Trash or Treasure: SPIDER-MAN

J.C. De Leon

by: J.C. De Leon
April 5th, 2011

“Trash or Treasure” is a new recurring feature at Gordon and the Whale in which I return to a film that holds a special place in my heart (for a multitude of possible reasons) - and see if it is still deserving of that place. Have I been holding on to a piece of trash, or are my beloved films still bonafide treasure?

SPIDER-MAN holds a special place in my movie geek heart. Back in the year 2000, when I was just a freshman in college scouring the Internet, I came across a news blurb about a new SPIDER-MAN movie being made. I couldn’t believe it. Spider-Man is my favorite superhero and, from that day on, I became more than someone who had a mild interest in movies, I became a full-fledged movie nerd.

I would search whatever movie sites were around (and, at the time, there weren’t many) to get updated news on the project. Most of my information would come from sites like IGN and MTV News. I even bought a theatrical one sheet of the now-banned “Twin Towers” poster that I will never get rid of.

When the day finally came for me to sit down in a theater and watch the film,  I ended up at a 9AM matinee, in a theater full of kids - not the best experience. Keep in mind, I was twenty years old back then, and at the time, I felt a little ridiculous to be so excited for a movie, much less to be attending a 9AM screening with a bunch of eight and nine year olds who were just as excited as me. Nevertheless, I fell in love. I watched SPIDERMAN in theaters five times over the next couple of weeks!

I hadn’t read a lot of comics since I was 14 years old, but I never stopped loving Spider-Man. If I could have been any superhero, I would have been Spider-Man. I loved his sarcastic attitude and, besides his strength, I just loved the athleticism he possessed. These were the things I was most looking forward to seeing on screen. When May 3, 2002 finally came, had the film not lived up to my lofty expectations, I wouldn’t have subjected myself to four more subsequent viewings.

But does it hold up? For this film in particular, I find that it’s most pertinent to examine it as a technical marvel, in addition to its overall lasting appeal. This was, after all, the first film of the modern Marvel era where the movies became mainstream summer events. It’s what got people my age who had forgotten about comics interested in superheroes again. It was a chance for Sam Raimi fans to see what he could do with a seemingly limitless budget.

Overall, SPIDER-MAN has a lot of positives going for it. From the opening shot, Tobey Maguire looks the part of Peter Parker perfectly, as does the rest of the cast in their various roles. Even Kirsten Dunst, who I’ve never been a fan of, takes the role of Mary Jane Watson and manages to make an incredibly attractive woman out of her. This is the only one of the three films I’ve found her at least mildy attractive in, but that’s another issue for another day.

The hero and villain introductions were done pretty well, despite Willem Dafoe’s eye-rollingly cheesy arm-extended pose and his leap after obtaining his newfound strength and extra grumpy-pants attitude. To this day, I still really like the scene in the high school where first Peter stops Mary Jane from falling, only then to discover the weird white stuff shooting from his wrist (go ahead, make a joke), culminating in Peter beating his nemesis Flash Thompson in a fight.

The film's strength is its take on the ultimate beginning of Spider-Man, before he becomes an icon - as he’s learning how to use his web-shooting ability, adjusting to his new highly improved agility, to becoming more overall confident allowing his snarkiness to come out. The other scene I truly love is when he defeats Bone-saw McGraw in a cage wrestling match, particularly the first time he truly has to figure out on the fly (literally) how to navigate around the city.

Besides any of what was actually seen on-screen, another giant positive to the film is Danny Elfman’s score. It gave an epic feel to the film and really made it feel much bigger than it was. Genuinely awesome stuff in the first half of the film is what made the movie great to me.

If any negatives were to be found when this movie was new to me, it would have been the crappy CGI in some parts. It’s understandable that a character the scope of Spider-Man is something that’s hard to imagine being turned into a tangible live action film. After all, as a superhero, Spider-Man can do some amazing things, and it would have been great if the movie had made the things he’s capable of doing look like something besides Judge Doom after he’d gotten run over by a steam roller. The movie is nine years old now, but at the time, the effects already seemed dated and super cheesy when they didn’t need to be. 

The performances aren’t anything to gloat about here. There really isn’t one that stands out as great, with the exception of J.K. Simmon’s portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson, whose every line delivery brought an absolute smile to my face. Speaking of line delivery, the line delivery in one of the early scenes where Peter meets Norman Osborn for the first time is God-awful, and that seemed to set the expectation that nobody besides J.K. Simmons brings their A game to this film.

What about the real stars of the show? The reason some of us spent hours on the Internet looking up news and information about the movie and bought tickets weeks ahead of time for the movie was, without question, Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. Spider-Man in costume looked great! The colors were perfect, and it was everything I imagined a real life Spider-Man to look like.

That being said, the Green Goblin couldn’t have looked any worse as a villain. The costume itself wasn’t too bad, it was that ridiculous mask that I could just never accept. It isn’t that it’s a bad costume (it is), but when lit a certain way, you could see inside the mouth of the mask to Willem Dafoe’s face and I could never get past that. Why was it designed that way?!

Thankfully, the fights between the two were actually done pretty well and, when filmed in wide shots, the Green Goblin was honestly kind of cool. It’s a shame that same quality couldn’t have been given to Spider-Man in wide shots.

So how does SPIDER-MAN hold up overall? Sadly, today I view this as a pretty cheesy, easily mockable movie. This is mostly evident because when I see bad CGI, the first thing I think of is the scene on the rooftops where Peter Parker has just discovered his powers. As great as the early stuff in the movie is, there are comic book movies today that take what is good in SPIDER-MAN and improve upon it or, at the very least, do it just as well.

It’s ultra cheesy at times, but it’s got a great score and, as far as comic book characters in film go, J. Jonah Jameson in this franchise is among the best on screen. It’s not to say that this movie doesn’t hold a special place in my heart because it helped make me the movie geek I am today, but alas, every movie in this column will have a verdict, and for SPIDER-MAN the verdict is: it's close, and I still kinda love it, but overall, I gotta go with TRASH. Really horribly CGI'd and terribly acted trash, but always a treasure in my heart.

Until next time, kiddos! Look out for the next installment of “Trash or Treasure" - with SUCKER PUNCH still fresh in moviegoers' minds, I'll give the the TOT treatment to Zack Snyder's 300.

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  • Kristal Bailey

    Great column idea! It makes me want to revisit this flick again myself. I saw it 4 times in theaters and am in the minority in liking it more than the 2nd. But it’s been at least 6 years since I saw it last.

  • Josh Frink

    1) I love this type of post. I can’t wait for future posts to see what cinematic gems (or trash) I’ve forgotten about.
    2) The cast in SPIDERMAN really is what made it such a great film. Like you said, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst had the perfect look for their roles. Andrew Garfield will have to be fantastic in the reboot for me to not think of Tobey every time I think Spiderman. And JK Simmons is the perfect J Jonah Jameson. I hope they find some way to keep him in the (inevitable) new series.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for saying so! Andrew Garfield is really fantastic actor and from interviews I’ve read seems prepared to take on the iconic role. I think he’ll do a good job.

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