"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Spider-Man

“He had an uneventful childhood. He played baseball with the other kids on the block, became fascinated with the antics of what later became his heroes – The Three Stooges, read Spiderman comic books, thought Jerry Lewis was hilarious and the Little Rascals even more so. What influenced Raimi to become the ‘horror meister’ of slash and gore films is not found in his past.”

Dead Auteur: How a 20-year-old ex-college student carved out his horror niche in Hollywood by Sue Uram, Cinefantastique, August 1992

 

Immediately following Raimi’s very serious director period, his career changed drastically again. After so many stabs at the mainstream, he finally made the leap to genuine blockbuster filmmaking, bringing one of the most famous characters in the history of American pop culture to the big screen for the first time. This is not the use-Intro-Vision-to-stretch-the-budget-enough-to-try-to-compete-in-summer of DARKMAN and ARMY OF DARKNESS, or the work-with-huge-stars-but-scare-off-boring-people-by-doing-something-different-with-them of THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. I’m talking a super hero event movie with ten times the budget of DARKMAN, working with Sony Digital Imageworks to pioneer effects techniques that nobody was even sure would be possible, and finally sharing his talents with pretty much the widest audience possible for a movie.

When he was hired to direct SPIDER-MAN, Raimi talked a good game about Peter Parker being a normal teenager with normal teenager problems, and about how he wanted to shoot the web-swinging like a dance sequence. He was clearly a great choice who had more than earned the opportunity, and there was precedent for this sort of thing: a few years earlier the guy who did BAD TASTE convinced them to let him do LORD OF THE RINGS. But it was still exciting to see another one of our guys, the guy who did EVIL DEAD, given the keys to Spider-Man.

And that was after a bunch more of “our guys” took a shot and missed . Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, most attempts at making movies out of Marvel Comics characters were seen as disreputable. HOWARD THE DUCK was expensive but hated, THE PUNISHER was more in a b-movie zone, and underappreciated. Marvel was so low rent that Cannon had the rights to their characters in the ‘80s, and directors who were attached to adapt Spider-Man include the guy who did THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, the guy who did FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER and the guy who did CYBORG. After Cannon lost the rights, I think the fact that post-T2 James Cameron developed a version for several years, plus the success of BLADE and X-MEN, helped more people realize what an event the first Spider-Man movie could and should be, and expectations changed.

Mine were sky high, and at the time I thought this lived up to them, as did most people, as far as I could tell. (Come to think of it, I’m so old I have a record of exactly what I thought about it at the time.) The movie was a gigantic hit, making $825 million and helping pave the way for our current Marvel Comics based civilization. But I admit that at some point I rewatched it on DVD and didn’t like it quite as much, saw other versions of Spider-Man and thought I kind of liked them better, stayed away from this one for years. So it was really interesting to watch SPIDER-MAN again as part of my Sam Raimi studies. I don’t think I’d seen it since before the MCU started in 2008, and so much has changed since then.


Unlike any of the previous super heroes that had been made into movies, Raimi’s Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire, seen as kind of an indie darling at the time because of THE ICE STORM and WONDER BOYS) is a genuine nerd. Like Ash in ARMY OF DARKNESS, he narrates the opening and closing of the film, telling the story of of his shitty life swerving into incredible adventures that nobody else knows about. But he puts more of a negative spin on it, like Darkman. “The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale, if somebody told you I was just an average ordinary guy, not a care in the world, somebody lied.”

He’s introduced mid-humiliation, chasing and yelling after a school bus he missed. Throughout the series Raimi will get alot of mileage out of these comedy sequences that stack increasingly ridiculous embarrassments on poor Peter the way the Deadites piled grueling horror on Ash. Everyone on the bus laughs at Peter’s predicament, including the driver. We feel the weight of the whole school glaring at him as he does get on the bus. A nerdy girl won’t let him sit next to her. A big jock guy named Flash (who I now recognize as Joe Manganiello in his movie debut, ten years before MAGIC MIKE), trips him. Only his next-door-neighbor/life-long crush Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, SMALL SOLDIERS, THE CROW: SALVATION) speaks up for him, but she’s with her boyfriend, the same guy who tripped him .

And the hits keep on coming when they arrive for their field trip to the genetics lab at Columbia University and he gets the old holy-shit-she’s-smiling-and-waving-and-coming-toward-me/oh-never-mind-she-was-looking-at-her-friends-behind-me-and-now-I-look-like-a-total-dipshit-because-I-smiled-and-waved-back.

The lab tour scene is carefully written to introduce a ridiculous number of elements. It’s where we meet Peter’s best friend, rich kid Harry Osborn (James Franco fresh off of Freaks and Geeks) and see that they’re both attracted to Mary Jane and try to talk to her in different ways. We see that Peter is a photographer, documenting the trip for the school newspaper. We hear that he lives with his aunt and uncle. We meet Harry’s dad, scientist and Oscorp CEO Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe right before AUTO FOCUS), see that Peter idolizes him and wrote a paper on him, hear that he’s a pioneer in nanotechnology, and notice that Harry struggles to gain his respect and seems kind of jealous of how much he likes Peter. We see more of Peter’s scientific knowledge and enthusiasm through his comments during the tour.

And of course this is also where an escaped genetically altered red and blue super-spider bites Peter, causing an infection that will turn into super powers. Like Darkman before him, Spider-Man’s abilities are explained during a guided tour, as the guide (Una Damon, THE TRUMAN SHOW)’s spiel conveniently mentions features of different species of spider that align with what will be Spider-Man’s powers: strength, jumping, webs with “a tensile strength proportionately equal to that of high tension wire,” and (in an impressive stretch) “reflexes with nerve-conduction velocity so fast that some researchers believe it almost borders on precognition. An immminent awareness of danger, a spider-sense.”

Peter also mentions spiders being able to change color like chameleons, ‘cause he doesn’t know this is supposed to be foreshadowing, he thinks they’re just listing different facts I guess.

A reoccurring issue in this trilogy will be characters having freak accidents with bizarre health effects and then not telling anyone or getting medical help. Also known as “pulling a Darkman.” But it makes sense with Peter’s working class background and working as a freelancer that he wouldn’t have good insurance, if any, and would avoid going to the doctor.

We next see our budding super villain Norman Osborn on the job pitching his wares to the military assholes on his board of directors. They don’t give a shit that he “solved the horizon glide and the multi-G balance issues” with the jet glider, they’re more concerned that the performance enhancers aren’t ready for human trials. They increased strength by 800% but had problems one of the times they tested them on rodents. (See a doctor and stop taking performance enhancement vapors if you experience side effects including violence, aggression and insanity.)

Yes, this appears to be a Sam Raimi movie.

Speaking of side effects, Peter is at home feeling weird from the spider bite. Raimi and editor Bob Murawski (ARMY OF DARKNESS, HARD TARGET) and/or Arthur Coburn (BEVERLY HILLS COP, THE MASK, A SIMPLE PLAN, FOR LOVE OF THE GAME, THE GIFT) use a slightly subdued version of a DARKMAN type montage, with flashes of a skull, and zooms into a CG animation of Peter’s DNA as spiders crawl on it and replace parts of it with red and blue strands. There are several montages in this that look more digital and less hand-crafted than those in DARKMAN and THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, but they’re very much in the same spirit.

Peter discovers that he sees better with his glasses off, and looks buff in the mirror. And then he starts experimenting with climbing and swinging, in a very regular-guy-fucking-up kind of way. To this day the powers-related detail that’s most effective to me is the shot of the tiny little insect leg type things coming out of Peter’s fingertips, to explain how he grips the walls when he climbs them. It’s such a disturbing image and I totally buy that that’s how it would work. (At least when he’s not wearing gloves.)

