RECAP: Spider-Man

Spider-Man (2002): Sam Raimi

Oh boy did the fan boys rub their hands together for this one. Spider-Man spent the latter third of the 20th century as America’s third or fourth most popular comic superhero character, behind Superman and Batman (and possibly Wonder Woman).

Spider-Man was the first Marvel character to get his own movie, and people wanted to see what a Marvel movie wold look like. Unlike those DC characters, Spider-Man was a kid, and he saved many a day in an actual American city.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A high school nerd becomes a high school science experiment/savior of New York and his lovely next door neighbor. 

Hero (4/10)

Peter Parker (Peter Parker) is a lithe, awkward boy bedeviled by bullies at Midtown High School in New York City. Even the school bus driver laughs at him when he misses the bus one morning, and he won’t slow down until his next door neighbor, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), steps in. In short, life sucks for Peter.

Peter is the school’s best science student, though you won’t see him doing any science. Instead, he becomes an experiment himself, after visiting a local lab on a field trip and suffering a bite from a genetically modified spider. This spider gives Peter advanced senses, barbed hairs growing from his skin, and the ability to shoot webbing from, conveniently, his wrists. (Imagine if he only pooped out web, kind of like real spiders.)

Friendly Neighborhood…

Peter transforms into Spider-Man literally overnight, but that won’t help him with his domestic problems. From the start, Peter claims his story is about a girl, Mary Jane, to be exact. Peter loves Mary Jane, has so since before he liked girls, but has never made a move, unless you count watching her through his bedroom window (remember, they are next door neighbors).

After becoming Spider-Man, Peter follows Mary Jane and saves her multiple times, once resulting in a kiss that won Maguire and Dunst an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss. That upside-down kiss is easily the movie’s most enduring image.

Peter has few plans after graduating high school, save to move “into the city” and pursue photography to help pay for college. Despite being a terrific science student and knowing one of the most prominent CEOs in New York, Peter turns down an offer to work at Oscorp, saying he’d rather make his own way. Respectable, but also stupid.

We think Peter is a mousy loser, but he develops a vengeful side after gaining his powers. His Uncle Ben gives him the most famous speech in comics history, telling him that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Keep that in mind.

Peter needs cash, and he answers a call to wrestle for three minutes and receive $3,000 in an underground wrestling match against a gentleman named Bone Saw. Peter knocks out Bone Saw in two minutes. The wrestling promoter pays him $100 because the ad said he had to go three minutes. As Peter leaves the office, a man enters and robs the place. The robber flees the scene and Peter lets him go by, to get revenge for being stiffed.

That guy kills Uncle Ben, of course, and Peter tracks him down and, well, kind of causes his death without actually killing him. It’s the moment Peter needs to become, not the hero the city needs, but the hero it deserves. (Wait, wrong franchise.)

Peter works hard to save New Yorkers, but mostly he’s in it to save Mary Jane, especially after the villain realizes the latter is loved by the former.

Tobey Maguire is an inspired choice. It’s hard to imagine a more perplexing, reclusive weirdo than he, a guy so convincing that he can do this: 

Villain (3/10)

Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) founded Oscorp a bunch a years ago, but it appears he lost control of his company at some point. Oscorp contracts with the US Army, and the latter wants a successful human trial of some crazy gas experiment that enhances the human genome or something. Anyway, Army wants better killers, and fast.

One dark and lonely night Osborn tests the gas on himself, and nearly dies. The result: a split personality, the latter, angry version called Green Goblin.

After Green Goblin destroys Oscorp’s rival company Quest, Quest decides to recapitalize by buying Oscorp, provided they throw out Osborn, to which the board agrees.

A normal person might be upset by getting fired, but when you’re the head of a corporation AND you’ve experimented on yourself with mind-altering drugs AND have access to cutting-edge weapons, you get revenge on those who fired you by killing them at a big party.

That’s just what Osborn does as Green Goblin. In the process he nearly kills his son and son’s girlfriend. That makes Osborn insane, or, as he claims later, under the influence of Green Goblin. Although–wait a second–Green Goblin is part of Osborn.

Dafoe is on point with his creepiness. He leers at Mary Jane after first meeting her, and later all but dubs her a gold digger. Dafoe’s best scene occurs in his mansion one night, as he interrogates himself in a mirror as Green Goblin. Dafoe, performing Marvel’s version of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, switches between the two personalities mid-scene. To make Dafoe appear sympathetic at all is a testament to Dafoe’s acting skill.

Is Green Goblin a worthy foe? Sure. Peter struggles with a dual life, a person living inside of him, just as Osborn does. Difference is, Peter controls Spider-Man while Osborn doesn’t even know about Goblin for much of the film.

