Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Films Retrospective
It’s been ten years since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy started so I’m going to look back at those films as the new Amazing Spider-Man hits the cinema screens. I’m not that big of a fan of them but I love the character and his world so this’ll be a retrospective on what I think of the films. Mainly what I consider they did wrong.
Raimi is a Spider-Man fan that got a chance to change the face of superhero movies. Blade and X-Men proved that comic based films can work and the first Spider-Man movie not only cemented that the genre was successful but also that not every four-colour hero needed a black leather costume redesign. The first Spider-Man did feel like a comic, with a mix of fantasy, comedy, personal drama and serious life or death action all rolled together. The second was so popular that it’s still called the, “greatest superhero movie ever” by some fans. The third is widely regarded as a terrible film and kept the idea that the third film in the series “has to suck” alive. Let’s examine them and see how well they hold up.
Spider-Man 1 came out in 2002 and I still consider it to be the best in the trilogy. It had a great renovation of the classic origin story and they even managed to fix some problems I had with it. Making Uncle Ben’s death a car jacking instead of a burglary was a stroke of genius. Ben being shot because he was waiting for Peter outside the arena makes a lot more sense than by sheer coincidence the same guy Peter let go just so happened to rob his house a few days later. It also adds an extra layer of tragedy since Ben wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for Peter. If he hadn’t become Spider-Man his uncle wouldn’t have died, whereas in the comics Ben still would’ve been shot radioactive Spider or not. The parallel origin to Norman Osborn becoming the Green Goblin was also a good idea. It worked well seeing all of the power Peter had but none of the responsibility.
What under cut that was the tacked on split personality for Norman. It was created for the film in order to get some sympathy for the villain. The problem with it is that all of the scenes prior to him becoming the Goblin it’s established that he’s a bastard. But after he takes the Goblin formula the Norman personality turns into this weak child. That means the formula didn’t make him evil it actually gave him a conscience, which was clearly not the intent of the film. The filmmakers did this for three reasons, sympathy, in order to make it as obvious as possible how different these personalities were, and writing a properly insane Norman from the comics isn’t as easy. So a split personality is a cheat and a cheep way to show he’s insane.
Another problem with the Goblin was his costume. Everyone complains about it so I’ll just mention some quick things. It has a massive colour imbalance with it only being one flat green colour, which makes it dull and forgettable. Spidey’s costume in this is red, black, and silver, with a good balance between the three.
The Goblin mask is also dire, especially considering we could’ve gotten this:
It is a lot more expressive and menacing than the one in the film, but we didn’t get it because the filmmakers said they couldn’t justify how he could get such a mask. This is despite the fact that they never justify how he got the mask he wears in the movie. The only thing we get is that in the background of Norman’s office is a collection of masks. This is never brought to the audiences’ attention and could’ve been used to justify the much better mask anyway.
The next movie was something I have a very differing opinion on than a lot of other people. I’m not a fan of this movie. Not to say I think it’s a bad movie, just one with a lot of problems. First up we have another attempt at a sympathetic villain by adding a split personality. Yes they said Doctor Octopus’ tentacles all have AI and it was influencing him, but that’s profoundly stupid and it’s just another reason to have a split personality villain. They made Doc Ock talk to his tentacles and no amount of plot justification can change the fact that it’s same deal as their Green Goblin. The filmmakers also essentially grafted The Lizard’s backstory onto Doc Ock.
Secondly we have the Spider-Man No More plot. It’s a classic Spidey tale and I can see why they’d use it, but the way they did it was idiotic. Peter loosing his powers due to a psychological issue made no sense. In order to be as dramatic as possible they kept having him loose his powers at fatal moments, he almost dies a few times because of this. The brain is wired for self preservation, it wants to keep you alive no matter what, but this movie wants us to believe Peter’s brain is trying to kill him. Then there’s the fact that Peter goes, “screw power and responsibility! I want to get laid!” to his memory of Uncle Ben. The resolution to this plot is not him realising again that, “great power = great responsibility” it’s Peter needing to rescue MJ again. He gets his power back so he can get laid. There were plenty of opportunities to have him out on the mask again because it’s the right thing to do, and they were leading towards that, but the way it was resolved made it all about MJ, again.
Now the action was good, as was the special FX. The fight on the train was very well done, everything on the train after that was crap however. I could go into great detail on everything I think is wrong with this film and that could fill up an entirely separate article, but I don’t want to dwell on that here.
