Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Retro-Review: Spider-Man

 Hey, so maybe you've heard there's a Spider-Man movie coming out next month. Specifically, The Amazing Spider-Man is the first major "reboot" of a comic book franchise since Batman Begins erased all the lingering stench of Batman and Robin from out memories*. I've been noticing quite a bit this summer that when I see "big" summer movies in theatres, audiences are enthusiastic for The Dark Knight Rises, Brave, and The Expendables 2, but the auditorium gets very quiet when the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man plays. It's not so much that a new director (Marc Webb) and a new Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) are jockeying for our attention, but that the movie seems to be retelling the "origin story" of how Parker becomes Spider-Man.

 I know ten years can seem like a while, but it turns out that audiences seem to remember Sam Raimi's Spider-Man after all, and the response to yet another "origin story," no matter how much it promises "untold secrets" is tepid at best. Mind you, this could just be a casual disinterest for now that suddenly turns into Spider-mania in early July, but even that is going to feel like a bit of a retread. Allow me to explain.

 Let's flash back to May of 2002, when Spider-Man kicked the door open for comic book movies. After the miserable Batman and Robin, the even worse Spawn, the cult following of Blade, and the okay-but-not-great first X-Men film, there was some question about whether comic book movies could hang with blockbuster Hollywood fare. It turned out that Sony had the answer, and it came from an unlikely source. At the time, despite having drifted away from horror films, director Sam Raimi was still best known as the creator of The Evil Dead series, and his only remotely "super hero" film was the gonzo Darkman.

 Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst also seemed like strange choices for Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, having appeared mostly in indie dramas or goofball comedies, but despite the unusual casting and unorthodox director, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp were able to do what even James Cameron couldn't: bring Spider-Man to the big screen in a big way.

  Spider-Man, while a little bumpy, is still a whole lot of fun. It stumbles a bit when it comes to the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) being a credible threat, mostly because so much of his transformation feels crammed into the narrative after we've established Peter's transformation and subsequent guilt for inadvertently causing the death of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Roberston). However, prior to getting to Norman Osborn becoming the Green Goblin (and setting up James Franco as Harry Osborn for future installments), there's a very entertaining movie. I know a few people that never bought him as Parker, but I liked Maguire's wide-eyed enthusiasm as the shy nerd turns into reluctant super hero. Kirsten Dunst hits all the right beats as Mary Jane, a girl way out of Parker's league, and there are a host of great smaller roles from J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson, Ted Raimi and Elizabeth Banks as his lackeys at the Daily Bugle, the first appearance of Bruce Campbell as someone tormenting Peter Parker, and even Randy "The Macho Man" Savage as "Bonesaw McGraw".

 I have two memories that really stuck out from seeing Spider-Man that first time: the first was an argument between two friends about why one refused to accept the energetic action, funny dialogue, and dynamic visuals because he staunchly insisted Spider-Man would NEVER have organic webshooters. That, for him, was a deal breaker, and nothing else in the movie even mattered after that point. He still uses that as his basis for hating the movie, and that alone. The argument was as heated as it was hilarious to listen to.

 The second memory was following the box office for Spider-Man, which was the first time I'd ever seriously considered how well a film was doing. When Spider-Man (at the time) broke the record for all-time opening weekend ticket sales, it was a sign that comic book movies were ready to duke it out with other summer films, and they have been ever since. In the wake of Spider-Man, comic book movies not only became more numerous, but many of them were better than we could ever expect: from X2 to Hellboy to Batman Begins and even Spider-Man 2 (which I actually prefer to the first film - it's a better overall movie). With the good came the bad (and you only have to do a cursory search to be reminded of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Elektra, Catwoman, or, sadly, Spider-Man 3), but we've still had a solid run of comic-based films that are better than could be reasonably expected ten years ago.

 And that brings us back around to The Amazing Spider-Man, a movie I don't really have any interest in seeing. My friends seem to be on the same page, even though Spider-Man 3 wasn't good by any stretch of the imagination. It seems like audiences remember the origin story well enough for Spider-Man, and films like X-Men: First Class have demonstrated you can reboot a series without telling the same story over again (even if they're pushing this "predestined" Spider-Man really hard), so it's more "meh" than anticipation a decade later. The attention span of audiences is fickle indeed, but The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't feel like it has anything to offer we can't find by watching Spider-Man at home. Other than The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), taking over for Dylan Baker as the Curt Connors we were promised in Spider-Man 2 and 3 but never got during the Raimi cycle. Oh well, we shall see what things look like in 2022, when maybe we'll be looking at The Spectacular Spider-Man or Ultimate Spider-Man, or "The Clone Saga": The Movie. *Shudder*

 * Sure, you could argue that Punisher: War Zone was a reboot of The Punisher with Thomas Jane, but I prefer to think of them as films vaguely linked together about the same character, kind of like Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

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