Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #25- Spider-Man

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Darren Appears Courtesy of The MOvie Blog

Let me pitch you a scene. It's early 2002. There's a whole rank of huge blockbusters looming. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; Star Wars: Episode II; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Austin Powers in Goldmember; Men in Black II; Ice Age. And then there's a strange one. Spider-Man, from that guy who made The Evil Dead. Really? Sure, Richard Donner's Superman was great, but that was decades ago. Joel Schumacher had killed the Batman franchise only a few years back. That Bryan Singer fella had proved he wasn't a one-hit wonder with X-Men, but it wasn't exactly box office gold (only the eighth biggest film of 2000). Comic book movies were a strange proposition - transitioning the characters to the big screen just didn't work naturally. Somethings aren't meant to be adapted.

Somehow, Spider-Man worked. Really worked. Sam Raimi somehow found himself the director of the most successful box office property of 2002. It trumped all the movies I listed above - even beating Lord of the Rings by $64m domestically. I think everyone was a bit surprised. I know I was, certainly.

Of course, some things come with box office success naturally. Sequels, for example. Spider-Man offered two huge sequels. One was a classic of the genre, the other an example of the bloated self-importance that came with success. Even as you read this a reboot is in the works. It's somewhat fitting that Spider-Man, heralding (as it did) the golden age of superhero films, should be the first of this particular age of movies to be rebooted - (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb is handling a reboot due in 2012, a decade after the original arrived.

But most successful movies inspire more than just sequels. They shape the movie industry itself. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. Queue knock-offs. Don't get me wrong, I'm not decrying the whole era of superhero movies that Spider-Man gave us. I enjoyed a fair amount of these movies. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are great movies, regardless of genre. I'm intrigued by the notion of the emerging shared "Marvel universe" heralded by Iron Man.

However, the problem is that rather than inspiring a genre, it seems to have led to its dominance. Did we really need a Ghost Rider film? Or two Punisher films in so many years? Watchmen offers perhaps the best example of the danger of this "film every possible comic book" mentality - Alan Moore's masterpiece is simply nigh impossible to adapt to film. Why couldn't we leave it as simply a literary classic?

Arguably the bigger problem is that rather than promoting adaptations from an emerging medium (as graphic story telling - if you'll allow me some pretension - is still in the process of evolving and growing) is that it codified exactly what to expect from these adaptations. Rather than proving that adaptations from the medium could encompass films like A History of Violence, Ghost World and The Road to Perdition, the word "comic book movie" became synonymous with "superhero movie". One might suggest that it's a problem with comic books in general, the dominance of superheroes within that medium, but Hollywood seems intent to convince audience members that the only films that come from the graphic medium are those featuring acrobats in tights. Where are our high-profile adaptations of Y: The Last Man or Asterios Polyp, sold to audiences as "based on the acclaimed graphic novels"? You can be sure that if Hollywood does get around to adapting them, they'll downplay the origins, and cinema-goers will go on believing that comic books are those ones featuring superheroes.

But all this comes from the emergence of the superhero movie in general, and could arguably be traced back to X-Men or even Superman. What precisely did Spider-Man do that was so bad? I think I can answer that question by identifying a single film: Daredevil. Daredevil is a fascinating comic book character - one who has arguably had the most consistent ten-year-run in modern comics under Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker - and one that is relatively unique. He's a character whose central premise is one of guilt and failure - he is anchored in angst, driven by the simple fact that he keeps getting knocked down by the world and has to keep rebuilding himself (he's had more than a couple mental breakdowns, all entirely deserved - to be honest). However, the movie isn't at all interested in this fascinating angle of the character. Instead, it looks like Fox pointed to Spider-Man, said "We want something like that" and locked a writer in the room. The result is a mess of a movie, which is ruined by stuntwork, camera work and storytelling clearly inspired by Raimi's take on Spider-Man.

That's the real damage of a huge movie like Spider-Man. It provided an outline of what a superhero movie should look like. As a result, movies like The Fantastic Four and Daredevil and others couldn't help but feel like cheap knock-offs of everyone's favourite webslinger, rather than adaptations of properties beloved for their own reasons. In fairness, it looks like The Dark Knight may be doing the same thing, with studios now demanding "darker and edgier" takes on heroes like The Green Hornet or Captain Marvel, rather than seeking each character's own voice.

Still, I'm not sure I'd take it back. We got two good movies out of Spider-Man and an above-average string of summer blockbusters. It's just hard not to rewatch Sam Raimi's original works without thinking back on it.


  1. Great analysis, but maybe it's best we distance Spider-Man as far as possible from Daredevil. At least in movies.

  2. That was really fun to read.

  3. I liked "Spider-Man," but for me it's "Spider-Man 2" that really knocks it out of the park. This is where Sam Raimi got everything right, and he made the decision to focus on what we almost never see: the day-to-day repercussions of being a hero. We get to see how it threatens Peter's relationships and interfere's with his schoolwork, how exhausted and conflicted he is between wanting a life and wanting to keep people safe. This is the real genius of the movie.

  4. I agree with you on that, but as a Spider-Man fan I'll never forget the joy of seeing my favourite super hero on the big screen for the first time.

  5. In cases like this I tend to pretend the third movie never happened... ditto w/ X3! :p

  6. Chris- as a Spider-Man fan long before the movies the critic in me says that 3 is bad, but the fan in me says, oh well it's better than no Spider-Man. It just always seems that Raimi always has a great Spider-Man movie wanting to poke its head out but he always turns away from it, could be due to the studio influence they imposed on him though.

    I actually like X3 because I think it has interesting ideas of democracy, religion and moral choices, moreso than the other two and it's the one where you see Magneto not so much a villian but as a rational character.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Thanks, everyone and thanks Mike for putting this all togethere.

    I actually thought Magneto came across most rational in the second of the films. in the first he was clearly a mad man with a sad history (which doesn't entirely justify nearly killing evry world leader gathered for a convenient conference), but in the second one you realised the kinds of people that Magneto feared still existed.

    I think X3 is better than most (and probably the best "third" superhero film to date), but my heart will always be with X2.