Perhaps Spider-Man fails in its character conflict. More than half the movie lapses before Spider-Man and Green Goblin first meet, and then they barely fight; Spider-Man doing cleanup duty more than fighting. At least Goblin has a straightforward plan–have Spider-Man join him or kill him. When the former doesn’t work he tries the latter. Goblin learns who Spider-Man is and acts immediately and ruthlessly, just as the Oscorp drug was meant to make him.

That laugh was damn silly, though.

Action/Effects (3/10)

The big set piece occurs at the World Unity Festival, Oscorp’s annual tribute to unity that it will tear apart by selling its weapons to the military. Shoulder shrug.

Peter arrives to photograph the festival, taking place below Osborn’s choice flat and balcony. He spies Harry and MJ, as well as the entire Oscorp board (though he doesn’t know them). Peter watches his friend and beloved, while standing still like he’s a toddler walking in on his parents having sex and not knowing what they are doing, but knowing enough to understand the act is significant.

Several choice balloons are tethered to the street area, adding color and some hopping platforms for later. The festival goers spot a black streak weaving through the skyscrapers. An Oscorp employee notes it as “our glider,” it being a flying sled emitting black smoke.

It’s Green Goblin, and he’s flying in to attack the festival. Goblin strafes the balcony where Harry, MJ, and company stand. Peter shoots webs to save two people standing beneath crumbling architecture. It might shock you to know that MJ is also in trouble.

“Out [of the company], am I?” Goblin cracks, as he’s tossing a grenade at the board members who ousted Osborn the day before from his namesake company, and the board members evaporate. “Holy shit!” remarks no one, although they should, because some bodies just vaporized.

Osborn just became the majority shareholder, but he’s not finished yet.

A balloon deflates after Spider-Man knocks Goblin from his glider and the latter punctures the balloon, and it’s about to crush a child who is mesmerized by it. Spider-Man begs the kid to move, but he doesn’t, so Spidey swings into action and saves him, in front of thousands, so the city will support him now.

Green Goblin attacks several police officers, and he kicks Spider-Man through the champagne flute pyramid. Party’s over, I guess.

That camp I was talking about. Here’s a Goblin weapon.

Spider-Man, fleeing gunfire, swings onto the top of a balloon, and he bounces around them. Goblin won’t tolerate this, and he smashes Spider-Man into his window. MJ is still screaming, about to fall from the crumbling balcony. Spider-Man won’t stop calling her by her name, the dope. She’s too scared to realize he’s doing it.

After some window smashing, Spider-Man tears out the glider’s control wires, and Goblin flies away, claiming that they will meet again.

All that’s left is for Spider-Man to save MJ and swing to a romantic location. Everything wraps up in a neat little package.

There’s bad green screen work in Spider-Man, so get excited for that.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Spider-Man has no help, while Peter has friends. First and foremost, Mary Jane. Kirsten Dunst turns up the charm to the max. A natural blonde, she looks great as a ginger, and I’m not sure if she ever wore a bra. Her upside-down kiss with Spider-Man was terrific, a film classic, even if it would not feel good in real life.

Mary Jane has bad taste in men. She goes for a guy calling himself Flash, and clearly dislikes him, but stays with him out of, I dunno, inertia? Also, he probably has a large dick. Mary Jane likes Peter, though she only kind of knows it and Peter definitely, terminally, does not. Peter’s obsessed with Mary Jane, but emphatically denies it to everyone he knows, which is sad and pathetic, and not in an endearing way.

I’m in love with Mary Jane.

That’s why Peter’s best and only friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) starts dating Mary Jane after Flash is out of the picture. “You never made a move,” Harry uses as an excuse, which it is. Harry knows that Peter’s loved MJ since “fourth grade,” and here they are in 12th grade and MJ still has no clue about Peter’s real feelings. Harry’s messing with his best friend’s crush, but he’s FULLY JUSTIFIED in doing so. He even feels bad about it.

A breakout role for Franco.

Harry, meanwhile, has father issues. His dad is a very important man, and hasn’t always been there for Harry. Harry seems like a nice, well-meaning boy, but he’s been kicked out of every private school in New York and now matriculates at–gasp–public school.

Harry is 100% in his father’s wash, and all his actions are a struggle get out of it. He dates MJ, but is nervous about introducing her to dear old dad because she’s not snobby upper class or whatever. MJ wears a floral print wrap dress on the day she’s to meet Osborn, while Harry laments that she didn’t wear black, his father’s favorite color.

