Friday, May 11, 2007

Webbed Wonder: Why Spider-Man Is the Greatest Comic Book Movie Series of All-Time

Like most, I found Spider-Man 3 a crushing disappointment. Also like most, I was chiefly frustrated by the fact that half the movie was the brilliance that we've come to expect from the series while the other half was, well, a bit of a tangled web. So it's a pretty good movie; I'd see it again, I may buy it on DVD (mainly with the intent of re-editing it with Will, plus the special features).

Rewatching the first two films in the series in the wake of this third installment, I've discovered that no matter how you slice it, the Spider-Man trilogy is still the greatest comic book movie series of all time.

First, before we get to the actual movies, I'll get the comparisons to other series out of the way. The closest competition Spidey currently has is the X-Men series, as in they both have two fantastic films followed by a heavily disappointing yet entertaining third entry. However, each of the Spider-Man movies annihilates its X-Men equivalent, and judging X-Men: The Last Stand against Spider-Man 3 reveals that I've perhaps overrated its merits.

After X-Men, it seems that Superman would offer Spider-Man the fiercest competition, though it had a much steeper drop-off in quality after its first two excellent installments. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace may get the most negative press of the series, but for my money, Superman III, which was basically a poorly-conceived comedic vehicle for Richard Pryor with occasional cameo appearances from the Man of Steel, is by far the worst. Plus, if we're counting it, Superman Returns was an overlong bore with no zip and no zing that actually made me fall asleep in the cinema.

And then there's the original Batman quartet, where Tim Burton turned Bruce Wayne into a gothic James Bond and Joel Schumacher basically revived the old Adam West series with a special extended episode in Batman & Robin (though I will ashamedly admit Batman Forever is my favorite of the bunch, what with its tongue-in-cheek lunacy and one hell of a brilliantly campy performance from Jim Carrey as the Riddler). Speaking of Adam West, again, if we're counting it, the 1966 camp trash of his Batman feature just does further disservice to the series' standing.

Let's not count out Bats, though. Because currently, the series that has the best chance of becoming the successor to Spidey's throne is Christopher Nolan's revamped Batman series, filming its second installment, The Dark Knight, as we blog. It's the first live-action adaptation of the character to do justice to the source material (the Bruce Timm animated series and films started getting it right back in '92), and it's fantastically dark and rich stuff. With the recent news that Maggie Gyllenhaal is replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, things just keep getting rosier.

I'm not even going to bother getting into idiotic trifles like Fantastic Four or Catwoman.

After all of this babble, let's actually talk Spider-Man. I've been a comic book fan in general and a Spidey devotee in particular for my entire life, so I had a lot of expectations for his 2002 debut film (though, like most of the aforementioned series, there was an earlier debut, in this case a terrible 1973 TV film, The Amazing Spider-Man, which served as the pilot for an equally terrible primetime series). It met each one without exception. I had been one of those hardcore nerds decrying the news that Peter Parker wasn't going to be strapping on his webshooters, that the webs would be organic; but after I saw the finished product, I was left asking, "Why hasn't it always been like that?" (In fairness to the comics, they finally caught up some time last year.)

The film is bright and colorful, with director Sam Raimi perfectly blending comic book camp with modern action movie sensibilities and, most importantly, Raimi focuses on character development. The first half of the film is the origin story, taking 1962's Amazing Fantasy #15 and expanding it (while borrowing plenty of riffs from Brian Michael Bendis' brilliant 21st century updated comic book series Ultimate Spider-Man), with the second half being the action-y, thriller-y stuff. Upon rewatching, the origin bits are actually better than the action bits, though it's all great, especially the magnificent final battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin.

Now I might start to become a little overanalytical, and I wanna get this out of the way first: Spider-Man is in no way political; that's X-Men's job. But it would be foolish to overlook the American flag that Spidey leaps off of at the film's very end; it was added, of course, after the tragic events of 9/11, when the film's release date was pushed back from November 2001 to May 2002. (Interesting sidenote: The film's original teaser, debuting in early 2001, featured Spidey webbing a helicopter between the Twin Towers.) The American flag became a staple of the series, and is probably its most ridiculed element. Most find it to be cheesy and sentimental, and say that it supports the character and its world as Republican ideology. Well, they're wrong.

