Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Summer of Trilogies - SPIDER-MAN

We are in the middle of a Golden Age of "geek cinema" - a studio system that was once built upon seeking out the biggest stars to headline tentpoles has now almost completely inverted. Now big-name stars line-up for the sorts of roles that Alec Guinness regretted and resented being most well-known for, and fantastical genre projects that would never have seen the light of day are the bread and butter of an entire industry.

But that didn't happen over-night, or with a single film.

I seem to run with a lot of themed series on this blog - The Disney Renaissance and the Harry Potter Marathon were incredibly fun to write and even more sober reflections like the Tony Scott In Memorium series hew closely to my own fondness for movie production details and genre cinema. This year sees the release of a new Middle-earth film, a new Spider-man movie, a new X-men movie, and a new movie from the Wachowski siblings, so the coming summer months seem an appropriate time to revisit a lot of the trilogies that had a major hand in shaping the blockbuster landscape we now find ourselves in.

Some of these films I love, some of them I don't. Many are perennial favorites, others I haven't seen in years. But all of them, in their own small way, helped to change movies forever.

And I'll be starting with one of the most recognizable - and possibly controversial - entries of all. Sam Raimi's Spider-man Trilogy.

Strap in, this is gonna get long.

It's easy to forget in this heyday of geek dream properties going to fan-favorite directors, but at the turn of the last century, getting the "ideal" person to helm a big superhero movies almost never happened. The Kryptonite bullet that was dodged when Tim Burton's Superman Lives project finally fell through has become the stuff of internet legend, and fandom was still reeling at the fate of Batman at the hands of Joel Schumacher in the "Forever" and "& Robin" installments. It seemed like studios just did not know who to tap to direct their men-in-tights movies.

Then Sony hired Sam Raimi to helm Spider-man, and everything changed.

Nowadays this is the proven business model - nerd culture's favorite "secret weapon" Joss Whedon wasn't just the perfect guy to handle The Avengers from a creative standpoint, he was someone who already had in-house connections to Marvel and was a load of free (good) publicity for the studio. But it's doubtful he'd have gotten the job if it weren't for Raimi's work on the wall-crawler's big-screen debut.

Honestly, it's entirely unlikely that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would exist at all if it weren't for Spider-man.

Yes, there were other events that led to this franchise finally getting off the ground. Marvel's financial ruin in the 90's led to them selling a lot of characters to movie studios which led to Blade which led to X-men (and we'll get to that one later) years before the webhead's release, but it was Spider-man that turned superheroes from "a profitable genre" to "THE profitable genre" in Hollywood. Remember, this movie came out the same month as a Star Wars film (and yes, we'll get to those too), and handily trounced it at the box office.

But that's because Spider-man is just a damn functional film. There's been an odd reappraisal of Raimi's Spidey movies in the wake of Sony's reboot and the "grim-'n-grittification" of the superhero genre that roared to life in the wake of The Dark Knight (but for some reason refuses to completely disappear in a post-Avengers world), and I find it completely wrong-headed. Raimi was a very left-field choice for the property, but he proved himself handily, creating a world for Spider-man that was one part throwback to the tone and theatricality of the 60's comics, one part reaction to modern cynicism of the concept of heroics, and one part Raimi's personal over-the-top touch that he'd honed through movies like his Evil Dead Trilogy and Darkman. Even as Sony insisted in a version of the character that hewed more closely to the current 90's books (which would have sucked), Raimi brought audiences the silver age of superheroes through the lens of modern movie-making.

And it works. Yes, it's broad and pulpy and often silly, but you know what? SO ARE SUPERHEROES. Raimi's characters inhabit a world of super-science and modern technology but have social strata more akin to Archie comics or the cast of Fast Times at Ridgemont High - and that's okay. Because it's a movie, and is completely uninterested in pretending otherwise. Its tone is consistent with its world and the characters' actions therein, and Raimi's personal flourishes make the project pop in a way that many other contemporary genre efforts failed to in the name of playing it "safe." Your mileage may vary on some of the minor diversions from the source material (Spidey himself isn't as "jokey" as I'd prefer, but organic webshooters work just fine, thank you), but the film has a perfect understanding of the comics' ethos in regards to heroism, sacrifice, and the burden of doing the right thing.

That's the deal-breaker. Most of Spider-man's success is attributable to the fact that the film just nails the character and story of Spider-man himself. Tobey Maguire is a fantastic Peter Parker, the audience-level guy in an extraordinary world. These movies are empathy machines, giving the audience real reason to root for Peter as he makes and learns from his mistakes, and in this capacity Maguire excels, even while playing perfectly opposite character actor greats like Willem Dafoe and J.K. Simmons as they feast on scenery. His relationship with Harry Osborne is natural and believable (that dynamic may be the most consistent "good" part of the trilogy honestly), as is the mix of warmth and wariness that he displays against Norman.

