Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ranking the Spider-Man Films

I've said it before, but I'll say it again, Spider-Man is locked in a three-way tie with Batman and Superman as my favorite superhero of all-time.  I just have always loved the relatable nature of Peter Parker as a character, and for me, the superheroic action is merely the icing on the cake.  With The Amazing Spider-Man 2 hitting theaters this Friday, I figured now might be as good a time as any to revisit all of the previous Spider-Man films and see how I feel they still stand as, not just films themselves, but also as good interpretations of the character.

The reason for doing this is because a little bit of time can often change the way you initially felt about a movie upon release.  Whether it be a breath of fresh air because the film just wasn't a train wreck like its predecessor, or a sense of disappointment marring your good critical senses because the movie didn't meet all of your expectations, whatever it is, I have often found that it takes a good two to three years for me to really decide what I truly feel about a film.  Now, at the same time, first impressions are highly important, because it is that first impression that often showcases how you will forever approach that film.  The things you disliked and loved will still always be there, but over time you may have been able to come to terms with the things that didn't work and see the film for what it is, rather than for what it is not.

I am not going to lie and say that the Spider-Man films haven't missed a few golden opportunities, but as a whole, I would say that the Spider-Man films made over the past 12 years have been some of the more consistently entertaining superhero films ever made.  So, with that all said, onto the films themselves.


4.  Spider-Man 3
Boy, what a way to start this list.  Spider-Man 3 will forever be up there with fellow superhero films like Batman & Robin for being one of the most disappointing superhero films of all-time, and yet people that often try to call it one of the worst are letting their disappointment cloud their judgment.  The truth is, there is a lot that Spider-Man 3 does right.  Tonally, it is consistent with the first two films in the original Spider-Man trilogy, directed by Sam Raimi.  There is a clever balance between cartoonish comedy and comic book melodrama to create a living, breathing version of the comic, which is both cartoonishly funny and melodramatic as well.  So why is this film last place on the list of Spider-Man movies?  Well, it's simply because, as a film, it is the weakest of the lot.

What hurt Spider-Man 3 is the main reason I am worried for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, there were just too many villains and characters, and not enough time to develop them to where they felt organic to the story.  Many characters, like Venom and Gwen Stacy, felt more like fan service than a natural progression of the story that started back with 2002's Spider-Man.  In many ways, if the rumors of the studio forcing Sam Raimi to include Venom are true, then I don't blame Sam Raimi.  I think Sam Raimi's original intentions for this third film are hidden in there, in particular the way he handles the character of Sandman, and the way he handles Harry Osborn's descent into darkness.  Where the film doesn't work is whenever dealing with the symbiote storyline.  This was such a huge story in the comics, it should have been its own film, and not pigeonholed into this one simply to appease fans.

The truth is, Spider-Man 3 is by no means as bad as what I remember upon first seeing it.  In all honesty, it is still a very fun, entertaining movie that's just a little too cheesy at times to be as good as the first two.  I think in order for Sam Raimi to try and make the darkness of the symbiote storyline to work with his more Silver Aged vision of Spider-Man, he resorted to a lot of over-the-top comedy, such as emo Peter Parker dancing in the streets, to try and lighten things up.  Even still, while I am with many fans who will always dream of what this third film in the original trilogy could have been, what we did get is not a train wreck or a travesty, nor does it disrespect the character of Spider-Man, on the contrary, Sam Raimi's love of the character is as apparent as ever in this film.  Spider-Man 3 is an imperfect entertainment that does what it's supposed to do, entertain, even if it doesn't all feel as tight and cohesive as the other three films later on this list.

Grade:  B

3.  The Amazing Spider-Man
I gave this film an A+ when it first came out, primarily because I was so desperate for a good Spider-Man film after Spider-Man 3, but in all honesty, I am not sure the film deserves a perfect score.  This was the too soon reboot to the film series that had only started ten years earlier, purely because the studio opted to restart with a new cast and crew, rather than pursuing the long in development fourth film starring Tobey Maguire.  While I still think there were plenty of stories left to tell with Sam Raimi and company without pulling the plug, The Amazing Spider-Man is a great film, but not perfect.

The greatest thing about this reboot was Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.  He is every bit as good at the character as Tobey Maguire was, with much more of the sarcastic humor of the comic book character than Maguire and Raimi ever brought to him.  Then there is the pairing of Garfield and real-life girlfriend, Emma Stone, portraying his movie love, Gwen Stacy.  They had super perfect chemistry together, and it made their relationship innocent and believable.  The only real misstep this film took was in its villain, the Lizard.  Not only was the Lizard done with very shoddy CGI work, the film also failed to really transform Dr. Curt Connors into a three-dimensional character that we care about, so that we're feeling the horror of his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation.  We're told that he's in desperate need of manufacturing this cure, but we never really are laid out all of the reasons as to why Dr. Connors is desiring this cure for himself, and not just for his boss, Norman Osborn.  There is a very tragic character hidden within Dr. Connors that just never came through in the film.

Of course, weak villain aside, everything else about this reboot went off without a hitch.  They got the tone just right, managing to differentiate itself just enough from the previous three movies to be its own thing, while also being familiar enough to not alienate fans.  Plus, the mystery involving Peter's parents and their death, was a very nice touch to tie into Spider-Man's origin story, helping to further make this new series of films stand on its own two feet to where it's not simply retreading the ground of the Tobey Maguire-Sam Raimi movies.  As I said, while The Amazing Spider-Man is an imperfect film, the things it does get right, are so perfectly done, that they make the Spider-Man fan inside of me fill with excitement just thinking about the great moments this film offers, such as the stunning bridge sequence where Spider-Man rescues a kid from a burning car.

