Welcome back to Geek Life! This week marks the 22nd article in this 26-part, one year project. It also marks the ninth anniversary of one of the most successful films in Hollywood history – Spider-Man. It’s hard to believe that nine years has passed since Peter Parker took his bow on the big screen. It’s even harder to believe that it took nearly twenty years to put together the proper set of circumstances, crew, and cast to bring Stan Lee’s most memorable creation to theaters. While the first film would surpass all expectations from Marvel Comics and fans, the road behind was littered with bad scripts, cut budgets, and a studio rivalry that involved James Bond. So, how did they manage to avoid the traps that ensnared the Fantastic Four and Captain America movies of the early 90s? It all began with a crazy idea from the greatest creator of comics’ Silver Age…
Spider-Man on the Big Screen
Stan Lee had just come off creating the Fantastic Four. Marvel Comics was riding high off head writer Lee’s ideas and Martin Goodman, the publisher of Marvel, came calling for more. Lee pitched the idea of Spider-Man – a teenage hero who faces the same problems as kids and pushes himself to fight crime after the lack of action against a petty thug ends with the murder of his beloved Uncle. Goodman hated it. He reminded Lee that kids were sidekicks and not the actual heroes themselves. Lee later revealed that these were frustrating times for him as a writer. He wanted to let this idea take wing so badly, he considered leaving Marvel if they insisted he stick to the overused origins and character types. Luckily for him, something was about to change how this would go down.
The anthology comic Amazing Adult Fantasy was getting canceled. They needed a story to put into it, and since this was the last issue of the series, they didn’t really care what went in there. Lee dusted off his teenaged superhero, and with artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man swung onto the shelves with Amazing Fantasy #15 (the title of the series was renamed for this final issue). Spider-Man was an instant success. When Martin Goodman saw the sales figures, he went to Stan Lee with the news that the teenager, who Goodman thought “would be a huge success all along”, was getting his own title. The Amazing Spider-Man was born.
Spider-Man quickly became the flagship character of Marvel Comics. Peter Parker was relatable to all the younger readers showing them that anyone, even a wall-crawling, sligin’ superhero like Spider-Man, could have problems just like anyone else. Readers weren’t rich like Batman, an alien with a ridiculous power set like Superman, or a goddess like Wonder Woman. They were kids with real problems with fitting in at school, meeting girls, or getting home in time for dinner with their doting parental figure. Cartoons, toys, and appearances in just about every Marvel comic soon followed. Marvel’s biggest star and his creator were synomous with superstardom.
By the end of the 1970s, Spider-Man, like the Incredible Hulk, got his chance to star in a live-action television series. Even Captain America had a couple television movies during this time, but that’s not something I’m even going to touch with a borrowed keyboard. Unlike The Incredible Hulk, Spidey’s series would not be long lived or well remembered. As a kid I remember seeing these shows, but often wondered where the heck Doc Ock or the Green Goblin were. While the Incredible Hulk show featured good storytelling – “David” Banner just wants to be left alone so the Hulk doesn’t get out – with some pretty good acting from Bill Bixby, there wasn’t a need to throw in a lot of the comic elements. The Hulk was always an allegory for the monster that dwells inside every person. The show zeroed in on that idea much more than the Hulk going to blows with the Leader, the US Army, or Wolverine. Sure, later television movies found Hulk teaming up with the likes of Daredevil and Thor, but that wasn’t what the series was about.
Well, Spidey’s first live action adventures went the same route. They got Nicholas Hammond, better known as a television hunk who also was one of the kids in The Sound of Music, to play Peter Parker and Spider-Man. On the action side, I guess he worked as well as anyone else, but as Peter Parker, he was probably a bit too good looking. The best way I could really explain this would be to have Brad Pitt play Clark Kent. As Superman, that would work, but as a bumbling dork, it wouldn’t be so good. Spread out over two seasons on CBS, The Amazing Spider-Man would only last a total of 13 episodes. It suffered from not being as engaging as The Incredible Hulk, and a little too old for kids who wanted to see their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man punching the Green Goblin. He looked like the Spider-Man we knew from the comics, but in action, it just didn’t work.