Part of this is an under-appreciated subtlety to Maguire's acting. His Peter is the sort of nerd that existed before geek culture became popular culture - cripplingly self-conscious, bereft of self-esteem, and with a dollop of shame regarding his social standing (his delivery of "That's me." during his opening voice-over is very telling, especially when compared to the confident declaration of "I'm Spider-man." at the end). This manifests most notably in how he reacts to people - at first he's very reserved and introverted, mumbling at them from a safe distance of social divide, but once he finds common ground he begins to open up. Just watch his introduction to Norman Osborne and the way he opens up once he finds out about the latter's interest in science.

A more gradual example of this plays out as he and Mary Jane Watson go from "only neighbors" to "best friends." He also sells the hell out of the "pining for the girl next door" interpretation the film uses of the Mary Jane/Peter relationship.

If there's one real weakness of these films, it's the casting of Kirsten Dunst - she's never bad, but she's not quite as nimble in the role as her peers. But even as an arguable weak link her MJ is a full character with a personal history of emotional abuse and heartache - one she hides and hides from with her school persona and acting/modeling career - that come through brilliantly in her performance. And her wonder at the web-swinging man in red and blue mirrors the audience's own, and we believe her falling for him just as easily as we root for him ourselves.

There's a reason that so many movies (including Iron Man and Sony's own reboot, which is more a beat-for-beat remake than a new film) use this film as a template for "superhero origin stories." Raimi just got it. The film's structure is a beautiful study of choice and consequence in 5 acts and culminates in a surprisingly brutal super-powered brawl, the results of which have real long-reaching impact on the entire trilogy. The characters all grow and change and the film shows a lot of this organically and through visual storytelling (Peter's discovery of/experimentation with his powers? Perfect) rather than information dump conversations.

But more than anything, the film is packed full of genuine, earned emotion to compliment its visual effects. And while the latter now come across as a bit dated, the former is still just as impressive.

But what's crazy is that, in 2004, we found out that Raimi was just getting warmed up.

Even after The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the short list for "Best Superhero Movie" ever still includes Spider-man 2. That's as it should be.

So often these days the big-budget sequel raises the stakes by expanding outward - building the world and the cast, making the actions of everyone reach wider and ripple further, making the explosions larger and the action more frequent. And while Spider-man 2 is no slouch when it comes to effects-powered set pieces, it chooses to up the ante from its predecessor by diving inward, and making a story entirely about internal conflict - of the needs and wants of the self being at war with each other. Both for its hero and its villain.

The film, which opens with a conflicted Peter struggling to balance a life of heroism as Spider-man with the life he wants with Mary Jane, takes this internal conflict and externalizes beautifully. While the original Spider-man was none-too subtle in using the gaining of super-powers as a metaphor for going through puberty (a popular enough tactic), the sequel shows what happens when this young man pushes the body he thought he knew to a breaking point, and feels betrayed by the very powers that were once so exhilarating. Not only is this crackerjack character work and a great driving force for the narrative, it results in some fantastic gags at the expense of Peter's comfort.

Here again is where Raimi's movies demonstrate their knack for empathy - Peter is so great a hero that we can root for his happiness even as we laugh at the wacky side of his minor misfortunes (the broom closet, the elevator), but when he's backed against a wall and forced to put the mask on again, we're absolutely in his corner as he swings off to fight Doc Ock.

Oh, and let's talk about Octavius. Following Dafoe's dynamo turn as Osborne was no mean feat, especially given how large the Green Goblin looms in the comics and how perfectly Raimi captured the character's menace (if not his outfit - the Tokusatsu-inspired gear was a step in the right direction, but doesn't quite work). And with Doctor Octopus Raimi doubled down on the sympathetic angle he took to crafting a villain - everyone in this world is human, his films assert. There's potential for great good and great destruction in everyone, from a frightened New Yorker in a speeding train to a brilliant scientist with nothing left to lose. The character's look, while deviating from the comics, works just as brilliantly as his motivations, and the combination of practical mechanical and CGI effects for Ock's arms is still one of the best bits of movie magic this century.

Like the original, this movie is a study in comparisons and contrasts, showing a hero and a villain with remarkable similarities but widely different reactions to their circumstances. And it threads them together carefully, from a lab accident to a bank robbery, eventually building to the aforementioned train battle.

Which still stands as one of the Top 3 action sequences in the genre, if not the past 20 years of cinema as a whole.