Spider-Man 3 is just plain awful and everyone knows why if they’ve ever seen or heard about it. The script was all over the place, the Sandman was the killer retcon, he was also one-dimensional and had no character resolution, amnesiac Harry, Venom only on screen for ten minutes, and dancing Peter. I don’t subscribe to the theory a lot of fans do that Raimi is not at fault for this movie. That the, “Sony executives are to blame for every problem” reasoning and other such silliness. The executives did force Venom on Raimi, and apparently Gwen Stacy too, but they didn’t tell him to put in dance numbers and badly executed plot points. Those are the fault of the director and writers not studio interference.
The main problem with this film is that there are too many main plots going on at once. There are five plots that I’ve counted and they barely interact with each other. There’s Harry, Sandman, the symbiote suit, Eddie Brock, and Peter’s romance with Mary Jane. The only plot to connect with all of them is the Symbiote plot and then they are all forced together at the end in very contrived ways. It got so bad they had to put in a visual queue for when he had the Symbiote suit on, the “emo fringe” as it’s called, because he kept changing outfits depending on what plot they were doing at the time. That’s not even going into the many subplots this movie had going on as well.
I suppose it’s ironic that this movie was the only one not to have a split personality villain because we got a Venom that was saying “I” and not “we” like he does in the comics, He’s one of the Spidey villains they could’ve done a split personality for and have it work perfectly, but they chose not to. Harry didn’t even have another personality despite the fact that he uses the same Goblin formula as his father but has none of the side effects somehow.
It also would’ve been nice to see Peter realise he had caused the death of an innocent man. The killer he chased down in the first movie died because of him and because the third movie retcons Sandman to be Ben’s killer it means an innocent man died because of Peter. When he found out about this he had no regret for what he’d done to Carradine, the carjacker.
For all of these movies they changed a lot from the comics, some of it for the better and some of it because of bad writing. As I’ve mentioned they’ve made four out of five of the villains sympathetic rather than writing them as good characters. Doc Ock is a mad scientist trying to take over the world, he should be the ultimate “what if Peter Parker goes bad” story but since they cut out most of Peter being a scientist they didn’t go that way.
It’s not just the villains though, a lot of the characters were badly realised on screen. Mary Jane had some of the background of MJ in the comics but had the personality of Gwen Stacy, strangely enough almost all media and some comics do this too. Then when Gwen showed up they had her personality be more like Mary Jane from the comics. MJ is the party girl, the one always looking for a good night out and a lot of fun, but never getting tied down to a relationship. It was revealed in the comics this was because of her broken home life and that she was trying to distance herself from it all. In the movies her home life is in only one scene and then never mentioned or brought up again. She can be summed up in the movies as ‘wanting to be an actress and Peter’s One True Love’ and there’s little else to her. They took this wonderful deep and strong character then put Kirsten Dunst in the role and made her as bland as possible.
Most of the other comic characters that weren’t main characters in the movies were just glorified cameos. Who cared about Betty Brant in the movies? Or Curt Connors, Robbie Robertson, hell even Gwen Stacy and her father George Stacy were so underdeveloped and just shoved in there to appease the fans. I think Ted Raimi, the directors brother, did more and was more memorable than most of the comic characters in these movies.
Now I liked Jonah Jameson, JK Simons was the perfect choice to portray him, but what did he do in these movies? He had presence because of Simons and he was the funniest thing in all three movies, but what else? What was his character beyond yelling for pictures of Spider-Man? What about his love for his son? I don’t think they even had a scene together in the second film. His honour and integrity were absent for the most part. The only time it showed was when the Goblin confronted him asking how takes the pictures of Spider-Man and Jonah protecting Peter by saying he’s anonymous. That’s the only time we see beyond the yelling and the comedy, one scene in three movies. JK Simons did a great job as JJ, pity the script gave him little to work with.
Spider-Man himself is a whole other thing entirely. As many others have said he lacks the humour needed to make the character work. The mask freed Peter from a life of being bullied and his whole host of other problems. The humour was also a coping mechanism for him so he wasn’t scared out of his mind with everything that’s happening to him. Spider-Man is meant to be this big release to Peter, but the movies just focused on him thinking it was a curse. His time as Spidey is no pleasure cruise, and it does screw up his life more often than not, but there’s a reason he puts on the mask and acts the way he does beyond, “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” Now the movies were funny, and had some hilarious moments, but those came not from Spidey but everywhere else. There was a lot of comedy in the films but when the mask was on most of the time it was for serious moments.