Credited screenwriter David Koepp (I COME IN PEACE, TOY SOLDIERS, JURASSIC PARK, THE SHADOW) was first hired to rewrite from Cameron’s script, long after Cameron left. Koepp switched out the villains Electro and Sandman for Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus. When Raimi decided the latter wasn’t working he had uncredited rewriter Scott Rosenberg (DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, KANGAROO JACK) remove him, and then producer Laura Ziskin hired her Academy Award winning husband Alvin Sargent (GAMBIT, PAPER MOON, WHAT ABOUT BOB?) to polish the dialogue.

Everything I’ve read about Cameron’s version suggests a drastically different tone – not trying for a gee whiz old timey feel at all, but a modern cinematic reinvention of old shit. The one thing I know remains from Cameron’s draft is what they call “organic webshooters” – the spider bite causes Peter to grow orifices in his wrists that shoot the webs. This was hugely controversial among comic fans at the time because everybody knows Peter invented and built the webshooters and they are a mechanical thing attached to his wrist. (Okay, no, I honestly had no idea. I assumed the one obviously-spider-like-without-having-to-have-a-tour-guide-explain-it power Spider-Man had came from his famous spider bite.)

Noticing Peter’s being weird, Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, GIDGET, MALONE, ESCAPE FROM L.A.) says, “Teenagers. Raging hormones. They never change,” which is a joke about how much this particular teenager actually is changing, and also sets up a puberty parallel as Peter experiments with web shooting in his bedroom and his guardians seem to think he’s in there jerking off.

I would like to take a moment to honor how believable Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, briefly seen as Annie’s grandma in THE GIFT)’s apartment is – comfy but small and very much furnished like people their age would furnish it. I think it really captures that feeling of a teenager staying with their grandparents – his love for and responsibility to guardians of an older generation than his peers’ parents is formative for him, but also might make him different and socially awkward.

And please note that Uncle Ben driving the EVIL DEAD Oldsmobile is amazing because it’s an in-joke but also that is exactly the old-ass car he would drive. In fact, my grandpa drove an Oldsmobile.

Raimi’s style is noticeable in the comical ways Peter’s powers come out. The part where Mary Jane slips in the cafeteria and Peter catches her, her tray, and then several flying lunch items on the tray, seems like it could almost fit into CRIMEWAVE somewhere. There’s physical comedy like getting his web stuck to a tray and accidentally flinging it at Flash. And the Raimi kineticism comes out when Flash tries to fight him and he dodges every punch, flips over him, punches him so hard he slides down the hall like in a kung fu movie. Later, Raimi-an visuals will include a transition from explosion debris to caps being thrown at Peter’s high school graduation, many zoom ins on Peter and other characters as their hair is being blown by the wind (or the rocket sled flying by), and Goblin blasting a hole through Aunt May’s apartment reminiscent of the tree monster breaking through in EVIL DEAD II.

Another good Raimi piling-it-on joke is the succession of horrors Peter faces as he makes his way to the wrestling ring.

Sort of like that doofus in CRIMEWAVE trying to impress a woman and having to wash dishes to pay for their meal, Peter wants to buy a car to compete with Flash’s fancy ass ride and therefore enters a wrestling challenge. That scene is notable for

1. Featuring WWF legend “Macho Man” Randy Savage as “Bone Saw”

2. Letting Bruce Campbell cameo as the ring announcer, something he turns out to be very good at

3. Having maybe the first instance of the “shitty home made version of a famous super hero costume” trope, as Peter dons a ski mask and baggy red and blue clothes that almost look like pajamas.

(When Peter later has a professionally made suit based on his sketches it is extremely unclear where the fuck it could’ve possibly come from. The latex web pattern overlay was 3-D printed for the movie, so maybe he got help from Darkman.)

Raimi seems sincerely invested in the morality of Spider-Man. When the wrestling promoter who ripped Peter off (Larry Joshua, THE BURNING, UNFORGIVEN) then gets robbed, Peter pointedly does not stop the thief (Michael Papajohn, also in FOR LOVE OF THE GAME) and smiles about it like an asshole. Then the thief kills Uncle Ben in a carjacking, so Peter’s tough-shit-ism comes back at him immediately.

Later, as Spider-Man, he catches up with the carjacker, and his lust for vengeance is clearly over the line – when he bends the guy’s wrist backwards it reminds me of Darkman mangling that carnie’s fingers. Though the carjacker falling out a window to his death is an accident, it’s Spider-Man’s fault, and he is clearly more upset about it than Batman was when he accidentally dropped the Joker, or Darkman was when he intentionally dropped Strack.


One reason SPIDER-MAN seemed like such a comic book movie breakthrough at the time was the amount of visual and tonal brightness. It seemed more like what we thought of as “comic book-y” than the “dark” tone we desired throughout the ’90s. Though Peter really does alot of brooding, we focused on his relatable underdog qualities and occasional corny wisecracks and thought of him as much lighter than Batman. X-MEN had felt the (very real) need to dress everybody in black leather to seem cool to moviegoers of the time, but here was a Spider-Man that pretty much just looked the way Spider-Man had always been drawn. (They did consider a black costume, but thought better of it.) And after a decade plus of movies chasing the noir and gothic qualities of Tim Burton’s Gotham City, it was surprising to see one that just took place in regular contemporary New York City, sometimes filmed on location. And often in broad daylight! Even Joel Schumacher’s candy-colored BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN & ROBIN took place mostly at night. And of course the breakthroughs in digital FX on BLADE II and then this ushered in the notion of comic book movies with action more in line with their illustrated source material. SPIDER-MAN seemed like a very natural, but very new place for the genre to go.

An establishing shot that wouldn’t be too out of place in BATMAN

So it was interesting to look back at it from the MCU era and see how much more this resembles the Tim Burton BATMAN template than that of today’s comic book movies. It was logical for Raimi to go to his DARKMAN/A SIMPLE PLAN composer Danny Elfman for the score, but that was also what you did if you were trying to make any comic book movie after BATMAN. Because Elfman’s sound is so distinct and so evocative his scores leave a bigger mark on the tone of the movies than the work of almost any composer today. So it makes even SPIDER-MAN, so different from BATMAN, feel a little like BATMAN.

You just did it differently back then. You hoped for at best a couple sequels, and didn’t always get that, so you didn’t think too much about setting up the next one, and definitely didn’t think at all beyond that. You just took the origin story of the hero, and picked one or two of the most famous villains, and told their origin story too. And killed them at the end. And you worried that moviegoers would laugh at half of the shit that’s normal and acceptable in comic books, so you second guessed everything. You can’t make Green Goblin just have a goblin face and hat*, it was believed, so you’d come up with this high tech mask thing. But you’d have the flying sled! And the bombs! Not pumpkins, but they’re round at least. It counts! It’s like a comic book!

The part that seems most directly inspired by BATMAN is when Dr. Osborn debuts all that Green Goblin stuff at the World Unity Festival. In BATMAN, Gotham City is celebrating its bicentennial, and the Joker stages a big public attack during a parade. In BATMAN RETURNS the Penguin’s circus gang does similar during a Christmas tree lighting. In SPIDER-MAN the Green Goblin makes his first public appearance attacking this city-organized event, and just like in BATMAN there are big Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade style balloons involved. Because they’re not based on Tim Burton sketches and  are surrounded by real billboards and very early-2000s-looking extras they’re uglier, but they get into the action because Spider-Man bounces off of them. It makes me wonder if Koepp or Raimi watched BATMAN and thought ah ha – we can top that because we can have him bounce off of them! Movie Batman could never bounce off of them!

