State of the Franchise: Spider-Man

With how big of events superhero movies have become in the 21st century, people tend to forget that it wasn’t always like this. Before the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, superheroes were considered to be for children and not to be taken seriously. By 1997’s Batman & Robin, comic book films were pretty much back to their pre-1989 standard. Then 20th Century Fox came along and released an acclaimed film based on Marvel’s X-Men and the floodgates bursted open. Studios began to buy up movie rights with intentions of piggybacking on the success of X-Men. Sony was fortunate enough to land one of the most iconic heroes of all time in Spider-Man.

Though, the history of the character on film doesn’t begin with Sony/Columbia Pictures’ treatment in 2002. Spider-Man’s film roots go all the way back to 1969 in a primitive fan film by Donald F. Glut. The webslinger popped up again in a 1977 made-for-TV film starring Nicholas Hammond. This attempt also became the pilot episode for a brief 13 episode series, The Amazing Spider-Man. Two additional films, Spider-Man Strikes Back and The Dragon’s Challenge were released theatrically overseas using episodes of the American series.

Following Hammond’s films, the character would remain in developmental hell for decades. Numerous personalities were attached to future projects at one point or another including directors like Roger Corman and James Cameron. The latter even contributed a partial script for his planned version of Spider-Man’s origin. There were also plenty of big names rumored for roles over the years. Tom Cruise, Bob Hoskins, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s names all appeared at one time or another. Though, it’s safe to wonder how serious any of the rumored casting choices were at the time.

Eventually, the movie rights for the character reverted back to Marvel, who previously filed for bankruptcy. They optioned the rights to Sony and Columbia Pictures who, in turn, delivered a monstrous hit. Spider-Man was released on May 3rd, 2002 and quickly became the first film to surpass $100 million at the box office in one weekend. Directed by Sam Raimi, of The Evil Dead fame, the film had plenty of action, humor, and drama to entertain all types of moviegoers.

Tobey Maguire stars as Peter Parker, a nerdy high school kid who is bitten by a radioactive spider while on a class field trip. The plot wastes no time picking up as his uncle, Ben Parker (Cliff Robertson), is shot and killed by a carjacker. This pushes Peter to use his newly acquired powers from the spider bite to fight crime in New York City. Meanwhile, Oscorp CEO, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), becomes a supervillain, the Green Goblin, and attempts to join forces with Peter to take over the city. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Harry Osborn (James Franco), and May Parker (Rosemary Harris) all have important roles as Peter’s love interest, best friend, and aunt respectively.

While 2002’s Spider-Man often isn’t cited as the best film in the franchise, it’s a very satisfying experiencey. Tobey Maguire is believable and sympathetic as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man while Willem Dafoe shines as a villain. Though, many fans hated the look of the Green Goblin compared to the original comics. The suit is pretty underwhelming and the helmet lacks any kind of emotion while also showing the actor’s mouth moving beneath the mouth piece. Overall, it just feels a bit strange. Either way, with the 2002 film, the franchise was off to a strong start with countless classic villains to turn to for a sequel.

In 2004, Raimi and company decided to go with Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus for the sequel, Spider-Man 2. Peter, now a college student, has difficulty balancing his personal life with the duties of being Spider-Man. He loses his job, fails his classes, and disappoints Mary Jane in their on-again, off-again infatuation with one another. Harry, believing that Spider-Man murdered his father following the events of the previous film, is hellbent on exacting revenge. He also means to reach new heights with Oscorp based on Octavius’s research on renewable fusion energy. However, something goes wrong during a demonstration that results in Octavius’s wife’s death and creates the villainous “Doc Ock.”

Like any good sequel, Spider-Man 2 enhances almost everything from its predecessor. The story, effects, acting, and villain are all a step above the previous film. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock steals the show. He’s a sympathetic character who is turned into a monster by a freak accident. The mechanical arms he uses to control his fusion reactor ultimately end up controlling him. His main motivation is proving that his work wasn’t for nothing. The fights between Ock and Spider-Man on both the clock tower and the train are awesome spectacles and easily some of the most memorable moments in the entire Raimi trilogy. Despite being arguably the best film in the series, and one of the best superhero movies ever made, oddly enough, it’s also the lowest grossing. It was still financially successful overall though.

Where would the franchise go from here? After such a great second installment, anticipation was through the roof for a third movie. Which villain(s) would be up next? Would a plotline from the comics be used? Would we ever get to see a live action interpretation of Spidey’s arch-nemesis, Venom? Well, the answer to all three of those questions was “yes.” Though, no one could’ve comprehended how much disappointment lied ahead.

Spider-Man 3 was released on May 4th, 2007 to a record setting $381.7 million opening weekend. Clearly propelled to that number based on hype alone, Spider-Man 3 was a huge disappointment. Where the second film felt like a brilliant step forward, this one was about ten steps back. Overlong, unfunny, and cringeworthy, this installment singlehandedly killed any chances of Raimi’s series continuing. The villains weren’t given much time to shine, nor were they the least bit interesting to begin with, the characters were unbelievably annoying, and there were just way too many idiotic moments in general.

