Post Millennial Malaise 02: Spider-Man

In Which He Does Whatever a Spider Can

The skyline for New York City is iconic. For the whole of the 20th century its buildings, towers, and architecture served as the platonic ideal of the modern metropolis. A place of people, power, art, and industry. A place where anything was possible among the bustle in the streets, subways, and bridges. The skyline then became a sort of metonym for everything that the place contained, and it’s presence a cinematic landmark for decades, and in the last 20 odd years of the 20th century the World Trade Center became the centerpiece of said landmark.

From comedies to thrillers to dramas its presence always heralded the same thing. This is a story that takes place in New York, and everything that entails. So when it suddenly vanished from view there was wound to the iconography of a place. A representative of a local knocked away in a mere day. A scar both physical and psychic.

At the end of Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man we get a swinging shot of the web-slinger as he surveys the city he calls home. In a huge 360 camera swivel where we soak in the skyline of New York, with the sun setting gracefully over the buildings, and notably the World Trade Center is not there. This is a different New York, a radically altered place, one that must be explored in a new cinematic way than before.

Spider-Man was not the first giant blockbuster released after 9/11 (those honors would go to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings), but it is the first post 9/11 blockbuster. A movie whose qualities were dramatically changed by what happened in September 2001. Now the film was already shooting when those events took place, so the whole thing wasn’t revamped, but extensive reshoots and digital effects work was done for the film so it could fit better into the transformed landscape of New York City. So while the real horrors are never addressed in the film they haunt every frame, informing the the feel and tonality of the whole picture.

But such sentiments are a touch too morose. Because despite the bulk of most cultural objects produced during this time, Spider-Man is shockingly bubbly and straightforward.  From such a cinematic prankster as Raimi, it’s amazing how clear-eyed and uncynical this movie is, a film that wears its heart boldly, and proudly, on its sleeve. This tonal pep feels like another piece of reaction from the filmmakers, one that buries deep into the psyche of the culture to find a hero. One that can stop bad guys and save the day. A clean, clear-cut piece of popcorn entertainment that shows good is out in equal force to the bad that exists, and stands for what’s right, especially in New York City. It’s no coincidence that previously mentioned final frame features our hero boldly standing in front of an American flag.

It’s these confluences: the style that Raimi brought, the work done to fit this filmic New York into that of reality, and the introduction of one of the most popular superheroes to the big screen, that marks Spider-Man as the beginning of the modern comic book era. Yes there are arguments for stuff like Blade and the first X-Men, but Spider-Man is the movie that became the biggest hit of its kind while wrapping the national mood into itself. There’s a reason that almost every blockbuster superhero movie in the intervening years plays on the imagery of 9/11, and it’s because Spider-Man was able to tackle the national mood, even if it didn’t directly contend with real world events.

So with all that weight of history and importance, what of the film itself. Well Spider-Man remains a delightful piece of pop cinematic storytelling. Transporting the formal tics of one our best stylists in Raimi into a whizzbang yarn of power and responsibility. And though I’m loathe to repeat tired talking points about our current glut of cinematic super-heroics, Raimi’s entries into the genre are replete with a style and sentimentality that are absent from most (though not all) of our contemporary outings.

Here we get a pretty clean cut origin story with an opposing villain that mirrors our hero. Mild mannered Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) spends his days moping around high school, pining after childhood crush Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) before he’s granted awesome abilities from a radioactive spider bite. Simultaneously his best friend Harry’s (James Franco) dad Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe) goes through a villainous transformation into the malicious Green Goblin. The two then do battle to protect the streets of New York while Peter navigates his social and superhero life.

One of the reasons the Raimi Spider-Man films standout from the work they directly inspired and much of the simultaneously released blockbuster fair of the time is an insistence of on straightforward super-heroics and an aim to please. Unlike so many other films, Raimi never tries to make this, “not your daddy’s Spider-Man.” It’s a smart move. Spider-Man is a character that has always been at the forefront of the world of comics, and it would have been a mistake to shake up things too much on the first big filmic outing. Yes there are changes (the much maligned nerd complaint of Peter having organic web shooters), but this is a movie meant to serve as an entry point for both new and old fans, and an uncluttered approach was needed.

