What's with superheroes these days? From Batman’s reclusive moping in The Dark Knight Rises to Superman’s existential woes in Man Of Steel, it seems our current crop of costumed crimefighters are getting a little, well, gloomy. Even Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man heaped added layers of grit onto the origins of our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler.
But way back in 2002, in the early days of the comic-book resurgence and just short of a year after the catastrophic events of 9/11, people were in need a bit of levity. And that’s what they got with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Bright, ballsy and full of the director’s almost childlike enthusiasm, Raimi’s first stab at adapting Marvel’s teenage hero for the big screen follows Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire) journey from nerdy high-schooler to masked avenger via a chance encounter with a genetically-modified arachnid.
It’s a perfect combo of material, director and star – Maguire is tailor-made for Parker, instantly relatable as the awkward teen going through an extreme identity crisis. Meanwhile, Raimi gets plenty of mileage (both comic and dramatic) out of the super-powered spin on well-trodden adolescent pitfalls – unrequited love, money troubles and, er, ‘organic’ webshooters…
There are some shades of darkness to be found, of course. Parker’s transition to the red-and-blue suit starts with tragedy. But Raimi doesn’t dwell, soon segueing into some spectacular, city-spanning acrobatics and inventive smackdowns with nemesis the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).
Solid foundations for a franchise then, but after Spider-Man broke records at the box office, many wondered whether Raimi could keep up the momentum for the sequel. Thankfully he did – and then some. Even in a post-Dark Knight and Avengers world, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 is still one of the best examples of the genre firing on all cylinders.
Replacing original DoP Don Burgess with his Army Of Darkness cohort Bill Pope, Raimi widened the screen (the newly instilled Cinemascope format adds a majestic quality to Spidey’s flights of fancy) and his ambition, concocting a perfectly paced, consistently exhilarating and impressively epic superhero sequel.
Experiencing a crisis of confidence and still pining after girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Spidey is this time tasked with saving New York from friendturned- foe Dr Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a brilliant physicist who becomes a monster after a failed lab demonstration, in which the four, AI-driven robotic ‘tentacles’ he’s wearing are fused to his body – and his brain.
Striking just the right balance between pathos and maniacal egotism, Molina is a revelation as the conflicted Doctor Octopus. He’s not the only one: more so than the first film, Raimi is given free rein to experiment, channeling the cheeky spirit of his own lo-fi horror roots in some scenes (see Doc Ock’s inspired, emergency-room rebirth) while breaking new ground in others.
The subway-train scrap – arguably the film’s standout sequence – is a happy marriage of expert choreography and Oscar-winning visual effects, and remains one of the most iconic, comic-book inspired set-pieces ever put on screen.
All of which made the disappointment of 2007’s Spider-Man 3 even more crushing. At the time, there were grumblings that Raimi had experienced creative disputes with the producers and had been forced to shoehorn fan-favourite villain Venom (Topher Grace) into an already busy story that tied up the trilogy-spanning arc of Parker’s vengeful best friend and Goblin-in-training Harry Osborn (James Franco) while pitting Spidey against new foe Flint Marko, aka Sandman (Thomas Haden Church).
Watching the film with fresh perspective, Church’s muscular, sympathetic performance gives the movie its heart, while the scenes between his granular villain and Maguire’s webhead count among the high points. In contrast, Grace’s Venom seems like an afterthought – an instantly unlikeable character with trite motivations powered by a sort of evil flubber, it’s a disservice both to Raimi’s previous good form and the character’s loyal devotees.
And yet, despite Spider-Man 3’s frustrating inconsistencies and behind-the-camera politics, the director still manages to infuse the film with enough of his trademark wit and artistic flair to avert disaster.
Sandman’s creation, which sees the accidentally disintegrated Marko desperately trying to re-form as he attempts to pick up his ailing daughter’s locket, is a thing of abstract, melancholic beauty, while Maguire continues to nail the irreverent sense of humour that made us root for his Parker in the first place (“Where do all these guys come from?” he deadpans after his first encounter with Church’s villain, casually shaking the sand out of his Spider-boots).
It’s telling that, even though this represents the ‘darkest’ of the three films (with Spidey battling inner demons as well as three supervillains), Raimi still finds time for a tongue-in-cheek dance number to break up all the soul searching. Too much? Perhaps. But maybe today’s caped crusaders could learn a thing or two from Spidey’s twinkle toes. In short – why so serious?
This new Steelbook edition of the trilogy comes with no new extras, but plenty ported over from previous editions – there’s enough bloopers to make up a fourth movie.
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