A couple more notes about the World Unity Festival. I’ve always enjoyed/been amused by the fact that Macy Gray is performing in this movie. Enjoyed because I like her and amused because her inclusion pins the movie to a specific moment in time. And I’ve always appreciated that she’s doing a cover of a song by an obscure band I was really into, hopefully getting them paid. (The song is “Nutty Nutmeg Phantasy,” the band is Weapon of Choice, led by the brother of her guitarist Arik Marshall, seen on stage with her here).

But the thing I did not remember is how buck wild Green Goblin goes. He throws a bomb on a balcony, turning his war profiteer board of directors into skeletons! It reminds me of MARS ATTACKS!, which is a compliment, but it would be even funnier if instead of CG they used skeleton puppets left over from ARMY OF DARKNESS. Oh well, maybe next time.

There’s a part where Goblin comes down to the street and a bunch of cops come at him and he punches out five of them in a row. Ahead of his time.

This portrayal of a super villain is very different from today’s comic book movies, which is part of why it’s so fun to watch now. I always got a kick out of the scene where he has a talk with Spider-Man on a roof and they’re both wearing emotionless masks so it almost seems like Power Rangers. But now I have a deeper appreciation for the audacity of Dr. Osborn going to graduation and giving his condolences to Peter about Uncle Ben just moments after we saw him fly in on a sled cackling and firing missiles at military guys. And for when he yells lines like “We’ll meet again, Spider-Man!” Dafoe is also great in the scenes where his innocent side is tormented by his evil Goblin voice coming from the mask, or by his own reflection in the mirror (a gimmick reminiscent of Ash talking to his evil reflection in EVIL DEAD II and ARMY OF DARKNESS). He’s definitely doing things with his face that normal humans could never dream of, and I think it’s fair to say he gets pretty mega.


I should address two of the traditional Spider-Man story elements adapted here. First, Peter working as a freelance photographer at the Daily Bugle newspaper. One of Raimi’s great contributions to cinema that I think we as a society take for granted is his casting J.K. Simmons as loud-mouthed, Spider-Man-hating editor J. Jonah Jameson. Simmons wasn’t particularly well known then but had been funny for Raimi in FOR LOVE OF THE GAME and THE GIFT. The comical banter (much of it yelled) between him and his staff is a highlight that seem both straight out of the comics and straight out of Raimi’s humor. For the latter it helps that Ted Raimi plays Jameson’s most ass-kissing employee. DO THE RIGHT THING’s Bill Nun and early-in-her-career Elizabeth Banks are also very good.

Second, the crimefighting. There are fast-paced montages of swinging in and webbing or punching various street criminal archetypes, another element that seems more of the BATMAN era, before super hero movies largely moved beyond vigilantism. Back then it was more standard that they would have to beat up some muggers, so I don’t even remember it striking me as weird that the famous upside down Spider-man/Mary Jane kiss in the rain happens moments after four guys jumped her in an alley. I have a pretty good hunch what they were trying to do, so I don’t see how she’s in the mood for romance so quickly!

One thing Spidey gets to do that Batman doesn’t is save a baby from a fire. The best fight against Goblin also happens while responding to a fire.

It seems quaint now that Spidey’s big climax is just a fight against one guy flying around, causing trouble on a bridge, kidnapping Mary Jane and hanging her off a ledge (another DARKMAN similarity). The emphasis is not so much on the villain’s master plan as the effect it has on Peter’s personal life. He and pre-evil Osborn genuinely seem to like each other, and when the good/bad doctor dies and Harry blames Spider-Man it puts a wedge in their friendship, even while Harry doesn’t know Peter is Spider-Man.

All this makes Peter think he both has a responsibility to be Spider-Man and cannot be happy being Spider-Man. His dream of Mary Jane being in love with him finally comes true (she even chooses him over her previous crush, Spider-Man!) but he pretends not to feel the same and walks away. Once again this is like a teen version of DARKMAN – I love you but I can’t be with you because it’s too dangerous for you. Drama queen shit.

DARKMAN ended with him narrating, “I’m everyone… and no one… everywhere… nowhere. Call me… Darkman.” For SPIDER-MAN it’s, “This is my gift. My curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-Man.” They would pretty much be the exact same ending if only Darkman got to have a final shot posing in front of an American flag.

There is a major moment at the end here that I don’t think is really followed up on in the sequels. After Mary Jane kisses Peter, but is rejected by him, she’s feeling very sad and then suddenly she has this look of realization and touches her gloved fingers to her lips.


Then she looks back at Peter like “Holy shit!” I have replayed this moment over and over, and even though it doesn’t match with what happens in the next movie, I don’t see how it could’ve been meant as anything other than her suddenly realizing “Oh shit, I think he’s Spider-Man!” Or more specifically, “Oh shit, Peter’s mouth tastes like Spider-Man’s mouth!” That’s a weird loose end there.


In 2000, when Raimi was beginning work on SPIDER-MAN, he told Eon Magazine how he wanted to handle the web-swinging:

“What I want to do is show it like you’d show a great Olympic skating routine. He’s not a muscle bound brute. He is a live and beautiful dancer who soars above the skyline and it’ll be the work of an acrobat, the work of a gymnast, the work of all the finest performers in the art of physical what have you. But they are going to be long takes, like a Fred Astaire picture, of Spider-Man climbing and leaping off a building and doing a number on a flag pole like an Olympic gymnast. Then it will become the work of a dancer in the sky. I hope it will become a thing of beauty that 20 years from now people will still enjoy watching and we really get to fly with him.”

I am happy to report that 20 years from then I do still enjoy watching it. How well the FX – supervised by the legendary John Dykstra (STAR WARS, FIREFOX, LIFEFORCE, INVADERS FROM MARS) hold up was one of the biggest surprises of this rewatch. As I’ve alluded to, nobody really knew for sure if they could make a believable digital Spider-Man until they had done it. These days Hollywood movies do that type of stuff with their hands tied behind their back, you don’t even think about it when you’re looking at it. And yet these scenes with the early stages of that technology are a thrill to watch.

Maybe the limits of the technology helped – they were forced to plan each shot meticulously in order to get the live action they needed to work with the FX (and Raimi intentionally included live action elements in every shot so it wouldn’t look like cutting to animation). But we also have to credit Raimi’s well-established eye for cool visuals and exciting camera movement. There are shots where yes, you can tell it’s a real stuntman swinging on a rope, and it looks dangerous as hell. (I hope it was the same guy who hung from the helicopter into traffic in DARKMAN.) There are other shots that are definitely animation, and they look so beautifully graceful. But I think my favorites are when Maguire, with mask off – perhaps switching to a digital double sometimes, but I’m not sure – is crawling up the sides of buildings, the camera moves around him as if the building itself is tilting to become horizontal, and I gotta assume that’s how they filmed it but also I still feel like I’m looking down. Cinematographer Don Burgess was good at show-offy shots like this, having done a bunch of movies with Robert Zemeckis. And also BLIND FURY.

IMDb claims that the great Hong Kong choreographer and director Ching Siu-Tung was an uncredited stunt coordinator on the movie. I believe that’s incorrect, but has a basis in truth. According to an interview with Ching in Asian Trash Cinema, he was hired to consult on the movie when Raimi was worried the computer animation wasn’t going to work out. Turns out it did, so they didn’t need him. As great and groundbreaking as the web-swinging turned out, it’s hard not to wish we got to see Raimi and that budget meet up with a master of Hong Kong wire work. That would’ve been amazing! Damn you, Sony Pictures Imageworks for pulling off the digital FX. Assholes.