Without having the true reference of the effect of the 1960s cartoon series, I can say my greatest memories of Spidey’s adventures on television were found in the early 1980s’ Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Every episode found Spidey hanging out with his pals Iceman and Firestar (a character created specifically for this series who found more action with the New Warrirors and even joined the Avengers for a while). They often ran into other characters like Captain America and Iron Man. They fought some of the more popular villains from Marvel like Doctor Doom and, finally, the Green Goblin. Every episode was introduced by the man himself, Stan Lee. He got us kids excited for every adventure like he was telling us these stories firsthand. Even now, as I watch the old episodes on Disney XD, I enjoy them. Maybe they are a little goofy in that awesome early 80s way, but I don’t care. I love that series.
It was around the time that Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends were entertaining the kids that the first plans for a feature film started to come together. After all, Superman proved that people wanted to see their favorite superheroes in movies and the technology existed to make it look good too. B-Movie King Roger Corman possessed an option to make a Spider-Man movie, but when Superman III failed to impress at the box office, Hollywood wasn’t so hot anymore on the idea of funding big time budgets for superhero movies. The short opening for Spider-Man seemingly closed, but by 1985, a new party became interested in the property.
Cannon Films was the interested property and paid Marvel Comics $225,000 to keep the film option for five years. That’s no small dime, kiddies. I’m pretty certain that $225,000 in 1985 money is worth like 4 trillion in 2011 money. Cannon was damn serious about making a Spider-Man movie! After backing the truck up to Marvel’s front door and shoveling money into the reception area, who would Cannon dare trust with the directing responsibilities? The job fell to Tobe Hooper. Yeah, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre guy.
While Hooper prepped a couple other films (one of which was a sequel to his popular horror film), Cannon execs brought some writers on board to write a Spider-Man script based on their interpretation of the character. This interpretation was a complete train wreck. The heads of Cannon thought Spider-Man’s powers came out something like the Wofman’s. Instead of being a costumed hero that was still like you and me (except for the awesome spider powers), the radioactive treatment turns Peter Parker into a giant, hairy, eight-armed, tarantula. When refusing to join a gang of super-powered mutants, he fights them all in one big monster mash.
Ugh… There are no words to explain what that would have been like. I mean I know plenty of words, most of them being four lettered and quite colorful, but damn. None of them would come close to truly revealing my feelings on what that movie would have been. I shudder to even think this was almost a movie. I mean, I love monsters as much as anybody, but this? This would NOT have been anything anyone would have wanted to see. Thankfully, Stan Lee got pissed.
After feeling his creation was being debased by this treatment, he demanded a new creative team be formed. Thankfully, Cannon agreed. In walked Joseph Zito. A real director and leader of men. Zito was man enough to direct Chuck Norris in the relatively successful, and surely one hell of a punchfest and kickarama, Invasion U.S.A. Damn, that’s a title, huh? Both Invasion AND U.S.A. make it into that title. A title like that can make women fertile and men invincible. Wait… What am I talking about? Oh yeah…
Anyway, Zito hired Barney Cohen to rewrite the script. His script tied Spider-Man’s origins to Doctor Otto Octavius and featured a real comic book story. The film was going to be costly, but it was going to be filled with popular actors and exciting stunts. Talks were in place to have the then hardly known, but on his way, Tom Cruise play Peter Parker with Bob Hoskins (famous for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) to play Doc Ock. Even Stan Lee wanted a piece of the action and looked to be J. Jonah Jameson. Unfortunately, the budget was reduced to less than half and Cannon could not figure out a way to make it the way they hoped. Their option expired.