While it has become old hat to mock the origins of Spider-Man (effectively done so in Spider-Verse) Raimi’s film is still a good piece of becoming a superhero fun. His whirling camera and whipping montages provide the perfect aesthetic grounds to explore the possibility space of a person coming into their own powers. Though we know all these tricks now, the exuberance with which Raimi explores things like the Spider Sense, or Peter’s first attempt to swing across the street are emphatic indications that he understands the appeal of this character. Peter fulfills the fantasy of average nerd being granted power, and the movie both acknowledges the thrill and danger of such wishes being granted.

All of this comes together in one of my favorite sequences in the film. Where Peter decides to don his outfit for the first time and try his hand at wrestling for a quick chunk of change. Raimi smartly connects the ideas of wrestling (athleticism, individuals playing characters, ongoing and intricate narratives) with the ideas of a superhero. Thus our first trip out into the world with Peter in the suit is a meta commentary on the nature of heroes while also being an unbridled piece of fun from Raimi.

This bouncy tonality also allows for the not explicitly post-9/11 elements, but definitely feel like post-9/11 moments, to hit with a weight. The film never loses its buoyancy, but there’s a sense of darkness and fear when the Green Goblin attacks Times Square or the Queensboro Bridge, that these landmarks should not be defiled in anyway, and an assault on them is equivalent to an assault on the city self. Indeed at the climax of the film a very New Yorky bystander shouts at the villain, “you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” Even the cheeky Vox Pop montages and the character of J. Jonah Jameson play into this attitude. New York must react to whatever events play out in its streets. All of this  makes Spider-Man hold up better than many of the superhero films of the 00’s. Raimi’s style keeps the thing from feeling dated, as his outlandish camera work even allows the ropier special effects to age more gracefully as they all dance in a similar tonal realm. Still there are some complaints that most be lodged.

Maguire doesn’t really work as either Peter or Spider-Man. He looks right, but his performance is a touch too pinched and affected to really sell the emotions when needed. You need to believe his pain once Uncle Ben dies, and most of that is sold through Raimi’s direction rather the actor leading the film. The other big bugaboo here, for me at least, is the use of MJ. MJ has always been a motivating factor for Peter because of his romantic interests, but here she mostly feels like a vessel for the myriad of boys to project their aspirations on. It’s disappointing to see an actor as talented as Dunst be relegated to a mostly subservient role: where she’s frequently kidnapped, abused, and swapped between significant others. The fact that the iconic upside down kiss works in any capacity is because MJ is the one who gets to initiate the affection between her and the man of spiders.

Still these are still minor bumps in the road for this film. Raimi’s overwhelming sense of style and tonal aplomb is what allowed Spider-Man to become the movie that reciprocated so hard with the American public after the damage of 9/11, it’s no surprise that it was the first movie to have a 100 million dollar opening weekend. In May of 2002 nothing could be more comforting than a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, protecting and celebrating the ways of New York City like no one had seen on screen before. And such a legacy would change Hollywood forever.

Odds and Ends

  • The most notable piece of Spider-Man ephemera to be altered by the 9/11 attacks was it’s initial teaser trailer. A shot series of clips that climaxes with some bad guys caught in a web between the Twin Towers. It was long shoved to the dust bin of history, but now can be watched in all it’s HD glory.
  • I find the relationship between Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings interesting because they both represent long gestating projects that were handed off to beloved indie auteurs to massive critical and commercial success that neither could properly replicate later.
  • Interesting that Maguire, Dunst, and Franco all kind of came from the kid/teen actor world and into this movie.
  • Dafoe is tons of fun as Osborne. My favorite scene is him crawling on the ground to the Green Goblin mask.
  • Also don’t love that MJ has an extremely backgrounded abusive household that is just kind of tossed off.
  • Flash does have the perfect look for a high schooler in 2002.
  • As is tradition for Raimi, Bruce Campbell pops in as the wrestling announcer and gives Spider-Man his name.
  • Even though he does demand clear photos, Jameson never actually says, “I need pictures of Spider-Man!”

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Next Week: The world of spy craft is thrown on its head with the release of The Bourne Identity.