There’s definitely a little bit of wirework, and the fighting is pretty good, if not Hong Kong good. Clint Cadinha (SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, RAPID FIRE, DEMOLITION MAN, THE CROW, UNDER SIEGE 2, THE MATRIX) is credited as fight choreographer, and Chuck Jeffreys (the mugger from GHOST DOG) as fight coordinator. Benny “The Jet” Urquidez (WHEELS ON MEALS, ROAD HOUSE) trained Maguire for the fights and plays one of the, uh, alley rapists. Laura Albert, the star of BLOOD GAMES, also did some stunts.

For all these years, Sam Raimi had been an underdog to us. First maybe you had to convince your friends to watch his movies. Eventually, most of your friends loved him too, but you all thought he deserved larger validation. You wanted DARKMAN to be recognized. You wanted THE QUICK AND THE DEAD to get the credit it deserved. When he got to make SPIDER-MAN, and was met with such success, it felt like validation. I don’t think we saw any of the downside yet. We didn’t know that now we were gonna have years of talking to people whose only opinion of Raimi was based on whether they agreed with his interpretation of their sacred Marvel scripture. More importantly, we didn’t know that he was gonna want to stay at this level, focused almost solely on directing huge, expensive blockbuster type movies, leaving behind much of what we loved about his films. But that’s okay. There is plenty to appreciate here, and we can worry about that other stuff later.

In the coming days we will be examining the SPIDER-MAN sequels, since they are Raimi’s next movies. Until then, I would like to leave you with one last note. The most important thing I realized from rewatching this trilogy is that I really wish I could’ve been one of those characters who appear in one shot pointing off in the distance and saying something like “Look! It’s Spider-Man!” I’m not an actor but I think I could’ve pulled off a role like that, and I think I would be able to live up to all the responsibilities that come with being a Spider-Man spotter.

*They did consider a more comics-faithful Goblin, with Amalgamated Dynamics even building an animatronic mask of it, but clearly they decided against it.

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51 Responses to “Spider-Man”

  1. This film really provided the signposts for most modern superhero films in the MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE.

    It’s hard to quantify how much of a gigantic hit this film was – first movie to gross 100 million bucks in a weekend. The other thing I distinctly remember was that there was a sense of relief from comic books fans that this movie was well crafted and treated ‘superhero’s’ with a sense of intelligence in regards to creating a film – a big budget, good actors and some perceptive writing. From non-superhero fans there was a sense of ‘holy shit’ that was a GOOD movie.

    This film was an event like Superman from 1978/Batman from 1989. Funny how a decade needs to go past for everyone to forget how good/successful a superhero movie can be, and that all 3 of these are still among the best superhero movies produced.

    I’m good friends with a guy who has a copy of every single Spider-man comic book published, and his sense of joy about this film was pretty special. Eventually he sat down with me and pointed out scenes that were subtly influenced by scenes throughout the comics run. Even the way Raimi constructed sets and blocked scenes is subtly reminiscent of the way comic panels are laid out and drawn (especially those of Steve Ditko, the foremost Spider-man artist.) Even color choices on screen show resemblances to comic books. It’s all pretty perceptive stuff, and adds a real layer of enjoyment for comic book fans (as I was back then.) More recent super hero films make no effort to do this, and or are like Sin City/Watchmen – shameless exactly copying panels. What Raimi managed to do was take the best of what a comic does – color/layout/narrative clarity via a stationary image and mix in what cinema does better – dynamic movement, editing for emotion and music/sound design.

    It is still pretty funky remembering the fun I had as well enjoying people’s excitement at the film, it’s safe to say 90%+ of people who saw this had never seen a Sam Raimi movie, and here was Raimi getting away with all the typical Raimi ‘moves.’ Admittedly dialled back some, but this is still undoubtably his film. It’s too bad that especially the MCU movies have became absolutely so generic and boring looking/shot and scored now.

    Here’s hoping that the new Dr. Strange/Raimi joint lets him free – reports from the set insist he has been allowed to.

    Briefly – I once read James Cameron’s ‘scriptment’ for Spider-man. Besides opening with what would have been a tremendous first shot of Spider-man dangling on a wire between the WTC buildings, and if I remember correctly, it most certainly had a scene where Peter Parker has a ‘wet’ dream and wakes up covered in ‘wire.’ The script was not shy about making a connection between adolescence/puberty and Peter getting his super powers.

  2. I remember when this movie came out, it was so universally loved (rightfully), even one of our big, political news magazines (I think it was STERN) wrote an article about it, starting with a quick recap of what it’s about, then calling it “A movie that sounds like nothing you need to watch, but is absolutely worth the price of a movie ticket and two hours of your time”, praising the characterisations of Spidey and Osbourne, the semi-realistic style and its humor.

    Also it’s interesting that Raimi isn’t in completely anonymous studio hack mode here, but still holds back with his trademarks. There are some scenes that he downright stole from DARKMAN (The shot of Peter slamming the head of his Uncle’s murderer through several windows) and of course the editing in Goblin’s death scene (“Oh.”) screams Raimi’s name, but compared to him letting lose in part 2, it’s almost nothing. Not sure if the commercial failure of QUICK & THE DEAD still hurt him, he felt insecure in going full Raimi on his first fucking big budget blockbuster or if hhe was held back by his cinematographer (He wanted either Bill Pope or Peter Deming, but both were unavailable.).

  3. I remember reading that Bruce Campbell was under the mask in that animatronic test footage– but I think that’s untrue.

    Anyway, I think this was my introduction to Sam Raimi. And as a huge comic book geek, I loved it. (This was 20 years ago? I feel like one of those skeletons.) It does seem like the bridge between one era of comic book movie and the next. You had some changes or streamlining for the film, like the organic webshooters, but Raimi and the screenwriters clearly drew their inspiration from the source material, getting the themes and characters correct and pulling in scenes and images from the comics. They even kept the wrestling origin, for crying out loud! Raimi himself seems like a fan of the Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita days, which were probably the comics he read as a kid (why else would he insist on using Sandman in part 3?), and his style is perfect for the four-color melodrama of that era. And I think the MCU took its cues from these movies, in terms of tone, character, and adherence to the comic book mythos.

  4. I wasn’t particularly in love with this at the time, I’m only a casual fan of Spider-Man at best and I’m not really a fan of Marvel or superheroes as a whole, so I don’t think I’ll ever quite consider this one of “my movies”, but nonetheless over the years it has become a film I could happily watch from beginning to end at the drop of a hat, as indeed I did as recently as last month, and part of me wants to watch it again after reading this review.

    Limey note; Columbia/Sony really wanted this to be released in the UK with a PG certificate and were happy to have cuts implemented to get it, but the BBFC were insistent that a PG would not be possible due to the “revenge/vigilante theme” present and it would need to be rated 12+. Columbia were pretty gutted as they’d already advertised the film heavily to kids (BBFC would even call it “the most violent film we’ve ever seen marketed to kids” which seems pretty hyperbolic), and in turn parents were not happy when it was released in Summer 2002 because a lot of kids were disappointed or being turned away from the ticket booths. As a result, as had happened with MRS DOUBTFIRE a few years prior, a number of local councils took advantage of relevant laws which allowed them to re-classify the film PG in their area (the same laws in the past had been used to give LIFE OF BRIAN a *higher* rating). As it happens, that September the 12+ was replaced with the advisory 12a rating (similar to PG-13, under-12s permitted with parent or guardian), so this was never a problem again. SPIDER-MAN was falling out of the Top 10 at the time, but got a bit of a boost from the new certificate with a marketing campaign telling parents they could “now take their kids”. The first new film released with the 12a certificate was THE BOURNE IDENTITY,

  5. Regarding the special effects: A friend of mine worked on the set of this movie (and the sequel) and I remember him telling me that Raimi had Spidey’s real-life suit designed to look like it was already CG so that the actual CG shots wouldn’t seem discontinuous. Hence the weird shininess and the metallic webwork covering it.