Soon, 21st Century Film Corporation would be attached to the movie. This came about as one of the original developers left Cannon to form 21st Century. Who is 21st Century Film Corporation, you ask? Oh boy… They are a low budget film house who has at least one famous movie… Captain America. Never seen the 1990 version of the Captain America movie? Do yourself a favor, go to a comic con or comic trade show, spend a fiver, and bring home a copy of the film for yourself. Watch it. Cry a little bit. Then, laugh your ass off. Finally, come back to this site to read my review of the movie.
One thing 21st Century did do is talk to Columbia Pictures about the project. Columbia came very close to buying the rights and making the movie, but again, it fell apart. Enter Carolco and James Cameron. James Cameron came up with a script for a Spider-Man movie after completing True Lies. Now this project might have been one worth seeing a few times over. Cameron’s script was very mature compared to the comics or television series that came before. Profanity and sex between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson were featured in Cameron’s treatment. This started to roll along until 21st Century Film Corporation’s properties were gobbled up by MGM.
Not realizing the state of MGM’s proprietary rights over a film version of Spider-Man, Marvel sold the rights to Columbia Pictures on their own. MGM stepped in and a legal battle began between the two studios. These two studios were already at odds as Columbia planned on creating their own series of James Bond films, which MGM desperately didn’t want to have happen. As part of a 1999 settlement, Columbia traded their desire to make a new James Bond series for the rights to make a Spider-Man movie. MGM kept their precious franchise safe (even though later, Columbia would come back around when MGM faced financial issues and the two studios produced the new Daniel Craig Bond films) and Columbia got the opportunity to make Spider-Man movies. In 2000, Columbia captured all the rights for all previous scripts and treatments dating back to the 1980s. They specifically protected the James Cameron-related scripts. With those under Columbia’s belt, a Spider-Man live action movie was finally in real life pre-production. Soon, we’d learn that the first film would be directed by Sam Raimi and would be written by David Koepp, with later rewrited by Scott Rosenberg. Koepp’s original plan was to have the Green Goblin be the main villain with Dr. Octopus as a secondary villain. Feeling having three origin stories would be a bit too much for the audience, Raimi and Rosenberg removed Dr. Octopus and added some more action. In the end, a story came together. Yet another writer came in to polish some dialog. This meant James Cameron’s original treatment was reworked by three other writers with Koepp retaining sole scriptwriting credit.
Usually, when this many writers come together to work on a story, it’s fairly obvious in presentation. It feels disjointed and messy. That wouldn’t end up being a problem for Spider-Man. On May 3, 2002, the movie hit the screens and, oh boy, was it satisfying. Even if I didn’t know the full story behind bringing Stan Lee’s greatest creation to theaters throughout my coming of age, as the days counted down to the release, I knew it was a long time coming. It would’ve been easy to have been disappointed, but so few were. Don’t get me wrong, fanboys were not big on a few things, but Spider-Man was finally real to all of us who grew up reading his adventures or watching his cartoons.
Knowing so much about movies and what made a hit and what didn’t, Spider-Man’s first weekend box office take astonished me. Never before had a movie made $100 Million in three days. Not only did Spider-Man do that, it threw up some more to bring its total to $114 Million over the first three days. In one weekend, it was already a box office smash. In one weekend, everyone had Spidey Fever. It’s so easy to see why too.
Forget the genres Sam Raimi usually works with in his films. Forget about how gory and visually explicit his films can be. Raimi has a visual style and a subtle sense of humor that win over so many audiences. If you think about Peter Parker and Spider-Man and comic books in general, he might have been the perfect choice, and the only director who could have given these movies what it needed most… A way to connect with everyone.
Raimi’s Peter Parker is geeky, but a loveable loser all the same. He’s a great kid and a loyal friend. Okay, maybe he’s awkward and wears dorky glasses. Maybe his hair is parted wrong and when something bad happens to anyone, it’ll happen to Peter. He’s in love with the girl next door, the beautiful Mary Jane Watson who is damaged as well, but that doesn’t stop him from wanting to save her and give her the love her father can’t. Really, if you think about it, it’s straight out of Stan Lee’s original creation. Exchange Gwen Stacy with Mary Jane and you pretty much have boiled down what we love about Peter Parker and all his early years rolled into the first reel of the film. With Tobey Maguire playing Peter, you couldn’t help but love the guy. You could laugh at his misfortunes and cheer him on when he put that mask on all the same. He was like a buddy for the guys and someone the girls could have a little crush on for how sweet he was.
