Tuesday, July 2, 2019

My Seven Favorite Things About Spider-Man (2002)

A fond look back at the very simple things that made Sam Raimi’s original Spidey movie so much fun

By: Jimbo X

The original Spider-Man movie from 2002 is one of the few movies I’ve completely boomeranged on over the years. When it first came out, I was convinced it was one of the greatest superhero movies ever, if not the absolute best; by the time the Great Recession rolled around, however, my opinion on the flick soured considerably, especially when compared to its vastly superior 2004 sequel. But after recently rewatching the movie — here, a good 17 years after its initial theatrical release — I think I’m ready to come full circle and celebrate it as one of the best comic book adaptations ever. 

That’s not to say I consider it a legitimately “great movie” by any stretch. It’s a movie that certainly has its flaws and foibles, and I suppose it’s safe to say that a lot of aspects of the film just don’t hold up today at all (i.e., the dialogue, especially the banter exchanged between Spidey and the Green Goblin.) And while I still consider Spider-Man 2 the much better movie (in fact, not only does it remain the single greatest superhero movie ever filmed in my eyes, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the ONLY superhero movie that I’d say crosses over the cinematic threshold into being a legitimately great movie, regardless of genre), there’s still plenty of fantastic stuff in the first go-at-it to cherish and reminisce over.

Of course, superhero movies are pretty much the ONLY thing Hollywood makes nowadays, but back in 2002, it was an entirely different pop cultural landscape. Just take a look at the list of major theatrical releases that came out in the summer of 2001 — between The Mummy Returns and Jurassic Park III and Pearl Harbor, it was easier to get excited over the prospects of getting a rectal exam than it was hitting up the seasonal box office slate that year. But for better or for worse, that changed forever with the release of Spider-Man in 2002, which effectively ended the Hollywood-star-driven vehicle formula for summertime releases in favor of the big I.P. comic book movie bonanza that’s STILL going strong nearly a decade later. I think it’s safe to say that had Spider-Man not proven such a huge box office success that the whole cinematic superhero resurgence likely wouldn’t have happened — or, at the very least, would’ve been delayed by quite a few years. 

And in that, there’s quite a bit of irony. Whereas the contemporary Marvel/D.C. Hollywood offering is hardly anything more than an episodic morsel meant to sell you on the next slate of box office burnt offerings, Spider-Man from ‘02 felt totally different in tone and structure. It was a simple, three-act yarn with a definitive beginning and a definitive ending that worked as a standalone narrative — something you certainly cannot say about the ongoing MCU/DCU industrial-complex. So there’s certainly a sense of charm undergirding the movie — or, at the very least, a much less pronounced sense of shameless commercialism for shameless commercialism’s sake. 

Of course, it’s pretty hard to not compare this movie with the latest Disney Spider-flick — aye, contrasting these two movies is LITERALLY contrasting two different epochs in America culture, and in many ways, two different Americas. For better or for worse, there’s a reason why the denizens of 4Chan have co-opted the original film as a launching ground for “Raimi-Posting" ironic hipster racist memes, since the flick does indeed feel like it was birthed in a more — let’s say heterogeneous — era in American history. And considering it came out just months after 9/11, it’s certainly a sight to watch a movie that actually celebrates the constructs of America instead of bemoaning it as hopelessly sexist and racist and classist and ableist, which is pretty much the default theme of the “new wave” Marvel Cinematic Universe features. After rewatching Spider-Man, I can’t be the only person out there who desperately, direly yearns for hegemonic apolitical culture of 2002 over the hegemonic hyperpolitical culture of 2019 — not only is it a reminder of the purer, more innocuous roots of the superhero movie, it’s every bit the reminder of a purer, more innocuous cultural climate.

But as for the movie itself — factoring out all of the nostalgic waxing and ephemeral yen — I think the things that truly make Spider-Man enjoyable are the simple things. And when I say simple things, I mean the things that are so slight and minute in the grand scheme of the narrative that MOST people would likely write them off as asides, mere window dressings or completely inconsequential aesthetics. Yet there ends up being so many of those in the movie that they kinda’ ultimately culminate in this abstract encapsulation of everything that was socially enjoyable about the times … and, needless to say, are nowhere to be found in the contemporary superhero blockbuster. 

Wondering what I’m getting at here, folks? Well, wonder no more, as I gleefully recount my seven favorite things about the original Spider-Man flick from the year of our lord, 2002 … 

The “Shusing” Teacher!

Considering actor Shan Omar Huey literally had a minute of screen time in the whole movie, I reckon it’s safe to say the dude DEFINITELY made every millisecond count. During his close-up, so to speak, he literally pops out of a crowd looking like a Goomba from Super Mario Bros., just so he can berate Peter Parker and pals for cutting up in an experimental lab … albeit, with the quietest “indoor voice” possible. In fact, in his role as “Teacher” (yes, I IMDB’ed that motherfucker), Huey LITERALLY whispers every line of dialogue he has in the movie, and there’s just something so intrinsically funny about a guy who’s a foot shorter than everybody else in the scene proto-ASMR-ing high school students who all look like they’re 30. Take heed, aspiring bit players the world over — if you want to see minimalist scene chewing par excellence, Huey’s performance here is a goddamn master class in the art of extremely low-effort thespianism. 

Mary Jane’s Pose!

Even though nowadays she literally looks like a trailer park mom, back in the day Kirsten Dunst was positively WORLD CLASS. Did you ever see her in that music video for “Turning Japanese,” where she had the anime wig on? Hell, I could watch her have post-disappointing-coitus smokes in The Virgin Suicides all day long — and don’t even get me started on what her performance in Bring It On meant to my post-pubescent development. Of course, Dunst looked drop dead beautiful in Spider-Man, too, but for me the absolute zenith of her M.J. cuteness came during the scene where Peter Parker asked her to pose in the lab, and she did that staged shot of her pointing at a bunch of random papers, complete with that super goofy grin on her face that really showed off her apple cheeks. Sigh … to think that we’ve gone from this to THIS in just 17 years really makes me want to weep.

