Today heralds another of Heave’s new columns, Smash Cut, in which our film staff take a look at bad movies with a more critical approach every Thursday. This week: Amy discusses the Spider-Man series.
In the advent of the latest Marvel movies that have come out in the past five years, it’s interesting to look back at the films that were made before Marvel had control of their material. Say what you will about Batman Begins but it paved away for companies like Marvel Studios to create films that are more like the material they’re currently publishing. Pick up a Spider-Man comic now and watch the new Amazing Spider-Man trailer and you’ll see a direct correlation from print to screen. Back in the 90s, when stuff like Fantastic Four was made and still considered a movie, that wasn’t necessarily so. Let’s disregard the cinematic travesty that was Spiderman 3, a film we all I’m sure got roped into seeing, only to leave astounded by what we just saw on screen. I would go as far as to say the entire Sam Raimi Spider-Man series set back comic book movies a long while.
When the 80s came around, comics were resurrected from hokey 60s and 70s story lines and driven into a real, raw medium. Pioneers like Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, and even the batshit insane Frank Miller made characters that use to fight sharks and aliens into refined and polished superheroes, men and women with emotion, depth, and more issues than you could shake a stick at. This includes Spider-Man. The most refreshing thing about Stan Lee’s Spider-Man is that he’s a character we can all understand and strive to be. When we watch and read things with Batman, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, etc, we see characters that we could never be. Chances are we will not be altered by radiation for the better, we will not be blessed with a mutated super-gene, or be born on another planet or an alternate plane. We’re human beings with human ambitions and human problems. It’s hard to relate with Tim Burton’s Batman, a film that pioneered the modern comic book movie movement, because he’s, as we would put it now, the 1%. But Spider-Man is a character that’s easy to relate to. Peter Parker is a high school student with high school ambitions. He’s experienced loss, like many of us have, and stays with his widowed aunt to help her pick up the pieces. He has to hold down a job, a girlfriend, an academic career, and somehow pay the bills while protecting New York City. Yes, he’s been enhanced by a spider bite but in the original comics his web-shooters and suit are his design. When he’s Spider-Man he’s a different person – confident, agile, and witty. He was blessed with a seemingly lame power and makes it his own with his own intellect and ingenuity.
If Raimi’s Spider-Man series followed this route, comic book movies would have reached Batman Begins status a long time ago. Unfortunately it didn’t. The Spider-Man series scrapped Peter Parker’s origin story and made the character in the film create his own webs organically, even going as far as creating as making Marvel change the Spider-Man comics to include an arc that gave Parker this new ability (which by the way, is extremely weird and disturbing). Around the time the first Spider-Man movie started production, I started reading The Amazing Spider-Man comics. What drew me to keep reading them was the duality of Peter Parker. Parker is a reporter, taking pictures for the Bugle and getting shoved around in the hierarchy of the newspaper world. When he’s Spider-Man he’s a different person because this superhero persona is the man he’s becoming. Either way you look at it, this era of Spider-Man is an era most 20-somethings can relate to and it made me excited to see how they portrayed the character on-screen.
Though comics in the 00s had already been writing more meaningful story lines, it didn’t transfer over to Hollywood. The Batman movies had been, for lack of a better term, so cartoony and so successful, and the Spiderman series decided to go the same route. In 2002, the same year the film came out, The Amazing Spider-Man storyline “Coming Home” won an Eisner Award (the comic book equivalent to an Oscar) because of it’s incredible story. And then we watched a film where Tobey Maguire’s feigned adolescent Spider-Man plods through New York, chasing after a girl and fighting crime with minimal wit and maximum awkardness. Hell, it seems like in every movie he’s being unmasked. In Spider-Man 2 his true identity is shown to a train full of New Yorkers and they all communally agree to just forget what they saw, even though Peter Parker’s a prominent photographer for a big newspaper at this point in the plot. Raimi’s Spider-Man presented a plucky young kid that’s hard to take seriously, when he easily could’ve been the strong 20-something he is in the comics. With each film that came out I hoped for something stronger, a script that represented the Spider-Man I was growing to love in the comics. What the Spider-Man film series became was pure entertainment, a visual assault of action and web-slinging with some cheap laughs along the way.
Now that Marvel has control of their own material there’s hope for the new Spider-Man movies. The trailer for Amazing Spider-Man already shows promise. Spider-Man has his signature wit and college freshman naiveté, and they brought back his web-shooters. This return to material should help the series rather than hurt it, and judging on what Marvel has been doing with the Avengers series, it could make for some very interesting tie-ins if done correctly. The four-color comic days are over, and it’s time to embrace a more sophisticated comic book story.