Maguire’s supporting cast was Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, James Franco as Harry Osborn, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, and last, but certainly not least, Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin. While the first three mentioned here are seen in each of the movies, they all have expanded or varying roles and grow themselves. Of course, Dafoe wouldn’t survive the movie as his murderous plot against Peter Parker and his friends backfires in about the worst way it could. However, none of them were as entertaining to watch as J.K. Simmons playing the cantankerous J. Jonah Jameson.
While it’s not hard to give someone a cigar, flat top hairdo, and a Hitler moustache, J.J.J. isn’t just what he looks like. He’s a loud, annoying, and often very small man. He’s cheap, short tempered, and knows that his negative editorial smear campaign against Spider-Man sells papers. That might seem like a really easy role to play, and I’m sure it’s fun to do. It takes something special, though, to embody a character’s appearance, attitude, and tirades so perfectly, that you can’t believe everything you saw and heard when you thought of the name “J. Jonah Jameson” is playing out for you on the screen. Every time Simmons appears on screen, the audience is captivated by him. As great as anyone could possibly be in this series, Simmons stole every scene.
The first movie was so satisfying, and still is every single time I watch it. I didn’t even care that the Green Goblin’s costume was strange compared to what I was used to seeing. Even as a kid, I didn’t understand how a mask could really look like the Goblin’s. Since the Ultimate Marvel version of Spider-Man preceeded the movie, the organic version of Peter’s webshooters made much more sense than some teenage kid creating a complicated mechanism to do what he needed. As the movie played out, I could feel my hair on my arms, neck, and other places on my torso I’d rather not reveal was standing on end. I guess you could say my Spidey-sense tingled from start to finish. I had goosebumps in that first moment the Green Goblin swooped into the street fair and faced off with Spider-Man for the first time. I think I might have audibly uttered the word “awesome” when I saw the classic vision of Peter’s mask torn to show that battle damaged face we’ve seen so many times in the comics. I very nearly cheered when we saw Spider-Man swinging through New York City at the end of the movie as if we were seeing a splash page out of a comic. I couldn’t believe that they could have done anything any more perfectly than that.
Then came Spider-Man 2…
It was no surprise that after the first weekend of business, a sequel to Spider-Man was greenlit. It was also no surprise that Doctor Octopus would be tapped to be the villain. After taking 20 years to bring Spider-Man to theaters, a sequel would only take two years to be made. It makes sense too. Usually sequels don’t take as long to develop because building on established characters is far easier than it is to create and introduce them. Every character needed to be created for the masses in the first, for this second one, only Doctor Octopus would need to be created from scratch. Everyone else just gets the advantage of free screen time to face more difficult obstacles. As long as you don’t give audiences the exact same thing to the point of being too predictible, a sequel should be better than the first. It’s not always a guarantee, but the ingredients are there to make it better.
The first Spider-Man movie also left a lot of open ended ideas floating around. Despite J. Jonah Jameson’s best attempts, Spider-Man was now an established hero and loved by the residents of New York. He has an enemy in Harry Osborn who believes Spidey killed his father Norman. As Peter Parker, he rejected Mary Jane’s overdue reciprocation of romantic feelings believing it would put her in more danger if they were to be together. Finally, there is the always present, ultimate guilt Peter feels for not being able to stop Uncle Ben’s murder.
So, obviously, a second film only had to build off of what was already launched, and, on a secondary story level, create the story for Doctor Otto Octavius. All we had to do as an audience was ask the questions of where we go from the end of the first film. I don’t think we expected a movie that was going to be this good. I also don’t think we expected the movie to become something Sam Raimi would make his own in all the right ways.