Spider-Man shows that, yes, fighting the good fight is possible--even necessary--but there's no winning or losing. Peter's foes can turn out to be good people in bad situations (in fact, that's often the case), and Peter never faces a clear moral victory. Also, notice that every time someone boasts or gloats in the movie, they get into serious shit, most notably Peter when he arrogantly lets a thief rob the wrestling promoter who fails to pay him, and the crook ends up capping Uncle Ben. So, basically: America, fight back. But don't gloat and don't lose track of the fact that war is an ugly, ugly thing and should never be celebrated.

Okay, so now that I've just politicized a movie that was never ever meant to be politicized, let's move on to Spider-Man 2, which largely eschews the comic book camp and has softer, more restrained colors (though it still has great camp and great color; if you've seen it, you know what I mean). I recently had a conversation with an IMDb user on the Spider-Man 3 boards in which they mentioned that Spider-Man felt like a "fun" movie, whereas Spider-Man 2 felt like an "Oscar" movie. I guess I agree to some extent, in that the relationships that the first film built up--specifically the complex emotional ties between Peter, MJ, and Harry--are given weight in the second. To again tread into political waters lightly, the American flag at the end is much smaller and is only in the corner of the frame, perhaps showing that Raimi has realized that he can play games, but games with substance are much more fun to play.

But it's the relationships that are core to both the Spider-Man comics and movies, that are its biggest assets. Peter Parker is a real person, not a musclebound hero saving the day and getting the girl but a bespectacled loser (just like me) who, by time he gets the girl, has fucking earned it. And this is what makes Spider-Man 2 the single best comic book film ever made, its relationships and its character and its action scenes that are important and not throwaways (God, that sequence on the train never gets old, plus it has emotional resonance). It's like a damned Shakesepearean opera.

Which is why Spider-Man 3 is so disappointing. All of the relationships get fitting conclusions (because even though three more films have already been confirmed by Sony, this could possibly be the last one with the original crew in tow), and they're some great conclusions, it's just that the journey getting to them feels incomplete and underwhelming. MJ starts acting like a bitch (to be fair, she got unnecessarily bitchy in the second as well), Harry has a sudden character shift that would've been believable in moderation but here is just insanely over-the-top, and Peter acts naive, but not in the charming normal guy way Tobey Maguire honed so perfectly in the first two. Perhaps most disappointing is Peter's trip to the dark side via the black symbiote, in which he only does two frightening things and then dances the rest of the time. Yes, dances. And unsuccessfully hits on chicks. Venom is my favorite of Spidey's famous foes (gotta kick in some of Stan Lee's awesome alliteration), but his portrayal onscreen is only mildly rousing, though he does get the film's best line, which was actually improvised by actor Topher Grace (I'm not going to ruin it). Also, I'm not saying that the first two were subtle, but they had a certain deftness the third is lacking. I'll just put it this way: The American flag at the end is fucking HUGE. Sam Raimi's visual sense is also starting to flag; the glorious quirks he created in his gloriously gory cult Evil Dead trilogy and which gave the first two Spider-Man films much of their spark is largely missing. I'll just pose this question to uber-hardcore fans, and they'll know what I mean: Was the Oldsmobile even in there?

Still, Spider-Man 3 is successful in that it introduces a great villain, Sandman, played to perfection by Thomas Haden Church, and that it ties together all of the movies' recurring themes and motifs: Men who are monsters through choice and men who are monsters through fate, "With great power comes great responsibility," putting love above all, and of course, the visual cues of the famous upside-down kiss and many others that will be instantly familiar to fans (not to mention the obligatory hilarious Bruce Campbell cameo).

These are emotional, powerful movies that just happen to have great action setpieces and nifty whiz-bang special effects. There are two moments that make me cry in the first, a plethora of moments that give me goosebumps in the second, and even the third has moments that made me genuinely well up.

And that's why Spider-Man is the greatest comic book movie series of all time. Savvy?

(By the way, check out this awesome series of Marvel/DC parodies of those Mac/PC commercials).


Will Penley said...

Ironic that you should end the post with "Savvy?" considering Pirates is bound to be SM3's biggest competition at the box office.

BTW? The first Superman is totally the best comic book movie ever made...

Arlo J. Wiley said...

It comes close. ;-)

And Pirates will definitely wage a fierce war with Spidey at the box office, though the drop-off for SM3 this weekend is looking to be huge, somewhere in the vicinity of 55%. Even the numbers during the week didn't look as good as they probably should've.

I think it's because people realize this one in no way stacks up to the first two.

Will Penley said...

There is really no comparison. Can't wait for our re-cut!