    Writing that out now, it seems kind of obvious, but maybe it wasn’t so much back then. And I think it’s the kind of thing a guy who has orchestrated so many clever and incredible effects would think of.

  6. What an epic review!

    I have never been super interested in this film (or the X-Men films, fwiw), but I watched it at least once back in the day (not theatrically), and my kids were watching it for the first time last week in chunks. Dafoe is so good. And he *is* mega. (I can no longer find that skit the PROCEDURE from SNL with him and Will Ferrell and Andy Richter — that’s possibly his most mega-tastic, but this is up there.). So tortured and weird, I love it, and when he doesn’t want Harry to know. That shit’s real.

    I also do like Tobey and just what a fun dorky choice he is. And having Macho Man — RIP.

    I hope Raimi gets to do him in that DOCTOR STRANGE joint. No idea why he’d be doing a Marvel film at this point if he can’t, but … I dunno.

    Looking forward to the DRAG ME TO HELL review (and the others, too, but especially that).

  7. Pacman, something similar happened in Germany with HARRY POTTER. The 1st one was released here with a 6 rating, so was the second one, but in that case it was heavily cut, because for some reason WB thought the 12 rating was too high. After that somehow the ratings board added a PG rule and now some (not all) movies with a 12 rating can be seen by 6 year olds with parental guidance and every other HP movie was released uncut with a 12 here.

  8. I was, and remain, a killjoy about Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. I know I’m gonna sound like a lunatic but for me he just got Spider-Man wrong. Obviously everyone has their own take on Spider-Man and the character has been through enough iterations over the years that there’s no “correct” version that will satisfy everybody, but for me all the moroseness of this movie is just inconsistent with the character. Yes, his origin is tied to his guilt over Uncle Ben’s death. Yes, the old Parker luck means that he always gets the wrong end of the stick. Yes, he wishes he doesn’t have to be Spider-Man and could just be a normal guy. All that said, he’s not Batman (or Darkman, as per Vern), he’s a guy who makes corny jokes and calls himself ‘your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.’ The key note of the character (IMO) should be that no matter what shit life throws at him, the emotional baseline he always reverts to is positivity. The Peter Parker I know can’t help being upbeat, because that’s just who he is. All of this is a long-winded way of getting to my issues with the movie: either it’s goofy/silly (see: J Jonah Jameson) or it’s dark & angsty (“My blessing…my CURSE”) but there’s no in-between where the character is a real person who feels consistent with the character I’m familiar with or the movie lives in long enough for me to get comfortable with. Is the action great? Sure. Is Willem Dafoe amazing? You’re damn right he is. But too much of the movie is spent whiplashing between two extreme tones for it to ever feel like Spider-Man to me. Sorry.

    On a personal note, I did later get to write Spider-Man for an Activision game (“Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions”) and I went to town making him the corny jokester I wanted him to be. That felt good.

  9. One other thing — a friend of mine “in the know” told me that Raimi had each editor on the film cut a version of the entire movie from start to finish, then he watched both cuts and combined them together by picking one scene he liked better from this one, a scene he liked better from that one, etc…

    Of course, that story could be apocryphal, but the guy who told me is an editor himself (who works with Scorsese fairly regularly these days!) and I’m inclined to believe it, if for no other reason than that when I watch the movie, it really does feel to me like two different movies ping-ponging back & forth from scene to scene, sometimes very clumsily (the transition from the burning building to Osborne in the elevator being one example that springs to mind). Who knows?

  10. Love, love,love this movie. It’s my SECOND favorite Spidey flick only by a narrow margin and only because SPIDER-MAN 2 did a GODFATHER 2 over this installment.

    In this era where most superhero flicks end with 150 GOOD CGI THINGYS “pew pew pew!”-ing 280 EVIL CGI THINGYS, it’s easy to forget you can end one with a very personal, very vicious punch up between hero and villain (and for a PG-13 movie, the Goblin/Spidey final fight here is pretty brutal).

    And the Peter/MJ Romance? Lovely! Far as I’m concerned, Tom Holland and Zendaya can head to the back of the line. Way back.

  11. CJ- That’s interesting, here in the UK the first three POTTERs were PG and the others were 12a; only the first was released pre-12a, I believe. I wonder what would have happened for that and other kid-centric but increasingly violent properties (e.g.TRANSFORMERS, TMNT) if 12s had never been introduced.

    Incidentally I’ve never seen a POTTER film in full, nor read even a page of any of the books, and yes that is illegal in this country.

  12. Yeah, this one rides with the Old Gods. A rare case, like the similarly finely-aging Lord of the Rings, of a story being adapted by a major fan that also happens to be a world-class talent. If only all movies spent their runtime celebrating their subject matter instead of apologizing for it.

  13. I want to highlight and upvote and like and whatever something from Alan’s comment above: “What Raimi managed to do was take the best of what a comic does – color/layout/narrative clarity via a stationary image and mix in what cinema does better – dynamic movement, editing for emotion and music/sound design.” 100% agree with this… especially because the later generation of MCU movies (some of which I like a lot) only achieve (or even attempt) to do this in occasional isolated moments, like the Avengers “splash page” group shot toward the start of the battle in NYC.

    I also want to shout out the totally different but (to me) also very effective way to hybridize what cinema and comics can do, Ang Lee’s HULK, with its occasional fragmenting the image into multiple panels, goofy freeze frames, etc. I love that stuff.

    (And of course Raimi’s second Spiderman movie has a few of its own experiments with freeze frames and such)

  14. I remember people complaining about the split screen panels in Hulk, but I liked them at the time, and I think they only improved with age. While comic book movies are now allowed to have some of the goofier elements, which is great, I think directors have largely given up on thinking of ways to actually bring the visual language of comic books to the big screen. Raimi’s Spiderman movies and Lee’s Hulk are interested in what the medium can do for cinema visually rather than just as an IP whose characters can be raided.

  15. LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the HULK split panels. LOVED, LOVED, LOVED Sam Elliott as General Ross. Same with Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross. Eric Bana was not dorky enough and too much of a broody blank slate to be Banner. Nick Nolte is genius casting and a genius performance. Hulk animation is a mixed bag. Hulk vs. Hulk dog fight. Hulk vs. electrical dad fight. I need to watch this movie again. I remember that it ultimately was a weird mess of a film that I appreciated more than I enjoyed — but there is a lot that I appreciated. And it’s the kind of film whose stock may rise with a re-watch — re-playing it in my head I’m wondering why I didn’t love it more.

    This was my problem with INCREDIBLE HULK. Trying to make HULK more accessible and relatable and heroic was a great choice IMHO, but they traded weird, beautiful auteur shit for total genericism (William Hurt is a great actor, but Sam Elliott was the way better choice; same Jennifer Connelly vs. Liv Tyler).

  16. The split screens in Hulk wouldn’t bother me (lifelong De Palma fan) except that they play to me like a really facile, surface-level way to “make it like a comic book”, but without actually engaging with the source material. You wanna add those kinds of flourishes, great — but get the story right first, or it just seems like lip service. To me it feels like the filmmakers didn’t go any farther than thinking “Comic books have panels, therefore adding panels makes it comic-booky”. Compare that to, say, I dunno, INFINITY WAR, which feels much more authentic to the spirit of Marvel Comics without a single split-screen. Ang Lee’s HULK has a shiny surface but it sits at odds with the half-baked Freudian melodrama underneath.