Grade:  A-

2.  Spider-Man 2
This is where it started to get really difficult for me to figure out which Spider-Man film I liked the most, because the first two Spider-Man films directed by Sam Raimi, starring Tobey Maguire, are both perfect representations of the character.  Ultimately, this is the way I decided to go, with Spider-Man 2, funnily enough, in the number two slot.

Spider-Man 2 just did everything right.  It was appropriately funny, emotional, and action packed, with a strong sense of thematic identity that perhaps no other Spider-Man film has ever had.  The whole film basically boils down to the idea that has always permeated with Spider-Man, "With great power, comes great responsibility."  If you keep that classic phrase in your head the whole time watching this particular film, you will see how almost every single scene in the story plays into that theme.  Peter is constantly questioning whether or not he actually wants to be Spider-Man, creating psychosomatic barriers in his mind, disabling his powers when he does not want to be Spider-Man.  This is really deep stuff here, for a superhero movie, no less.  Then there is actor Alfred Molina as the truly sympathetic villain, Doctor Octopus.  Driven mad by his own genius, he is the quintessential mad scientist who plunges off the deep end after the death of his wife, refusing to accept responsibility (note that word once again) for her death, until Peter manages to teach Doc Ock the same exact lesson he had to learn so long ago with the death of his Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility," a lesson that Peter must relearn through the course of this film as well.

Ultimately, Spider-Man 2 only very narrowly misses the top spot as the best Spider-Man film to date.  What, with the still awe inspiring train sequence, and the, "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," stroll, this film is a perfect Spider-Man film.  Alas, there are two of them, though.

Grade:  A+

1.  Spider-Man
This is it, the best Spider-Man film ever made is still the first one that they ever did.  Forget the fact that he does not use actual web shooters and has organic webbing, this film is the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko creation brought to life in terms of tone and spirit.  There is something so charmingly simplistic about this film, that it's still my personal favorite of the Spider-Man films after all these years.  While it does not have the emotional or psychological depth of Spider-Man 2, it more than makes up for it in the entertainment quotient.

I remember seeing this film on opening night on May 3, 2002.  It was a packed theater, my Dad had bought advance tickets for me and my brothers to see it.  We had gone to a little place by the local movie theater, that is no longer there, called the Philly Connection, for dinner.  Me being picky, I had a grilled cheese, fries, and a chocolate milkshake.  It was there we also ran into the pastor of our church, where we talked about what we were about to see, so on and so forth.  I am not really sure why I remember this night in so much detail, perhaps it's because what followed is one of the most seminal nights of moviegoing in my life.

There is no denying the impact that Spider-Man had on me as a filmgoer.  As a matter of fact, many of the visual ideas that Sam Raimi employed in this film and its sequel, I find myself often doing in my own work as a filmmaker subconsciously.  This was the first major blockbuster I remember just obsessing over.  Months before the movie came out, I was scouring the internet, watching every trailer, reading every interview in magazines like Wizard, and buying the toys released in Christmas of 2001 to prepare for the experience of that following May.  As a matter of fact, my obsession over this film extended to the point of me seeing it two more times in theaters (the first time I ever saw a movie more than once in a movie theater).  

I can remember seeing it the very next Saturday on my birthday, eating out at a Mexican restaurant, getting tons of Spider-Man toys, and then role-playing Spider-Man on the trampoline with my two best friends. I vividly remember getting one of those silly string web shooters as a gift and firing it at everybody till they got tired of me.  

Then, I saw the movie a third time, coercing my brother to take me to see it one more time before it left theaters.  I think he was already tired of it at that point, but I sure wasn't.  I even went and bought the comic book adaptation of the movie's screenplay after that, so that I could continue to relive the movie till it came out on DVD, where I rewatched it over and over again.  Coincidentally, this was the first DVD I ever got.  

I remember going to K Mart to buy the movie when it finally come out about six months later.  I had grabbed the VHS version, and my Mom told me I should get the DVD instead.  Of course, I replied, "But I don't have a DVD player in my room."  After all, at that time, the only DVD player in the house was in the living room.  Alas what I didn't know then was that I was getting a DVD player for Christmas from my Aunt and Grandmother.  Of course, enough reminiscing, the fact of the matter is, 12 years later, this is still one of the most quintessential blockbusters of all-time, standing alongside the likes of Star Wars and Jurassic Park for me.

While my nostalgia for Spider-Man may have something to do with my deep found love for this film, it still is a phenomenal film that manages to stand on its own.  There is a sense of fun and carefree innocence to this film that so many superhero films today lack.  The story feels timeless, the characters are all relatable and likable, by and large thanks to the spot on casting, and the action and comedy set pieces all work and never fail to entertain.  

Tobey Maguire is still the best Peter Parker, until someone else can prove otherwise (though I must concede Andrew Garfield is the better Spider-Man), and Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson as Aunt May and Uncle Ben were just so perfect, it was almost an insurmountable hill to climb when Sally Field and Martin Sheen played the parts in The Amazing Spider-Man.  Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe managed to bring a no-holds barred sensibility to the Green Goblin, the likes of his villainous performance not replicated and bested until Heath Ledger's Joker.  Plus, I can't forget J.K. Simmons as the definitive J. Jonah Jameson.  He is the voice I hear when I read the character in the comic books, and whenever that day does come where a new Spider-Man movie has to recast this role, that new actor is gonna face a lot of scrutiny purely because of the shadow that J.K. Simmons has cast on the character.

Grade:  A+

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