After Green Goblin accidentally kills himself and Spider-Man lays the body in his home, Harry spies the action, and he blames Spider-Man for his father’s death. At Osborn’s funeral he vows revenge on Spider-Man to Spider-Man (Peter, at the time), never asking himself why Spider-Man would kill his father.

Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) deserve mention for their expert parenting skills. These two are corny as hell, but in the most endearing manner. Spider-Man is one superhero who cannot claim negligent child rearing as a reason for his acting squirrelly and weird.

Wayne Newton’s pissed at Peter.

Uncle Ben delivers the With Great Power speech now woven into the cultural lexicon. And he delivers it with gusto, despite resembling a broke Wayne Newton.

Henchmen (4/8)

I guess Green Goblin’s chief aid is Norman Osborn. He laughs maniacally (textbook maniacal) in Osborn’s head and in his apartment. Osborn is convinced that Green Goblin is another presence living in his head, that Osborn cannot control Green Goblin. No one buys it except Osborn.

Osborn’s life unravels after he tests a dangerous gas on himself. That didn’t go as planned, in that he murdered his colleague moments after almost dying in the experiment. He stole some advanced tech, including a flying hoverboard (part jet, part skateboard) armed with missiles and blades.

Green Goblin wears a ridiculous mask that’s more kabuki than military, and the Army was about to contract with Oscorp for this technology? I don’t buy it.

Stunts (2/6)

Spider-Man‘s camp shows itself in the stunts. Especially when Peter tries his skills against Bone Saw. Peter steps into the ring to try to survive three minutes with the champion. Without warning, a cage drops over the squared circle. Peter’s annoyed; he wasn’t informed.

Peter tries to boost his confidence by assaulting Bone Saw’s sexuality. No way a man that strong could be gay, right Peter? Anyway…the match starts, and Bone Saw smashes a folding chair on his back four times. Peter leaps onto the cage bars, perching there like, well, a spider.

Pretty soon Peter finds himself on the deck, getting smashed, until he delivers nine consecutive kicks to Bone Saw’s face and chest and, throwing him into the cage upside down, wins the match.

You can see all the silly stunts at work. The comedic face kicks, Spider-Man’s taunting perching, the fast-moving camera to simulate the wrestling moves–these are hallmarks of camp, and they are heavily present.

Much of Spider-Man shows Peter’s acquisition of powers. In fighting Flash at school, Peter does several backflips in the air. There’s also a tremendously corny running over buildings montage that ends with Peter smashing his face into a billboard.

You can throw fight choreography out the window here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it ain’t great either.

Climax (3/6)

After Osborn figures out that Peter is Spider-Man, he hastens to end their conflict. Green Goblin is nothing if not fast to act when he espies opportunity.

Goblin kidnaps Mary Jane, the object of Spider-Man’s masked eye, and flies her to the top of the George Washington Bridge. Or it’s the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t know; it doesn’t matter.

Point is, screamer-extraordinaire Mary Jane is in distress, and Spider-Man will save her. He’s swinging toward her when Goblin strikes with his plan.

Using missiles from his flying board, Green Goblin explodes the boarding station for a cable traversing the river and carrying, you guessed it, a class of children on a field trip. Never mind that it’s nighttime, these lads and lasses are in danger! Who shall save them?

Green Goblin offers Spider-Man a “sadistic choice.” He stands atop the bridge and holds a detached cable in one hand and Mary Jane in the other. Spider-Man will have to choose which to save, and, Goblin hopes, the choice will destroy Spider-Man as hero or Spider-Man’s love life.

Goblin says, “See how a hero is rewarded,” and drops both simultaneously; they reflect in Spidey’s mask. Spider-Man swoops into action, first catching Mary Jane and then swinging beneath the bridge to catch the loose cable. Spider-Man grips the massive cable with one hand and holds the single web strand attached to the bridge with his other hand. I know he has great strength, but even this was hard to believe.

Nevertheless, he’s doing it. Spider-Man convinces Mary Jane to climb down to the cable car, reassuring her that she can do it, and has to or all will die. She obliges, but too slowly, because Goblin punches and forces Spider-Man to jostle the cable. Mary Jane nearly falls into the river.

A large barge is sailing below, and it’s coming to be a safe haven for the cable car. Goblin won’t allow this. He’s about to slice the cable in half when he’s suddenly struck with dozens of flying objects.

From the bridge, the residents of New York are attacking Green Goblin! “Yah stinkin pus bag.” “Go to hell puke face!” “Not in my friggin city capiche?!” These are more or less the ways that New Yorkers let you know they are not be messed with. God willing, I never will.