  17. “Hulk animation is a mixed bag. ”

    The Ang Lee Hulk is still one of the greatest CGI creations ever…if it wouldn’t be for the colour. He is so extremely detailed, to the point where you can even see his muscles move under his skin in certain scenes, but it was always laughable to me how the nerds went: “Hell yeah, that looks SO much better than the one from a few years ago!” when they saw the MCU Hulk,simply because he had a more “normal” skin tone, although he looked all in all way more fake.

  18. I seem to recall reading somewhere that And Lee’s intention with the ‘panels’ on screen in HULK was not so much to replicate comic book page framing so much but to provide a sense of turning the pages of a comic while reading them (certainly an intrinsic experience unique to comic books.) In that sense I think it was an honest attempt to do something a bit different. Sort of how like Lucas used more old times wipes and dissolves during scene transitions in his Star Wars movies.

  19. I’ve heard that Lee’s split screens were “superficial,” but I definitely prefer something unique over just some nondescript blockbuster of Infinity War. And Josh Lucas blowing himself up wouldn’t be nearly as funny without the use of split screen. I tend to think that the best superhero movies give you tonal whiplash, and Hulk managed that beautifully.

  20. Not to be the ‘wet blanket motherfucker’ Vern alluded to in his Spider-Man 2 review, but Hulk’s panels were always too much for me. Showy and distracting and off-putting, without the compensation of ever looking cool or interesting. It’d be like if the next Batman movie featured those BAM! POW! ZAMIE! things from the Adam West days, but meant to be taken completely seriously.

  21. I like the panels in HULK, but find the film as a whole to be a dirge.

  22. The online nerd reaction to Hulk being incredibly eye opening for me at the time. I remember everyone at places like Ain’t It Cool News getting excited that all our favorite comic book characters were getting movies, and the refrain was that Hollywood needed to treat these characters seriously. Superheroes were real character with depth and their stories dealt with complex themes. They weren’t just about people wearing their underwear on the outside and beating up robbers.

    And then Ang Lee basically treats The Hulk as a real manifestation of generational trauma (while also incorporating some campy elements, to be fair), and all those same nerds hated it. He had actually treated the characters and themes seriously, but most of the complaints were that Hulk didn’t smash enough stuff (even though the fights are well done. They’re brutal. If I remember correctly, Hulk punches one of the Hulk dogs in the nuts.) People were also complaining that there was a Hulk poodle, which I thought was a great bit of unexpected whimsy.

    I get that the movie is kind of a downer, but people were complaining about all the wrong shit. It’s at this moment I realized that maybe what the commentators at Ain’t It Cool News wanted out of a film were very different than what I was looking for. Until then, I thought we were all nerds on the same team. I really think the reaction kind of presaged the auteur/IP split on the internet today.

  23. “And then Ang Lee basically treats The Hulk as a real manifestation of generational trauma (while also incorporating some campy elements, to be fair)

    Yup, this is a near perfect summation of everything I loved about HULK. Heard behind me as I exited the theatre after watching it :”Man! That was some boring shit!”.

    I watched this “boring shit” twice in theatres, got the DVD, upgraded to a blu ray and revisit it at least once every couple of years. I’ve maybe watched the Norton Hulk twice in more than a decade.

    Lee Hulk plays out like a Grand Shakespearean Tragedy; the sins of the father passed down to the son in the form of “tainted” blood and brilliance undercut with emotional unavailability and repressed rage, which dooms his romance with a woman whose father’s sole response is to either Cage or Destroy The Beast. That, and Lee’s almost Sam Raimi-esque stylistic flourishes (dissolves, comic book style panels) and a wonderful Elfman score makes this a thrilling viewing experience for me no matter how many times I see this.

    It syncs with my love for the TV show which got the essence of Banner as Tragic Hero, made all the more so with a haunting performance from Bill Bixby (not sure how much Bixby channeled own personal tragedies into the role). Other heroes can wax lyrical all they want about how their powers are more a “curse” than a “gift”, but from the first blast of Gamma Radiation, Banner was truly fucked. Doomed to be misunderstood, hunted and hated.

    I dig this interpretation but I guess a Jolly Green Giant/Cuddly Professor would sell more toys.

  24. Oh…and ONLY Ang Lee to date has bothered to give me a HULK who can soar via gigantic leaps. It’s a vivid image from all the Hulk comics I owned that’s still imprinted in my mind.

  25. Hmmm, so there are parallels between CRIMEWAVE and SPIDER-MAN? Gosh, I’m sure nobody said anything when I brought that up a couple of weeks ago.

  26. Jerome, I can’t tell if you’re trying to imply something there, but I wrote this review (minus some tinkering) before I started posting the series. CRIMEWAVE parallels have come up in almost every review, which is cool because I never noticed those until watching them all in order. I liked your point about Rhino and Electro, which certainly didn’t occur to me. I only noticed similarities in how Raimi portrays nerdy heroes.

  27. Huge caveat that it’s been maybe a decade since I’ve seen a non-incredible Hulk, but as I recall, the issue wasn’t that it was cerebral and thoughtful, but that the *execution* was pretentious and overblown without much actual substance–all the drama of a mid-tier Steve Carell movie, but the abusive dad turns into a kaiju at the end and fights the big green guy. My big takeaway from the movie would be that it’d be a real bummer to see your pops murder your mom as a child. Not the biggest insight ever.

  28. There was some good discussion about HULK when Vern’s review of HULK was bumped a couple of years ago, especially one point by some genius, whoever they were, that for all its high-minded ideas it still very much feels like a film made in a world that had just kind of given a pass to DAREDEVIL, which is to say, not great. I stand by that, whoever that was.

    But I think RBatty024 has a decent point about HULK’s reception maybe leading to our current auteur\IP split. And maybe it says something about the film that the mere mention of it can still inspire so much discussion in the comments section for a far more popular film.

  29. “but the abusive dad turns into a kaiju at the end and fights the big green guy.”

    More like “The abusive dad bites into a cable, turns into lighting and we are treated to one minute of beautiful, surreal imaginery”. The Kaiju fight was probably what most audiences were hoping for.

  30. There’s plenty of fair criticism of Lee’s Hulk, and I just want to make it clear that it’s perfectly reasonable not to like it. I just think there’s something about the broader blowback to that film that says something about how fandoms view films. They’re not, for the most part, movie fans. They like the characters. It doesn’t matter the medium. They simply want the version they have of the character in their heads delivered to the screen. Cinema is an intellectual property delivery tube, and it’s largely interchangeable with television.

    But there are things that seem disappointing or underwhelming about these earlier superhero movies that, over time, have become kind of interesting because they’re so out of step with what we’re getting now. I would pick the weird Hulk vs. giant Jellyfish ending as an example of something that comes across better today because I’m so sick of bloated CGI third acts.

  31. That’s a good way to put it, RBatty – “intellectual property delivery tube.” That really describes the disconnect when I’m excited about an artist putting their own interesting spin on an existing thing and other people are furious that it wasn’t just a xerox of the existing thing.

    It does seem like so far they’ve allowed Batman to remain a character where each new director does something totally different and never feels like the next episode of the previous thing (even when it’s supposed to be, like in Schumacher’s case). I hope that sticks.

  32. But the “beautiful, surreal imagery” is meaningless in terms of plot and theme. Okay, they’re doing all four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. So what?

    If we’re going to criticize Bay and Emmerich for throwing a bunch of ‘cool imagery’ at the audience without it meaning anything or even really being incomprehensible, doesn’t the same criticism apply here?

