Moving Pictures
Feb 21, 2024, 06:29AM

Six Spins for Spider-Man

Revisiting Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man after seeing it in theaters six times 22 years ago.

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I saw the first Spider-Man six times. Maybe it was seven, maybe it was five—I only know it wasn’t nine, the number I had in my head months before the movie came out. Nine: that was the number of times I saw Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace in 1999. Three years later, my favorite comic book character was finally getting his own major motion picture; growing up, conventional wisdom was that Hollywood had abandoned superheroes after a string of embarrassing failures, and all of the clerks at St. Mark’s Comics in Tribeca educated my brother and me in the rocky relationship between Marvel and the movies.

The Phantom Menace was made for six-year-olds, so I loved it, but almost everyone else loathed it. Yet there was no hesitation or pessimism about the new Spider-Man movie when the first trailer—featuring the Twin Towers, obviously filmed and released prior to September 11, 2001—blew everyone away. Bryan Singer’s X-Men proved these characters could be adapted to modern moviemaking, and indeed Spider-Man broke records; one image etched in my mind from that opening weekend in May 2002 was a two-page spread in one of New York’s daily papers showing Spider-Man flying through the city, the only text “$100,000,000.” One movie, all in one weekend, for the first time ever.

Six times, mostly at the United Artists Battery Park 16 because it was closer to our apartment than any of the other multiplexes in the city. But I must’ve seen it at least once at the UA Union Square 14, and probably the Loews Village 7—maybe the AMC Kips Bay?—but the first time, Saturday May 4, 2002, was another AMC, somewhere on the west side. There were a lot of kids from my brother’s class there, all trading comics, asking us about minutiae and what to expect. This was six years before Iron Man and the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which this Spider-Man and Singer’s X-Men had nothing to do with. Besides growing out of comic books fairly quickly after moving to Baltimore, by 2008 I’m not sure you could’ve paid me to see Iron Man in anything but some good pot, preferably an ounce of Blue Dream. He’s not an interesting character, never was—I never read his books.

But I read Spider-Man’s, and The Punisher’s, and some X-Men, but really with Marvel it was all about Spidey (I never liked DC comics; during my brief comic phase it was all Marvel and independents like Preacher and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). The Punisher stood alone, and looking back he was really my favorite: mind-blowing violence, total bleakness, anti-humanist, vigilante superhero. He stood outside of all of the other Marvel characters to me even back then; most of these caped crusaders have absurdly tragic backstories, including Spider-Man, but The Punisher was on another level. He went to Vietnam and shed his blood for nothing. He pissed the wrong people off and got his family mowed down at a picnic. He spends his life finding, torturing, and killing criminals. Judge, jury, and executioner. By the 2000s, I was long over wearing superhero costumes or outfits, except that Punisher t-shirt I wore until the white skull fell off.

The 2004 movie with Thomas Jane was so lousy I routinely forget it exists. Another 2004 superhero movie was Spider-Man 2, considered an instant classic before it was even released and still “widely regarded” as one of the greatest superhero movies ever and “a blueprint for all future superhero movies.” That explains a lot, because on my first rewatch in 20 years, Spider-Man 2 is even worse than I remember, a movie with terrible CGI, worse dialogue, and none of the iconic moments that endure from the first film. It’s baffling now, but back then I wanted to like something that I’d anticipated for so long; when we moved to Baltimore in June 2003, Sam Raimi had finished shooting in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District, and everyone at St. Mark’s was all abuzz. I couldn’t express it in 2004 but I found the movie disappointing and forgettable, and had a normal reaction: I didn’t see it a second time.

But those six times with Spider-Man in 2002. Even then, I was kind of forcing it. Rewatching it for the first time in 22 years, it’s slightly better than I remember, and all of my impressions from back then have held steady. Spider-Man is nearly flawless until the last half hour, when the movie gets bogged down in a lot of empty action all rendered in bad, ugly CGI. Something that also soured me on the movie and really stuck out this time was Peter Parker’s insistence at the end that he can’t be together with Mary Jane Watson. It’s a ridiculous contrivance that the lousy sequel finally resolves, but in the first movie it’s reserved for that final scene, and somewhat redeemed by Kirsten Dunst’s double take at the end. At least we know she knows he’s Spider-Man.

Something else that surprised me this time was how much less I liked Tobey Maguire in the role. He comes off as a creep, especially in Spider-Man 2, and while it had a bad reputation and still does, I remember liking Spider-Man 3 and how unpredictable it was next to nearly every other multi-million dollar movie. I’ll revisit that one soon, the movie where Maguire “breaks bad” and does some allegedly “embarrassing” stuff with the character, making him a bit more unhinged, dark, and, because it was 2007, emo. I didn’t mind—by then, I had zero expectations for a Spider-Man movie—and I do remember liking it more than the ostentatious predecessor.

Unlike Spider-Man, which was composed and presented in 1:85, Spider-Man 2 is in 2:39 widescreen. But they didn’t shoot anamorphic, a baffling choice given the budget. The first Spider-Man holds up because its images glow, with one iconic sequence after another, and all the CGI, save for the ending, in service of practical sets and effects. Spider-Man 2 doesn’t have a single compelling composition in it, despite being shot by the great cinematographer Bill Pope. If you’re not shooting anamorphic, why crop to widescreen? It diminishes the action. The lateral frame isn’t necessary, and Doc Ock’s flailing arms would’ve been better served in a taller aspect ratio. This is all mumbo jumbo to most people, but you all see movies, and you see what I’m talking about, and even if you don’t know anything about it, you receive the movie this way, and you can feel when something is wrong, or, for whatever reason, you just don’t like it.

But Spider-Man… six years before the MCU, six times in the theater, a movie I hadn’t seen since that I realized had seeped into my subconscious. Many of its images—Peter and Mary Jane talking between fences and the endless corridor of backyards, the radiant blue sky behind Mary Jane’s blazing red hair in the parade sequence, and the fight in the burning building with the Green Goblin. And I was reminded of Raimi’s post-September 11 I Love New York gesture: a bunch of New Yorkers beating up the Green Goblin shouting, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” I saw it six times because I wanted to break that record, but I never did. I couldn’t force it. Now it’s easier to admit to yourself that something you were looking forward to is actually pretty lousy in the moment, not six months or a year or a decade later.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith


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