So what constitutes a guilty pleasure? It’s a film that I like for personal reasons, and thus, probably have watched more than I should have.
Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, so even if there have been better Batman movies, I’d still say I connect with Spider-Man more. The thing I love about Spider-Man is that he’s so utterly human. He’s not an American boyscout like Captain America nor is he a goody two shoe as say, Superman. His irresponsibility comes at the cost of his uncle, and it’s just a perfect set-up for a heroic origin story. So when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man came out when I was like eight, I devoured it. Probably seen this movie more times than any other superhero movie (movie?) in my life. Did I really have to watch it again to review it properly? No. But I did anyway.
While X-Men started popularizing the superhero genre by taking a tone more akin to Batman Begins and setting superpowers in a more realistic environment, Spider-Man popularized the upbeat comic book styling of movies like The Avengers. The superhero and supervillain bicker mid-fight, always prepped with their favorite one-liners. Comic-relief characters like J. Jonah Jameson are caricaturized, barking orders around like a madman. And lastly, you have the all-too-necessary damsel in distress who is portrayed as beautiful, played by Kirsten Dunst.
Are some of these characters miscast? Yes. In particular, I think Dunst is not very engaging, often displaying more chemistry with Spider-Man than with Peter Parker. But I think almost every other actor/actress played perfectly to what the script wanted them to do. Tobey Maguire as Peter might be the embodiment of normality with his average height of 5’9″, non-bulky body type, and fairly indistinguishable facial features. Willem Dafoe is a creepy looking actor who is the proper age to be Harry Osborn’s dad while still being in shape to be as intense and menacing as the action scenes required of him. J.K. Simmons is a balding, mustache bearing fast talker who pulled off an New York accent incredibly well to perfectly play Peter’s boss at the Daily Bugle.
While people may not like the tropes these characters represent, with Peter playing the familiar nerd-loser combo and Flash being a very one-dimensional bully, I actually think these archetypes heightens the comic-book experience of Spider-Man, as these characters are instantly recognizable and almost more intimate in spite of their limited screen-time. Where the movie really stands out for me is its meticulous attention to story structure and the relationship between its characters.
In my mind, Raimi’s Spider-Man is about two things: the differences and similarities between hero and villain, and the search of approval from a father-figure. While the differences between Spider-Man and Green Goblin are probably intuitively clear to us, it’s interesting how Raimi parallels the events of both their origin story in order to emphasize their similarities. As Peter falls asleep after his encounter with a genetically enhanced “super spider,” Norman Osborn inhales his own human performance enhancers, receiving their powers at the same time. Both are faced with tragedies to deal with, Peter feeling guilty over the death of uncle Ben and Norman on the verge of losing his company on multiple occasions. This is made explicit in a conversation between Spider-Man and Green Goblin. Goblin says, “You’re an amazing creature, Spider-Man. You and I are not so different.”
And he’s right. They both hold secret identities, even from those they love. They both have incredible superpowers. They both face tragedies. I’d be willing to go as far as to say they’re both good people, except that Peter listens to the last words of uncle Ben whereas Norman listens to his accentuated inner demons.
With great power, comes great responsibility.
In this sense, this story is as much of Norman’s story as it is Peter’s, and while this hinders the development of Peter Parker as an interesting character, Raimi’s Spider-Man does do justice to one of Spider-Man’s biggest arch-nemesis. And more importantly, I think it has defined Spider-Man not only for this franchise, but perhaps indefinitely.
The story also parallels best friends Peter and Harry and their need for approval from a father figure. Peter gets upset when he mistakes uncle Ben’s concerns for misguided criticism. Harry gets upset when Mary Jane doesn’t wear black to impress his father. Both instances showcase their intense desire to become the man they believe their father (or father-figure) to be, and with Harry’s father and Peter sharing an inclination for science, there is a delicately balanced tension that strains on Peter and Harry’s relationship, foreshadowing Harry’s fervent hatred for Peter’s alter ego by the end of the movie.
This tension had a lot of potential to be potent had it not been for the underdeveloped relationship between Peter and Harry. As we’ll see in later installments, Raimi has a bad tendency to rush his screenplays. Perhaps this is why he took short-cuts and utilized tropes that prevented characters from being complicated or nuanced. Coupled with its comic book styling, this movie is less of an intellectual experience as it is a blockbuster one. And with the special effects degrading with each and every year technology improves, that is not a recipe for long-lasting success. Perhaps in 2002 this movie would have been one of the best superhero movies of all time, considering its attention to story structure and thematic resonance, but now that we’ve seen better and better superhero movies, it remains to be exactly what I believe it was intended to be: a light-hearted, fun, and sporadically emotional origin re-telling of New York’s favorite web-slinger.