  33. I sort of take offense at “intellectual property delivery tube” because that’s a snarky way of dismissing the idea that source material has meaning to its fans. This may be a bad example because I know Vern has never seen this show, but if Ang Lee made a movie of FELICITY that wasn’t about a girl making a rash decision to go to a different college because of an offhand comment by her high school crush, would we dismiss criticism of that as fans just wanting a xerox of what they’d seen before? It’s perfectly reasonable for fans of something to want to see that thing translated with some sort of fidelity of spirit. The spirit of the Hulk is that when Bruce Banner gets angry he turns into a rage monster and fucks shit up. That’s pretty goddamn simple to get right without having to be overly literal about it — the Bill Bixby version’s origin (wife dies in car accident, he deliberately overdoses himself with gamma radiation in a machine because he’s angry at god) is 99% different from the comics and it’s still universally beloved because they got the spirit right. It’s still about anger. Ang Lee is a genius and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a masterpiece but that doesn’t mean fans are wrong for getting upset when he makes HULK about repressed trauma instead.

  34. Sure, but also we should be able to appreciate when somebody does something that’s not in the spirit but has its own merit, for example Burton’s interpretation of The Penguin or the movie BLADE or Nick Nolte’s expression of whatever character that is. In those cases the people who only want a delivery tube miss out on something beautiful, and I think that’s too bad.

  35. The thing with Lee’s HULK is that it’s not particularly fun or light or warm. California setting notwithstanding, the tone is cerebral and cold and gloomy when it comes to Banner and his dad and Betty, and then it’s pretty campy when it comes to Ross and Josh Lucas and some of the well-lit HULK bounding action. It’s also pretty relentlessly strange. So, I understand why it fails to connect with a broad popcorn fun audience, even if I think there’s a lot to appreciate.

  36. Well, it’s a spectrum, isn’t it? If you have “IP delivery tube” at one end, at the other side you have the ‘consoomer’ who will watch anything regardless of its merits, with no real appreciation for ‘striving for excellence,’ because if you appreciate EVERYTHING, you appreciate nothing. It can’t be a sin to think the Lord of the Rings movies are better as stories and better as an adaptation than The Last Airbender.

    I made an x-y graph a while back, where X was faithfulness to the source material and Y was good storytelling on its own merit. Ideally, you want an adaptation to be in the upper righthand corner, but I can appreciate some of the stories that wander into the upper lefthand and lower righthand quadrants.

  37. I think Kaplan’s graph is a useful way to discuss this. I absolutely agree that something can go in the upper lefthand or lower righthand quadrants and be awesome — Tim Burton’s Penguin is lower righthand, and it’s great. I personally dislike Ang Lee’s HULK because for me it’s in the lower left quadrant, it fails as an adaptation and it fails as good storytelling.

  38. I’d only debate that repressed trauma can conceal and ultimately manifest itself in a lot of anger. So I don’t really see how it tracks that Lee making HULK about repressed trauma takes anger out of the equation. I can far more readily believe that an almost blank cipher like Bana is keeping a lot of rage bottled up as opposed to Ed Norton taking yoga classes and refusing to bang Liv Tyler because he can’t get excited (because pulse rate increase owing to anger-induced stress is identical to that of getting a boner???)

    Also, if the complaint was that you just want a lot of HULK SMASH action, hell Lee gave you that! After he breaks out of the underground army bunker you got, like a solid half hour of pure unadulterated Hulk Berserker Mode. You just had to wait for it, is all.

    I will concede the weak link in the movie was Josh Lucas’ atrociously hammy performance (anyone remember the 5 seconds of Movie Fame Time when he was considered the next hot thing?). And I’ll take Sam Elliott’s stern and unyielding but ultimately decent Ross over William Hurt’s General Asshole any day. And Nolte definitely looked like he drove over to the set directly after making bail, but his performance weirdly works within the context of what Lee was going for.

  39. My broad point in this post is that you can find an alternative to the extremes of anger as either (1) Freudian-Shakespearean high psychodrama of repression or (2) “Damnit, I just hit my damn foot with my damn tire iron, damnit!” literalism. The approach to Hulk anger that allows for both trauma and the triggering is that Banner has always been a non-assertive nebbish of a doormat, bottling shit inside and never speaking his mind or pushing back, and it’s cumulated into reservoirs of anxiety and frustration. Maybe or maybe not this is rooted in his childhood, but it doesn’t have to be in some deep trauma way: He can just be someone who’s always beens shy and bullied. I’m not sure we’ve seen that Hulk on the screen, though I guess Ruffalo comes closest, but he’s totally under-developed, since he comes in at AVENGERS 1, and pretty much all he does in that film is wince uncomfortably and then become HULK.

    For me, Bixby is probably still the best. Bana is fine as an actor, but I don’t think his HULK is anything great, and the closest they come to making him meek or dorky is to give him a goofy bicycle hat and let us know he’s at CalTech, but he is not convincing as a geek: he’s too brooding and hunky (but also sort of beady-eyed and not particularly charismatic or likeable). Norton’s Hulk just can’t really find a lane: He’s not particularly dorky, not particularly cool, not particularly anything — Norton is much better as a buddy or part of an ensemble than as a lead, and he’s all wrong for the part. Ruffalo is probably the best, but I don’t like him either (sorry!).

    I think his Hulk is mostly all SNL-level goofy physical tics and “I am serious” and is just very paint by numbers. Part of both Ruffalo and Norton’s problems is that they are expected to basically start as established Hulk-Banner out of box and in the thick of it (minimal origin story). This was probably a good approach (I don’t want a 30 minute origin story). However, I still think the performances and character development for Banner is weak, and particularly with Ruffalo and AVENGERS 1, it’s entirely HULK-centric. The Ruffalo HULK is kind of fun (so far, Hulk as screen character works best in a group dynamic, like Norton as actor, ironically!). But the Ruffalo Banner is a total nothingburger. To me, his AVENGERS 1 performance is palpable cringe, then again so is most of AVENGERS 1 for me. Hulk in RAGNAROK is probably best yet, because it’s most anchored in Ruffalo Hulk, which for me is the best thing we’ve seen so far wrt the various cinematic incarnations of a Banner or a Hulk.

    Ultimately, though, what we’ve never seen is a stand-alone Hulk that is as fun, cohesive, and generally excellent as IRON MAN 1 or CAPTAIN AMERICA 1, which are probably my top MCU films as stand-alone films that tell their own stories and deliver winning characters, good pacing and plotting and arc-ing, great production values, and general theatrical popcorn fun and wonder.

    I had some Hulk comics as a kid but don’t actually no about comic Banner and how dorky he was, but I want him to be dorky in any case. Banner the over-serious square (Bixby) is probably the best Banner so far, but not the best there could be for a cinematic character in a light-hearted action film.

    In conclusion:
    1. Best Banner: Bixby.
    2. Best Hulk so far: Ruffalo.
    3. Most meritorious and interesting stand-alone Hulk film: Ang Lee film.
    4. Worst Banner so far: They all suck, except Bixby.
    5. Worst actor to play Banner so far: They’re all fine actors, just have failed to translate.
    6. Solution to the character development problem: Hulk reboot with backstory told in little intercut flashbacks.
    7. Best Banner concept: Bullied and bookish as a kid and has all kinds of feelings and urges he can’t express — love, ambition, opinions about miscellaneous things.
    8. Best performances in any Hulk-centric film: Nolte and Elliott and Connelly.
    9. Worst performances in any Hulk-centric film: William Hurt in INCREDIBLE HULK. Such a facepalm. They mercifully course corrected in subsequent MCU General Ross appearances.

  40. I think HULK represents an interesting crossroads for a lot of the conundrums associated with superhero movies/comics etc. Hulk was, to the best of my recollection the first superhero movie helmed by a ‘serious’ filmmaker. And in reality, it’s still only one of two superhero films with an Oscar winning director (Eternals is the other, and while I don’t want to get into an argument about Chloé Zhao, she is not in anyway a filmmaker who is in Ang Lee’s league.) And Ang Lee directing was a huge deal, and highlights one of the things that seems to haunt superhero movies: the incessant need by a lot of the fans, filmmakers etc., to be taken seriously. In much the same way that SF literature was torturing itself for decades to be seen as ‘literature,’ superhero films want to be seen as ‘serious.’

