Consider the brain waves, TV antennae thing in Batman Forever. And that was the more reasonable of the Shumacher films. If you’re gonna make a campy movie, Sam Raimi is the best in the business. He’s one of the only directors out there who knows how to do it just right, and with Spiderman, he comes pretty close to doing just that.

So now let’s get into the movie and figure out exactly why this one works, despite lots of it not quite holding up today nearly as well as it once did. The movie works in large part because of how basic it’s ideas are and how quick it keeps things moving at all times. The opening credits alone get us into the excitement with animated webs and titles that get all caught and shaken up by then. And we are rapidly whisked from those titles to a street scene of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire,) running for the bus. It’s a school bus filled with unpleasant teenagers who laugh at Parker running to catch up. Even the bus driver is in on the joke, driving away from Parker and laughing along with the kids. It is only Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst,) who has some heart and sympathy, and she leaves her seat to speak with the bus driver and ask him to stop the bus. Of course that seat she leaves happens to be next to the greatest jock in school (Flash Thompson,) who is also the coolest kid, and also the meanest bully. Talk about hitting all the cliches.

From the bus scene to a field trip, the pace continues to move as Parker and his fellow students arrive at Columbia University to learn about genetically altered spiders. Here the movie starts to slow down for a moment or two, introducing us to Harry Osbourne (James Franco,) and his father (Norman, played by Willem Dafoe,) and also making time for humor throughout the tour of the labs. One funny moment comes when Parker tells Harry something about spiders and then Harry uses that information almost immediately to flirt with Mary Jane. There are also some funny moments from the teacher here, who is all about discipline and catching the kids when they are talking and being rude during the presentation. The movie is trying to do a lot here, including having Parker take pictures of students for the year book. And then, of course, there’s the moment he gets bit by the spider, shot from the spider’s point of view, as it sneaks down a web and lands right onto Parker’s hand.

 

Meanwhile, we also begin a storyline involving Norman’s struggles with his own company, Oscorp. This is a military weapons company that designs and creates the weapons and then tries to get the military to buy them. Only they’re not having any luck. Norman works on a super soldier glider and armored outfit, but the military general who comes to visit isn’t interested. And he doesn’t exactly hide his hatred of Norman either. This is the over the top kind of stuff. Not just the general, but also the members of Norman’s board who push him out and tell him he’s being fired from his own company. Norman, meanwhile, is conducting his own experiments with a canisters of poisonous green gas that make him into a monster of sorts. These chemicals warp his brain and make him a killer.

 

And while all of this is happening, Peter is learning all about his new abilities. He wakes up and suddenly has muscles. When he puts on his glasses, he can’t see, but without them his vision is perfect. The way all of this is shown to us is pretty great. And he shoots webs organically out of his wrists. This is something pretty wild that the movie doesn’t explore enough. The comic books Spider Man developed web shooters scientifically as a mechanical device. That’s the way it happens in all of the other movies and incarnations of the character too. But here, it’s organic, which is definitely different and kind of cool. Only they don’t explain it enough. For example, are their holes in Peter’s wrists? Where exactly do the webs comes out? What we do get is a ton of scenes of him learning to use his powers, from the ones that happens when he’s alone on a rooftop to the ones that happen at school, catching objects on a tray, shooting a web that hits a lunch tray and swings it into Flash’s back (accidentally,) or watching Parker fight Flash by the school lockers, mostly by dodging his punches or doing a flip when a guy charges right at him.

 

When Parter is ready to take things up a notch and push himself with his new abilities, he takes to a wrestling match, looking to make some money and buy a car. Here is where Raimi really starts to put his touches in, with the ridiculous lighting and introductions to characters at the match. Parker fights Bone Saw, played by real life wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage, and the whole sequence is a lot of fun. So are the scenes afterwards, when Parker goes after the. man who killed his Uncle and left him in the street. This is where we absolutely get Raimi doing his thing. From the scenes of Parker scaling the sides of buildings at night to the scenes of him swinging from one web to another, without actually knowing that another web is about to pop out, as he seems to be heading right into a building, it is all stylistically done. Even the scenes of Parker designing his costume are handled in an exciting way with Raimi throwing all kids of images at the scene, including a cartoon spider icon (the icon that will be worn on Spidey’s chest,) as it comes zooming right at the audience.

 

But not all costumes can be great, and the Green Goblin’s costume here is completely dopey. From the open mouth on the mask to the way you can see Dafoe’s mouth and eyes moving inside of it, nothing about this costume really works. It looks right out of the Power Rangers or some other limited budget, B movie, action film. But even if the costume is lousy, they sure did get the right actor for the part. Dafoe looks like a goblin even without the mask. And his multiple personality sequences are definitely entertaining. His cackling is pretty ridiculous, of course, but this movie was made in a different time, before the Christopher Nolan Batman movies or the birth of the MCU, and superhero movies were naturally more silly than they are today. Even Tim Burton’s Batman movies were cloaked in over the top set pieces and ideas, even if the movies themselves featured dark tones.

 

The story and action here both work, and together they propel the movie along when dialogue, characters, or anything else might start to feel cheesy from time to time. Mary Jane is used in all kinds of ways here to rile Parker up. She’s the love of his life and the woman he’s been pining over since he was a boy, and in this movie Parker watches as she goes from being with his worst enemy, (Flash, the bully,) to being with his best friend, Harry. And Parker is very close to these situation because he is living with Harry, as the group of friends graduate high school about halfway through the movie and then Parker and Harry get an apartment together. It’s this living together situation that gets Norman Osborne to discover Parker’s secret when he comes to dinner at their place and notices something about Parker that gives him away. It all works. The ideas connect. And the action is fun too, even when it does cheat from time to time. For example, the situation where Parker is meant to choose between saving Mary Jane or a trolley full of kids (which is right out of Batman Forever, and solved in the same cheating way here, of having the character just save both.) It was finally the Dark Knight that gave us this ultimatum situation for a third time, and got actually got it right, when Batman had to choose between saving Rachel or Harvey Dent. But even still, most of the action in Spider Man works. And the setting of the final showdown, as well as everything that happens there is spectacular. This is a good movie. We remember it as better than it actually was, because of the nostalgia behind it being the first, but despite its flaws, it is still a lot of fun.