And what makes that sequence so powerful, like the rest of the film, is how character-driven it is, how it hinges on choice and consequence. This permeates the film and the rest of the cast. Aunt May is asked to choose between forgiving her nephew for a mistake that cost her the man she loved, or letting her grief fester into hate, which - not coincidentally - is the precise choice that Harry is asked to make. Mary Jane is asked how long she's willing to wait for someone who claim's he loves her, and ultimately, to choose between a life of distant security or the danger of true love (more literal than usual for Spider-man, but "you might get hurt" comes with every serious relationship).

Incidentally, it's notable that, whereas in The Amazing Spider-man 2 Gwen is actively punished for something that she states repeatedly is HER choice, the entire thesis of Spider-man 2 ends up being that MJ should be allowed to make that choice. That if Peter respects her, he'll be honest and open with her, and treat their relationship like a partnership - like adults are supposed to.

These triumphs almost totally erase the movie's few shortcomings - but they are present. The film is highly economical, but is still about a scene or two too long (the part where Peter visits the campus doctor is utterly unnecessary), and while Franco and Dunst are still good/solid respectively, there are a couple wooden lines (though the Spider-man 2.1 extended cut fleshes out a couple key scenes to great effect). But the rest of it? The opening credits with the recap-in-pictures by Alex Ross? Great. Peter's battles of banality with his landlord? Great. The Bruce Campbell cameo as the usher? Great. Ock's "Evil Dead"-esque birth in the hospital operating room? Great. Peter's obvious frustration at losing his powers, the brief feeling of elation at the lifting of responsibility only to see it come crashing back down again as Peter discovers he can't stand idly by? Hell, the iconic sequence where Peter gives up the suit itself? Soooooo great. Everything involving J. Jonah Jameson? Mega-great (but you knew that).

The story works with elegant functionality that's so natural it almost seems easy. The action is soaring and fantastical, with wide, long shots that showcase the joy of Spidey's abilities while also smashing to real practical stunts for key moments or blow impacts to remind the audience that there's still a person under that suit. The cast and the film find nearly the perfect rhythm with the tone that Raimi introduced in the first movie, and while the film has no interest in being "realistic," it is utterly human.

Even as it ends on a fairy tale note of triumphant wish fulfillment, MJ's lingering reaction speaks to the difficulties of this level of commitment, and the troubled waters to come.

Let's just get this out of the way - yes, Spider-man 3 is a disappointment. Not just because it followed Spider-man 2, but because it's a bit of a mess. Well, okay, a LOT of a mess.

That said, it's not terrible.

Nope, it's really not. Not something that "ruins" the franchise or the character, not "the worst comic book movie ever" - hell, it's not even the worst movie about Spider-man himself. In fact, there are huge chunks of it that are fascinating both in their own right and as a view of an artist straining against the ludicrous restrains of a clueless studio, and there's a lot of the film that actually flat-out works. There's a lot of good in this movie, and - especially in hindsight - the fan reaction (read: internet hyperbole) to it was woefully disproportionate to its shortcomings.

But what's perhaps most remarkable about Spider-man 3 is how perfectly it works as a commentary on its own tempestuous production.

Sony just could not leave well enough alone. They'd been putting pressure on Raimi from the beginning of the first film's development to include more "modern" elements of the character from recent comics, but he resisted for two films, and the results speak for themselves. His original plan for 3 would have involved a team-up of classic Spidey villains Vulture (making the inclusion of his wings as a background easter egg in TASM2 a bit of a slap in the face) and Sandman, but it was not to be. The third time proved to be the charm for producer Avi Arad and Sony pictures, and Raimi finally agreed to use the iconic Todd McFarlane creation Venom.

And it was this film's ultimate undoing. Raimi really tries - there's not much to Venom other than a "cool" look and the fact that he knows Spidey's secret identity - and to his credit, the idea of using Eddie Brock as a dark reflection of Peter Parker is a solid idea that the actors sell the hell out of (Topher Grace really does some amazing work here). And no, Venom itself doesn't get much screen time, but he shows up enough to be impressive and scurry around and smack Spider-man a good bit. Some may see this as "short-changing" the character (I can't imagine why - again, Venom's pretty thin), but it allows the film to play its ultimate trump card.

Spider-man himself is the villain of Spider-man 3.

This was BALLSY. Part of why Raimi's films had worked so well to this point was the audience's affinity for the character, the way the movies made you root for Peter even as the world dumped on him. In 3, the tables are turned. Life is going pretty good for Peter Parker (it's Mary Jane who's wandered into his bad luck, and Dunst does an admirable job with that), and the effect is that he's starting to lose sight of what's important. The character's journey mirror's the studio's handling of the character - grown full of himself, adopting an identity that seems "cool" at first but is revealed to be poisonous, trying to juggle too many things at once. It's hard to say for sure that Raimi meant this film to be a commentary on his studio manhandling, but he did help write the screenplay.