In Spider-Man 2, Peter is living on his own and desperately trying to make ends meet. He’s broke, lonely, and struggling with jobs and school because of his double life. Mary Jane has moved onto a semi-successful off Broadway acting career and dating an American hero astronaut (who happens to be J. Jonah Jameson’s son). Peter’s friendship with Harry is strained because of Peter’s use of Spider-Man pics as a source of income. If all that isn’t bad enough, Aunt May is about to lose her house.
All these individual stresses on his life cause Peter to begin losing his powers as Spider-Man. The biggest stress is the absense of Mary Jane in his life. Every time he’s near her, it’s heartbreaking for him. As he suffers from the heartbreak, his powers fade away. This leads him to give up the Spidey suit and reconcile his life.
Meanwhile, another heartbroken character was causing lots of problems in New York. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Otto Octavius is a brilliant scientist working on experiments funded by Harry Osborn that will lead to a self-sustaining energy source. A tragic accident during a demostration for the Oscorp board of directors, Osborn’s life is destroyed. His equipment is completely obliterated, the mechanical arms he invetned to assist him in his projects have fused to his spine, and, worst yet, his wife is killed. The fused mechanical arms begin taking over his mind and driving him over the edge of insanity. In order to rebuild and finish his life’s work, he takes up a life of crime.
This entire movie is about character arcs. Peter finally asks himself the important questions about what he does and why. On top of that, how can he possibly be both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. What does it mean to be both? Harry finally descends into complete madness knowing Peter is the very person he swore vengeance on for supposedly “killing” Norman. Peter and Aunt May have a frank discussion about the night Uncle Ben died and Peter’s involvement. Finally, there’s Doctor Octopus’ own arc as he goes from proud (to the point of arrogant) scientist, to madman, to the only person who can actually save the day and doing it. It’s more than an action movie, or comic book movie, or an adventure. It’s about people dealing with some heavy stuff. The ending of the movie is even heavy as Mary Jane pours her heart out to Peter, then watching him swing away as Spider-Man to stop some crime with an expression that can only be described as one that a person with a lot of unanswered questions swirling around in her head. It was this focus on characters that made Spider-Man 2 so much more than just a sequel to the first.
However, there was more going on than the character studies. Of the three Spider-Man movies, this one, in particular, was definitely recognizable as a “Sam Raimi movie”. Think about the Evil Dead movies he’s done, or Drag Me to Hell. While three of the four examples are definitely horror movies, each of these movies have a touch that is entirely Sam Raimi’s. Many of these movies have very intense or gory scenes that are often diffused by something really over the top. Sometimes it’s the performance from an actor. Sometimes it’s a camera angle or specific shot that highlights a weapon or another tool. Sometimes, it’s the effect or makeup used for the monster that’s coming after a character. Sometimes, it’s just a scene that absolutely has no intention of being taken seriously. In Spider-Man 2, Raimi uses an over the top performance from James Franco that makes the audience laugh and remain glued to everything he has to say as he goes mad over his obsession with Spider-Man. The entire operating room scene when doctors are trying to remove Octavius’ extra arms was another classic example. Lastly, a scene I dearly love that others might hate, but everyone remembers, the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage showing Peter getting his life together after he quits being Spider-Man. These little moments peppering the movie made this, in my opinion, the ultimate comic book movie. Forget The Dark Knight because that’s more like a regular movie than a comic book movie… Spider-Man 2 is tops when it comes to seeing a true comic book in motion.
Unfortunately, Raimi didn’t get to make his very own movie for Spider-Man 3. The plan was to complete Harry Osborn’s character, have Sandman enter in as a villain with more than just a lust for crime, and have Peter realize he isn’t exactly without his own personal sin in what he does. Raimi did like the idea of having another villain involved. For a long while, it really looked as though the Vulture was going to fit that role. However, Avi Arad, the head of Marvel Studios, convinced Raimi to use Venom instead of the Vulture. At this point, I wasn’t so sure what we were going to see in the third installment.