The teeming masses afford Spider-Man time to save the cable car kids and his beloved. Green Goblin’s pissed now, and he jets into Spidey and into, what else, an abandoned building.

Goblin throws a pumpkin grenade that explodes in slow motion in front of Spider-Man, burning off parts of his mask. Goblin proceeds to beat the shit out of Peter, delivering countless slow motion punches and kicks to the dazed Peter. All these slow motion body blows add to Spider-Man‘s camp score.

For the first time in perhaps his life, Peter’s getting mad. He spins a classic spider web to slow Goblin, but it barely does, and the bad guy beats down the good guy. Now it’s Greeny who’s pissed, and he offers to slowly, painfully, murder Mary Jane. It’s always the women who suffer, isn’t it?

Green Goblin busts out a trident and throws it at Spider-Man, who catches it and then pulls a brick wall down on Double G. Cheesily, Goblin busts a hand out from under the brick pile. He’s about done. He removes his mask to reveal his identity as Osborn. “You would save me,” he says. Hasn’t he always been like a father to Peter? Well, we don’t know.

All this is a smoke screen, because Goblin is remotely controlling the rocket sled (someday I’ll figure out what to call that) into position behind Peter, its blade extruded.

Well, Green Goblin didn’t know about Spidey Sense. Peter backflips as the sled streaks toward him, dodging it. Osborn forgot that he was leaning against the wall directly in the sled’s path, and he says the PG version of “Oh, shit.” The blades impale him. His last words: “Don’t tell Harry.”

Spider-Man tastefully removes the Goblin getup and lays Osborn’s body on a couch in his living room. Harry spots the move, and he swears revenge on his father’s grave.

Jokes (2/4)

My favorite sequence was Spider-Man’s two minutes in the ring with Bone Saw. Played by the scraped-voiced Macho Man Randy Savage, Bone Saw is the resident champion of New York’s local wrestling circuit. I loved hearing Bone Saw speak, because he sounds insane, as if a thousand war cries have ravaged his vocal cords. Also, Bruce Campbell is there, and he gives Spider-Man his name.

The star of the whole picture (and he would call it a “picture”) is Daily Bugle editor-in-chief Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Triple J is a spitfire of insults and shrift. He offers Peter $200 for his Spider-Man pics, only to be proven bluffing. He offers $300 and orders them printed before Peter agrees.

Jameson calls Spider-Man “a criminal, a public menace,” but he sells papers. Jameson assigns Green Goblin his nickname.

Setting (3/4)

New York is dirty, rainy, sweaty, dangerous. That’s the New York of Spider-Man and probably the eight million souls who populate it.

Big set pieces are the order of the day, particularly during the Festival sequence. Giant balloons are there for Spider-Man to hop on. The sequence feels like it’s set in an arena and not a city square.

Commentary (1/2)

Green Goblin kidnaps Spider-Man and offers him an olive branch. He claims that they could fight each other again and again and again while thousands of innocents die, or he could join Green Goblin and, uh, be powerful, I guess. What they would do together is never clear.

Goblin lays out his worldview for Spider-Man. He believes that New York’s “eight million souls,” as he puts it, exist to elevate the few elite people, people who wear masks like Spider-Man and Green Goblin. Goblin slices to the heart of elitist thinking in these few words.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

There’s a gag when Spider-Man, fighting Bone Saw, taunts him, telling him he’s wearing a nice outfit. “Did your husband give it to you?”

First of all, no teenager would say “husband” or “wife” in this scenario. You go with “boyfriend.” Second, Peter knew it that insinuating Bone Saw to be gay would upset him, but isn’t it tasteless, if not offensive, for the movie to make the joke?


  • (1) Shout out to my man Bruce Campbell, hamming up an underground wrestling promoter, a role Campbell was born to play and might be if this whole acting thing doesn’t work out. Sure, he’s in every Sam Raimi movie, but that’s still worth a bonus point.
  • Gotta admire Peter’s temerity in going to Osborn’s funeral after trying to kill him and watching him die.
  • (-1) Spider-Man calls Green Goblin “Gobby.” It’s terrible.
  • Shout out to bit roles for Octavia Spencer and Elizabeth Banks in a terrible pageboy haircut.

Summary (29/68): 43%

Spider-Man was the first blockbuster stand-alone superhero movie released since Batman, and the effects of that series show. Danny Elfman’s score and the kooky opening titles make this movie feel more like a Tim Burton movie than a Marvel movie.

That didn’t matter, because hot damn Spider-Man made some money. Number five all time when released, the movie was number one in 2002, beating–you’re not gonna believe this–a Harry Potter movie, a Lord of the Rings movie, and a Star Wars movie. That’s show business, bay-bee!