Not to get to fanboy in this but his powers were a bit inconsistent in the films. His Spider Sense worked on what the plot needed at any given time. Sometimes he’d be able to tell the Goblin was going to attack the event he was at, others he’d be taken by a surprise attack. By the third movie the Spider Sense was gone completely. It seems the writers had a hard time working with it and probably didn’t bother setting any ground rules on how it worked in the films. In the comics it’s been used as an oncoming danger sense, a threat detector, and an all purpose evil detector. There’s even a panel where a guy walks past Peter with a gun in his pocket and his Spider Sense goes off telling him the man has a gun and is up to no good. Stan Lee did some wacky things with Spidey’s powers in the 60s, but these aren’t 60s comics they’re big blockbuster movies from the 2000s. A little consistency is all I ask for, don’t show he has a danger sense then completely ignore it until plot relevant times.
But that’s not the big debate topic when it comes to these movies and Spidey’s powers, his organic webshooters are. This was one of the major changes from the comics that got fans angry and split the fanbase into those that liked them and the ones that hated the inclusion. I honestly don’t think it matters which is used. Sure there’s an endearing quality to Peter realising on his own that he should have webs and decides to use to his ingenuity to remedy that. But to simplify things and not bog down the pace of the film I can see Peter making his own mechanical webshooters as something easily dropped. However that’s not why they did it. Raimi has said that he doesn’t think it’s realistic that a teenager could make something that fantastical and I will call bull shit on that one. I could go over all the completely unrealistic parts of these movies but I only need to mention one, the Spider Costume. How does he make something that looks that good as a teenager on a zero budget? If he can design and make a costume that looks like it’s worth $100,000 why did he bother with photography? He could make a lot more money using his costume skills if he can do something like that as a teenager living in his Aunt’s house.
Now do I mind his costume? No and clearly neither did Same Raimi or the majority of the people who watched these films. It wasn’t a big suspension of disbelief snapper and it’s the same as the mechanical webshooters. If you really want to justify why he doesn’t make money off his invention then add in a backstory of his parents being scientist but they got screwed out of their inventions by a shady business man. There you go, a nice and simple reason why as a teenager Peter would not try to sell his webbing.
Generally I prefer the mechanical webshooters because they add more story possibilities. He can mix together a stronger chemical batch to improve the strength of the webbing, or add in some chemicals to solve some plot problem. He can adjust the nozzle to spry a net instead of a web rope, or maybe quick hardening paste to block or gum up a mechanism. Then there’s plot complications they add, like a villain damaging them in some way or the ever classic ‘running out of webbing’ bit. But more than anything else it’s what they represent that matters, his intelligence. Peter is a scientist first and foremost. He thinks with his head not his fists. His fights are solved by outthinking his opponents not overpowering them. If Raimi had allowed him to be a scientist in these movies then it wouldn’t really matter what type of webs he used, but he didn’t. The most Peter’s smarts factored into the plot was to get him and Doc Ock to meet and for Ock to be another surrogate father figure to him like Osborn was in the first film. The most they use his brain in a fight is the end of the third movie with how he defeats Venom, which I will give them credit for. One out of five villains is not a good track record though.
After all that though some fans still say Sony should’ve made Spider-Man 4 and not a reboot. I have to say with three films I can’t see the forth being any good. I dread to think what it could’ve been since all the “loose ends” from the third movie would have not made an interesting film. Would Peter and MJ have made up after everything that happened to them? Since the writers couldn’t seem to write a relationship only play “will they/won’t they” for two films then after that give only two options, “marriage or break-up” for the third I didn’t have high hopes. The villain was going to be the Vulture and Black Cat was going to be his daughter, allegedly. No one knows how it would’ve played out but I think we dodged a bullet.
The franchise needed a reboot in order to keep going. They’d killed off all the major villains and by saying MJ was Peter’s “One True Love” since kindergarten no other love interests could’ve replaced her. The plot was backed into a corner with no way out other than a reboot. Even if ten years was too soon for a reboot the story potential for the Raimi films dried up long ago. The only way to give any filmmaker the freedom to do their own story was a reboot.
Overall the only way to sum up my feeling on these films is to say, “meh.” I don’t think they’re terrible and I don’t think they’re great; I just have a lot of problems with them. At the time of writing I have not seen the reboot film so my opinions here are based solely on what I think of the Raimi films on their own merits. Feel free to disagree with me as that’s your right, and I’m sure a lot of people will.