Okay, yeah, I get it… Venom is probably in the top three most famous Spider-Man villains. For a brief period after his introduction, Venom probably was the most popular baddie in Spidery’s comics. Next thing you know, Venom was all over the damn place. He was in The Amazing Spider-Man trying to eat Spidey’s brains. He was in Web of Spider-Man trying to kidnap J. Jonah Jameson’s turkey club sandwich. He was in Spider-Man selling crab juice on the streets of New York. The dude was everywhere. When a character is overused like that, his impact is immediately lessened and the character starts to get murky and more of a supporting character than a real threat. Right away, I started to get a less than confident feeling about the movie.
I don’t hate Spider-Man 3. I’ll say that right now, but I’ll also say there are major problems with it. James Franco and two more musical moments for Tobey Maguire remind us that it’s still a Sam Raimi directed movie, but instead of focusing on character, the movie veers off into whole new plotlines. The story with Harry and Peter gets resolved, and Peter and MJ have a continuation of their love story, but just about everything else is a mish mash of brand new and disconnected things that happen.
Instead of having Peter look at his own actions as Spider-Man to realize that he’s not exactly a saint, they use the Venom symbiote as a way to have those inner struggles with personality and actions. They toss Gwen Stacy in to create friction between MJ and Peter. They have a whole chunk of movie devoted to Harry having amnesia and not really remembering that he hates Spider-Man and Peter Parker. There’s this Eddie Brock guy who’s challenging Peter for a full-time job at the Daily Bugle. All of these things get in the way of the best plotline in the entire movie – that of Sandman being a guy who’s unlucky and can’t really catch a break when it comes to trying to be the best man and best father he can be. He made some mistakes in life, but they were all with the best of intentions. That was the story that would have forced Peter to look at himself and realize that not everything is black and white in both the criminal and masked vigilante’s worlds. Remove the Venom aspect and you could have kept the rest. I’m not sure how the original Vulture part would’ve played out, but I’m positive the movie would have felt a lot less pieced together.
With Spider-Man 3, the franchise came to an end. Columbia Pictures and their parent company Sony still wanted to make more Spider-Man movies. Sony especially wanted to hold onto as many rights as they could with Marvel Studios’ fresh deal with Paramount Pictures to make what I guess can best be called the Avengers franchise. No matter what Sony and Columbia wanted to do, three movies would be all Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire wanted to do. They left the franchise feeling they’ve done all they wanted to do with the series. That didn’t exactly mean we weren’t going to see the web-slinger ever again on the big screen.
The idea for a Spider-Man 4 movie was circulating. Sony still wanted it. Marvel still wanted it. It was the fans, though, that worried a new director, or simply another movie in the current franchise, would doom the series like the original Batman franchise was. It would later be said that the next Spider-Man movie would actually be a reboot of the series and come to theaters in 3D.
This new film is going to be known as The Amazing Spider-Man, taking after the name of Spidey’s first, and longest-running, comic series. Andrew Garfield will step in to play Peter Parker with Emma Stone playing Gwen Stacy. It will focus more on Peter Parker’s high school days as a geeky kid who is mercilessly bullied by Flash Thompson and must deal with all those things that kids do. Unlike Raimi’s series, this new film, directed by newcommer Marc Webb, will go back to the roots of the character and the exact reasons why young readers identified with the hero. It’s hard to imagine this new film will do what the first franchise did as far as how I will feel about it, but I’m still excited to see Spidey movies.
That wraps up this Geek Life. While I’m hanging out in theaters, I think it’s time to get to the bottom of a topic that has geeks torn and at each other’s throats… Oh yeah, it’s time to tackle the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy! Am I going to join the orchestra of those who have disowned George Lucas as a childhood hero? Am I going to defend them? If you want to know how I feel, I guess you best come back to this very website in two weeks!