And it's rather apparent how Raimi feels about the fascination with Venom, Black Costume Spider-man, and the obsession with "dark, gritty, badass" heroes in general. His version of the story avoids the "bad = COOL" trope and dives headlong into the symbiote's affect on Peter, how it makes him selfish, violent, and uncomfortable to watch. Yes, the dance scene is cringe-worthy - IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE. You're not supposed to think that Peter is "cool" all of a sudden just because he's stronger and more aggressive (he and the symbiote don't know what "cool" really is anyway), you're supposed to crave the moment where he rips off the black suit and goes back to the red and blue. "Here's your damn symbiote storyline!" the movie says. "Look at what that would actually feel like for these characters. You happy? Thought not. Now, let's get back to the business of being Spider-man movies."

The central ethos is admirable and largely well-executed. And yes, I can see why this left some audiences feeling uncomfortable. After two movies of loving and rooting for Spidey, we were given a movie where he was actually the central antagonist. That's rough to sit through, but the film pulls that element off.

What it doesn't pull off, unfortunately, is a lot of the material around it. Many characters are important to the moving pieces of the arcs of the three central characters, but have very little else to do (Gwen Stacy) or feel a bit shortchanged because the film can't give them as much attention as they deserve (Sandman - but WOW does he ever work on a visual and empathy level). And because of all the threads that have to get tied up, there are a few too many last-minute revelations and contrivances that just don't work (Butler Ex Machina, Marko accidentally shooting Uncle Ben).

But the film still manages to stick the landing like a champ (apart from playing the "MJ in danger" card for the third time in a row). Harry in particular could have been a disaster, especially given some of his more wooden moments in Spider-man 2, but here Franco hits the perfect balance between the amnesiac worry-free Harry - a cool nod to Norman Osborn's own condition in the comics - and the sadistic manipulation of full-on revenge Harry, and his fights with Peter are fantastically brutal and packed with emotional subtext. But they still sell the friendship so thoroughly that the last-minute change of heart really works (even if the revelation that leads to it doesn't) and results in an AMAZING four-way super-powered brawl. In the end, Harry's death gets to be a triumphant sacrifice that caps his character arc, rather than the unavoidable tragedy that all the other endings in the series have been.

Spider-man 3 is an easy mark to sling mud at. Yes, it's over-stuffed, and yes it writes itself into corners that it then has to hand-wave itself out of. But it's a far better movie than it has any right to be, considering how the studio treated Raimi, and what's more - it's still got something on its mind. This movie could have totally played it safe. It could have easily had Black Suit Spidey essentially be Wolverine with Webs and not challenge the audience in any way. But instead Raimi decided to actually say something with this movie, even though he was more or less doing a "for them" bit to get Venom out of the way before moving to the next phase of Spider-man's adventures that actually interested him.

It's a damn shame we'll never see what those could have been. But for all the issues in the closing chapter, these three films tell a hell of a story.

The Spider-man Trilogy marks both a marginal beginning (with S-M1) and a definitive end (with S-M3) to the "First Generation" of the current comic book movie craze. There was a significant tonal shift seen between 2007's final Raimi Spidey film and 2008's follow up to Batman Begins (and yes, we will definitely go into those later) that permeated a lot of comic book films to follow. But while Sony was quick to course-correct when it rebooted the series, the visual fidelity to source material and sense of honest emotion that the original Spidey movies leaned on so heavily was an obvious influence on Marvel Studios when they started making movies. It's no accident that you can trace a straight line from 2002's Spider-man to both the structure of 2008's Iron Man and the pulp throwback nature of 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger.

Which is appropriate, because while we'd certainly still have superhero movies nowadays regardless, it was Sam Raimi who made them pop culture titans.

1 comment:

  1. Nice writeup.

    Spider-man 3 was the first movie to actually make me angry, and regret paying for, while I sat in my theater seat. It didn't do everything wrong, like you said, but the things it did wrong I had a major problem with. It is hard to accept that the things it does wrong also brought about the best of the film.

    For instance I hated the amnesia trope used as a shortcut. But the scenes that lead to were genuinely interesting. Franco really did sell the hell out of it and was so charismatic. Strawberries!

    Peter acting like a tool? This was actually one common gripe I never had a problem with. I quite enjoyed the cringe-inducing actions of Peter in black.

    Now what really set me off was Harry blackmailing MJ - threatening to kill Peter - to force her to leave him. That scene tries to play off the who know what angle, but it just never works for me. Each of them knows everything about each other at that point. So from a perspective standpoint, MJ easily had other more logical options than just doing what Harry told her to do.