    HULK and Lee’s previous film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON are both ‘superhero’ movies, but only the second film is viewed as an unqualified success. I think it’s interesting that HULK almost seems like Ang Lee’s heel turn – up to this era he was seem as an arthouse darling, but these two films, plus 1999s RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (a western) were ‘genre’ movies. He flipped back with BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, LUST CAUTION and TAKING WOODSTOCK, and then another genre turn with his last 3 – LIFE OF PI, BILLY LYNN and GEMINI MAN.

    I’m not the biggest fan of HULK, but it is, I feel ultimately, an interesting film, more worthy of critical consideration not because of the filmmaker, but because of what it tries to do with filmmaking technique, story compositiowriting and intent. Where the debate lands is not whether it tries those things (that’s obvious) but how well it pulls it off. To me, that makes this movie more interesting that other superhero films (and any other generic films) that simply strive to be ‘entertaining,’ but are pedestrian or generic in execution. There has to be some consideration to the fact that it makes an attempt at something different, success or not. I think some of the critical backlash was the feeling that it was a letdown interms of ‘quality’ over what Lee typically delivered.

    For me, it is reminiscent of the reaction to Indy 4 – ultimately it’s not a terrible film compared to many of it’s contemporaries, but measured against other works by the director it’s a bit lacking.

    In someways I’m more artistically/intellectually interested in the failures than the hits. When I teach photography I tell students – you’ll learn more from the photos you take that don’t ‘work’ than the one’s that do by asking yourself what/why something didn’t work.

  41. Imagine if Sam Raimi shot a film like DINER – one of the all time great naturalistic American films, but went full, to borrow Bill Reeds ‘Raimizing/Samtacular’ techniques – what would that be like? Failure, brilliant trailblazing, visionary, deluded, egotistical? Would it be watchable, enjoyable or not?

  42. I think we’ve already acknowledged that Raimi modulating his style for A Simple Plan and The Gift worked for those stories. So I think a version of Diner where every character gets periodically covered in barf or blood, like Drag Me To Hell, would be a Saturday Night Live sketch, not a Real Movie(tm).

  43. To be fair, the childhood trauma leading to repressed rage angle comes directly from the Hulk comics– I’d bet Ang Lee studied some combination of Hulk #312, 377, and “-1.”

    The Hulk dogs come from the comics, too. That one’s an odder choice. I’m guessing those were some of the newest issues when the movie entered pre-production.

  44. Big fan of HULK poodle battle (that should’ve been a lego set). My only point in above is that, granting that Ang Lee’s film is an interesting thing whose existence is good (Nick Nolte alone solidifies that, but there’s more besides), there’s no reason to think that there couldn’t have been a more MCU tone-friendly stand-alone “HULK part 1” (a la IRON MAN 1, CAPTAIN AMERICA 1) that was satifsying and competent and even reasonably top tier (or at least middle-tier, a la ANT-MAN 1). The fact that no one is not evidence that it can’t be done, it almost surely can. I speak as a person who loves hulk best — he was kind of my “spirit animal” character growing up — and is still waiting for a solid iteration. This SHE-HULK series might be the closest we get.

  45. Re: Daniel Strange…if Ang Lee made a Felicity show that includes all of the things you listed but had a new spin on it because it was a new version, then people may complain but not that he’s ignoring what it is. You talk about jettisoning the entire concept of something with Lee’s Hulk, but that does NOT jettison the concept. You say the spirit of the Hulk is he gets angry and fucks shot up…well, he does, and you don’t have to wait for it contrary to popular opinion. He gets mad and wrecks a lab for several minutes. Later, he gets mad and wrecks a house, then fights monster dogs…of which I hated that the people automatically got pissy because one was a poodle, as if that offended their Cheeto-eating manhood. The poodle was the creepiest looking one! But LATER Bruce gets mad and wrecks the army for a long time, and then later he gets mad and fights another monster. Jesus Christ if that’s all you want, you got it. There’s way more Hulking out per hour than Bill Bixby gave you.

    Kaplan, I think you’re misunderstanding Raimi’s style with blood and barf totally misunderstands his style, which relies not at all upon those things. Out of his entire filmography, I’d say only two has a large amount of gory and gruesomeness. But full-on Raimi styled movies without would be Crimewave, Darkman, Army of Darkness, Spider-Man 2 and 3, and Drag Me to Hell. His style is more about energy, mood swings, edit switching between long long scenes of quiet that explode in noise and fast edits and jarring camera angles, and deep sound design. Gore is the tiniest part.

  46. Skani, as I understand Marvel actually can’t make a stand-alone Hulk movie right now – the rights are in a complicated place where they can use the character in other movies but they somehow don’t have the rights to make just a “Hulk” movie. I don’t really understand it, but that’s what Ruffalo has said when they’ve asked him about making a new Hulk movie.

  47. Yeah, I had heard that, and I accept it as fact. I’m less talking about what MCU can or should do immediately as what they should’ve done with Norton HULK or should do going forward, hypothetically.

    Now, having said that, I’m sure there’s some way they could work something out, same as they have with Sony and did w/ Universal the last time around. At the point we are in the present iteration of MCU, I’m fine with them not doing another stand-alone HULK tbh. I don’t really want to see a stand-alone Ruffalo HULK tbh, and I don’t really want to see a separate parallel alternate universe Todd Phillips JOKER thing either. Mostly, I just rue how badly they blew it with Norton INCREDIBLE HULK.

  48. Digging the HULK discussion. The ultra stylized transitions were my favorite part of Lee’s. (I say that having seen a leaked early cut on VHS a week prior to the original release, and I was so wowed by the transitions in that version that I went on opening weekend just to see them again…. alas, they really toned it down for the final cut— a loss from which cinema is still recovering, in my opinion)

    I have a hunch the key to making a good HULK these days would be to orient it around pain, not anger or trauma. Treat the fundamental formula of the movie as “pain –> rage –> Hulk” instead of saddling the character with specific trauma that explains everything about them. Audiences are now so familiar with “It’s actually a metaphor for trauma,” & trauma can indeed be a great opportunity for drama.. sometimes…. but when it becomes a narrative trope, stories about trauma run the risk of getting boiled down to whodunits where the drama is milked from a quest to determine who gets blamed for otherwise-avoidable suffering. And I think we, the global moviegoing public, are ready for some heroes who have found compelling ways to carry their inevitably suffering-filled lives, instead of heroes who are forced to point their finger in a shocking direction in a quest to free themselves from suffering altogether.

    I’m not advocating for Bruce Banner to be made a masochist (although I’m not not saying that either) but I do think taking a “start with pain” approach could open up a lot of unexplored & potentially interesting narrative doors for the character. Tone & structure-wise I’m thinking more DEADPOOL than JOKER.

    Hmm, maybe this could be an angle to take for She-Hulk? Especially if they’re legally barred from using Bruce Banner in a standalone.

  49. Sounds good to me, psychic_hits. I definitely have had enough “daddy issues, yo” superhero sub-plots for a lifetime.

  50. I’m all for the personalized takes on the characters vs any kind of continuity! This has so much personality compared to most of the Marvel stuff (which I watch because my inner child compels me- my actual flesh and blood child doesn’t care for superheroes!). Anyone mess with the Immortal Hulk comics? I think that’s another good example of grafting an artist’s sensibility onto an existing IP (oh god, did I use IP in a sentence? I feel so dirty).

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