I’d recalled Sam Raimi performing with his directorial hand somewhat in his pockets for his first Spidey outing, reining in his style in order to prove to Sony he could do the necessaries and deliver the required blockbuster (and only really becoming unleashed for the sequels). But his first Spider-Man is actually most striking for how much flourish, colour and inventiveness there is from the get-go. Perhaps that’s a consequence of a decade of actually stylistically restricted MCU movies, but even the formally freer DCEU has yet to produce anything approaching both his sense of panache and fun.
Because there’s a lot of goofy fun here, despite the sombre, guilt-ridden hero at its core (I know the Spidey faithful bemoan The MCU Spidey for his lack of burden, seeing guilt as essential to the character, but I’ve found it refreshing). And despite Tobey Maguire, even though, in many ways he’s smart casting, almost entirely failing to bring the ready quipster side of the Spidey to the screen.
On the other hand, he’s an entirely convincing nerd, and Raimi, an entirely convincing nerd himself, delights in putting Peter Parker through the wringer: even when the worm turns, and Peter pounds Flash Thompson (I’d completely not realised this was a young Joe Manganiello, but not that young, since hardly anyone playing a teenager here looks less than 25). He’s also entirely convincing in his beta-male behaviour, taking the emotional beating Harry (James Franco, at his slimy best) inflicts on him when Osborne Jr snatches away Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst, spirited and enthusiastic in a less than overly giving part).
Raimi picks his cast keenly all-round, though. I was a bit cool on the movie on first viewing, enjoying it much more on subsequent visits (crazy as this may seem, more than the “best superhero movie” that is the first sequel), and that’s mostly down to Willem Dafoe’s deliriously crazed performance as Norman Osborne/ Green Goblin. Sure, I can make no arguments that the costume isn’t a now standard-issue armoured mech suit disappointment, but Dafoe inhabits the role with such relish, and Raimi supports him with such gleeful conviction, that one is keen to get back to him whenever we’re with the heroes of the piece. The Gollum-esque internal struggle for dominance between the warring sides of his character – defined by the mesmerising mirror scene – is an absolute highlight, and if Parker’s lacking in witty lines, Norman Osborn and the Goblin are ever ready with them (and really, you can’t but sympathise with Norman having Franco as a son).
A degree of sympathy is also engendered by having Norman up against it, first with the military withdrawing his contract from under him, and then again, when he’s ousted by the OsCorp board; even the Goblin killing his chief scientist is something Norman regrets. And when he fully turns, the result is a marvellously unsettling Thanksgiving dinner (well, it never gets to the eating part), as Norman arrives with the kind of grin only Dafoe can muster and an “Aunt May. I’m sorry I’m late. Work was murder” before adding “I uh picked up a fruit cake”. He maligns Peter’s room (“Bit of a slob, isn’t he?”) and then leaves in a hurry – but not before sabotaging Harry’s already waning chances with MJ – having realised Spidey’s true identity.
I also love that he shows up at The Daily Bugle to threaten J Jonah, and even more that he hides under a shawl pretending to be an old lady in a burning building. The only thing against him in all this, villainy-wise – and it is a massive blunder – is that he has Spider-Man at his mercy, to offer him a partnership no less, and doesn’t even sneak a peek under his mask.
Nicholson’s and Ledger’s Jokers still gets all the credit for comic-book villains, but for my money, Dafoe is every bit their equal (I do think it’s his costume that gets in the way of the recognition he deserves). Notably, and there are various clear parallels with Burton’s Batman here, the principals’ “births” are interlinked, here born on the same night. Significantly too, Peter doesn’t realise the Goblin is Norman until the latter reveals himself at the end, saying very little for Peter’s proactivity throughout (on that score, Spider-Man is rather slack, in the same way origin movies, with so many elements to juggle, often are).
Elsewhere, JK Simmons is an absolute blast as J Jonah Jameson; has a comic book character ever been more perfectly cast? His JJJ definitely tends to the more fun side of the various comic book portrayals, from his headlines (“Spider-Man – hero or menace?”) to his desire to get a patent on the name Green Goblin, to his intricate knowledge of defamation (“I resent that! Slander is spoken. In print, it’s libel”) and who he does trust (“My barber”).
It’s little surprise Simmons has returned to the role this year, as trying to find a worthy replacement would be a fool’s errand. There’s also Bruce Campbell as a wrestling announcer in Peter’s early fights for cash (a great sequence), Cliff Robertson exactly the incarnation of the insufferably honourable Uncle Ben one would expect, and Rosemary Harris the encapsulation of Aunt May (well until Marisa Tomei came along); her slapping Norman’s fingers for not waiting to eat is priceless.
As much a star are Raimi’s visuals, though. The gusto here is infectious, from the over-enunciated sound effect when Peter is first bitten, to his tingling spider-sense, to the masterful use of slow motion in action scenes (his corridor altercation with Flash is a particular knockout), to imaginative montage sequences (Peter’s hallucinatory fever post-bite, complete with skull), staging (Peter on the ceiling, Norman down below, a drop of blood poised to fall) and cutting (explosive debris transformed into raining graduation hats).
In contrast to most superhero movies, Raimi shoots 1:85:1 to take advantage of the vertiginous nature of the wallcrawler (only switching to 2:40:1 for the sequel – apparently due to the demands of Doc Ock’s tentacles, although some have also cited the subway train fight). He also sets as much of the fledgling CGI-dependent web slinging at night as he can; there’s been criticism in hindsight of the rudimentary quality of virtual Spidey, but in fairness, Raimi’s evidently aware of the limitations in his cutting decisions. Unlike many directors, he doesn’t allow the effects to do everything (and thereby unflatteringly over-expose their shortcomings).
Yes, the sales blueprint of Batman is all over this, from a pop act intruding on the action (Macy Gray performing during the carnival sequence) to Danny Elfman’s so-so score, but Raimi has put together an altogether more satisfying movie, understanding that you can’t just have mood; you also need to make a superhero do vaguely super things. While other movies of the period haven’t aged terribly well (X-Men), the most refreshing element of this and a couple of others (Ang Lee’s Hulk, Del Toro’s Blade II) is seeing talented filmmakers allowed to show their chops, rather than conform to producer-led dictates (on which subject, it sounds as if the cheesy post-9/11 response of New Yorkers’ “You harm one of us, you harm all of us” was down to Raimi himself).
That Spider-Man was just the start of a trilogy for the director but works as a self-contained story – yes, there are mentions of Eddie Brock and Curt Connors, Harry is grieving, and Peter’s poised for a sequel – shows clearly that,when Sony left Raimi behind, they also left behind their ability to make a solid Spidey movie. Well, for about twelve years.