The “On-The-Street” Commentary!

You don’t really need me to tell you this, but Sam Raimi is a fuckin’ CHAMPION of montage sequences. Few things demonstrate what he gets right that seemingly no one else making superhero movies can than the sequence in Spider-Man where the camera goes all Erroll Morris on us and we get a whole bunch of quick cuts of random interview fragments with people on the streets of New York sharing their thoughts on the whole Spider-Man hullabaloo. This is the kind of thing you definitely DON’T see in modern comic book movies — that being, a real emphasis to drive the story forward through the eyes of regular people instead of the superpowered tragicomedy set pieces you’re getting in The Avengers. Plus, I still kinda want to make out with the orange-haired, cigarette-smoking skank who gets all thirsty over the prospects of being diddled by a man with eight hands — hell, I might even settle for swapping spit with the bald broad in fishnets in the background, the more I think about it. 

The Entire Bonesaw Sequence!

This is easily my favorite five-minute stretch of the entire movie. It’s got EVERYTHING. A cameo from Bruce Campbell. Fat people in the crowd who look like Paul Heyman screaming “CAGE!” and pretending to saw their own limbs off with aluminum foil arts and crafts project. And, of course, you have the IMMORTAL “Macho Man” Randy Savage taking a break from snapping into sundry Slim Jims just long enough to steal the whole goddamn movie, complete with his trademark line “BOOONESAW IS READDDDY,” which is something I still find myself saying at random intervals around people I probably shouldn’t. Plus, the sequence is book-ended by the two best comedic bits of the whole movie — the part where Peter’s shitty costume is revealed and the, ahem, “problematic” sequence in which “The Human Spider” accuses Bonesaw of having a homosexual romantic partner with a procilivity for desigining spandex sporting apparel … surely, something we’d NEVER see in a contemporary comic book movie, and indeed something that may get someone in England arrested for simply requoting these days.

The Blatant Product Placement for Dr. Pepper!

Sure, we’re all marking out over that delicious, blueberry-flavored, Mysterio-themed Dr. Pepper L-T-O released earlier this year, but the good Doc’s actually been riding on Spidey’s coattails since day uno. And considering the co-branding partnership between Sony Pictures and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc. that particular summer, it’s no surprise that Dr. Pepper got a blatant product placement cameo in the form of being one of Peter’s early web-slinging targets. Even funnier, in subsequent television airings of the movie, some versions of the film actually airbrushed the Dr. Pepper out with a more random, generic soda can. And shit, does all of this shameless cross-marketing really make me miss Dr. P’s old-school, maroon product aesthetic ...

The Green Goblin’s Skeleton Bombs!

At the time I wasn’t all that enthralled by Wilem Defoe’s performance as the Green Goblin, but almost 20 years down the line I’ve truly come to enjoy the over-the-top hamminess of his portrayal. Yes, he did have some unbelievably crappy lines — and I would’ve LOVED seeing the producers keep the original, more organic look for the Goblin as seen in this test footage — but his intentionally cartoonish depiction is certainly less ingratiating than the WAY too serious performances you’re getting from most MCU villains. And while Gobby never really came off as too horrific in the ‘02 movie, he certainly provided viewers with the scariest (and most disturbing) moment of the entire film — the sequence where he raids the Thanksgiving parade, interrupts Macy Gray’s performance and starts fuckin’ skeltonizing people left and right with flesh-erasing, DARPA-funded pumpkin bombs. I don’t care how old you are, if the prospect of some super-rich technocrat hopped up on experimental soldier gas literally making your skin and organs disappear in the blink of an eye doesn’t make you pee a little, you’re a goddamn lying rat fink.

The Part When The New Yorkers Fight Back!

Spider-Man, running the gamut from the part where Sum 41 starts playing for no reason whatsoever to Uncle Ben’s line about even computers needing therapists these days to the immortal “You’re the one whose out!” rebuttal from Old Webhead to Gobby, is a movie rife with memorable moments. But for me, whenever I think “standout scene in Spider-Man 1,”  the segment I immediately go to is the part where Spider-Man and the Goblin are duking it out on the bridge and then, all of a sudden, a whole bunch of fat New Yorkers start throwing wrenches and shit at the villian, proclaiming “if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” An obvious nod to the newfound sense of nationalist communalism in the wake of 9/11, it’s the kind of reality-rooted, pro-humanism moment that you will NEVER see in today’s DC and MCU movies. And really, that’s the thing I believe that separates Raimi’s Spider-movies — and really, all of the truly great comic book movies, like the first two Superman movies, Burton’s original Batman and The Dark Knight — from the constant bombardment of MCU and DCU episodic product. Scenes like this don’t focus on the super-part of the superhero motif, they focus on the hero part, celebrating not the allure of sheer power, but praising the beauty of sheer altruism. Granted, Spider-Man 2 got this message off much better, but in this one shining — if not lowkey moment — in Spider-Man, the movie exhibits more warmth, more heart and more sincerity than the entire MCU canon combined. Seventeen years later, this moment still hits me right in the feels; not only is it a scene that perfectly embodies everything that makes the Spider-mythos great, in some respects, it embodies everything that makes America as a culture great … and I reckon I’m speaking on behalf of everybody worth a damn when I say I certainly miss seeing both of those things extolled in today’s soulless Spider-flicks.


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