Set one year after the events of Spider-Man 2, the film begins with everything going well for Spidey. Soon, Mary Jane becomes naggy and unhappy, Harry debuts as the New Goblin in a completely illogical “ninja snowboarder” outfit, and a new supervillain emerges in the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). On top of that, an alien symbiote attaches itself to Peter, gifting him with a sleek, new, black suit, a heightened sense of rage, and an emo haircut. Of course, the symbiote eventually attaches to rival photographer, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who shows up randomly about an hour into the movie, and he becomes Venom. The filmmakers also had to cram a bunch of stupid song and dance numbers into the bloated 139 minute runtime.

Essentially, this movie is nothing like its predecessors. It’s not entertaining to watch or humorous like the others. The characters are so terrible that you actually forget how likable they could be in the other movies. It’s safe to wonder what went wrong here. Supposedly, producer Avi Arad pushed for Raimi to include Venom, as well as another love interest, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), in the story. Raimi wanted Sandman as the main villain which is strange because Sandman’s story gets hardly any time to develop. In a tasteless move, they make Flint Marko (AKA Sandman) Uncle Ben’s real killer instead of the carjacker to give Peter reason to go after him. The issue between hero and villain never even gets a meaningful resolution either.

Is there anything good about Spider-Man 3? Yes, actually. The creation of both Sandman and Venom are done extremely well. That’s about where the praise ends though. Even the rest of the film’s effects don’t come anywhere near Spider-Man 2. There’s just something very ugly and unrealistic about the effects. It almost looks like a video game at times. This is one of those films that features too much of the dreaded “stuff.”  There’s so much stuff packed into this movie and hardly any of it is good. Surprisingly, there actually was a planned fourth entry to the series with John Malkovich expected to play Vulture. Again though, Spider-Man 3 was a disaster in terms of critical and fan acclaim and Sony opted to reboot the franchise instead.

2012 saw the release of The Amazing Spider-Man. It boasted a new cast, crew, and story which completely distanced itself from the Raimi trilogy. It was also the first theatrically released Spidey film to not include Mary Jane Watson. Instead, Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker would spark up a relationship with his original love interest in the comics, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). With 500 Days of Summer‘s Marc Webb directing, the plot returned to featuring likable characters and realistic interactions.

The film begins with the backstory of Peter Parker’s parents as they leave their son with Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). The mystery behind the death of his parents is a frequent plot device that drives Peter (Garfield) to discover their secrets. He eventually seeks solace from Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a scientist who worked with his father at Oscorp. Here, Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider and yadda yadda yadda. It’s an origin story so obviously there’s some overlap with the previous films. Peter later assists Connors with an algorithm needed to regenerate limbs. Connors does an impromptu human trial on himself and, thus, becomes the Lizard.

Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man is everything that you could ask for from a superhero movie. The characters, including Connors, are all likable and the story is kept close knit. Andrew Garfield reverted back to the wisecracking Spider-Man from the comics that was lost a bit in other films. Even though it wasn’t mentioned in the plot summary, the relationship between Peter and Gwen is fantastic. There’s a real chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone who actually dated in real life following the film. Unlike the mentally draining relationship between Peter and Mary Jane in the previous series, Peter and Gwen feel like a perfect match. The only criticisms for the film are that it sometimes delves into too much familiar territory. Also, the Lizard’s face is ugly. You can understand why they went for a more human face but it just doesn’t work very well.

While performing below the previous series at the box office, The Amazing Spider-Man did well for being a reboot. Not much was expected from it considering the sudden death of the previous trilogy but it did instill hope. With a new look, style, and direction, this new series could surpass Raimi’s if done properly. Then, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released. Oh. My. What happened? While it’s not a terrible movie, it definitely suffered from some of the same things as Spider-Man 3. There were too many villains and plotlines setting up future installments instead of focusing on this movie’s events.

The film starts with Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Garfield) taking down Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti), who later becomes the Rhino, before his high school graduation. During the confrontation, he saves the stereotypically geeky Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who then obsesses about his “friendship” with Spider-Man before tragically perishing after being electrocuted. Max is then resurrected as the villainous Electro. Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) also returns to the Spidey universe right as his father, Norman (Chris Cooper), dies due to the genetic “Osborn curse.” Harry is also afflicted and seeks a cure which he believes to be Spider-Man’s blood.

As you can see, the plot is a convoluted mess. Basically, Sony planned to release a movie about the classic villain faction, The Sinister Six, following this film. So many not-so-subtle Easter eggs were thrown into The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to set up that film that they seemingly forgot that they had to resolve their current one. Electro’s backstory and motivation is absolutely pathetic and a legitimate talent was wasted on the character in Jamie Foxx. Dane DeHaan is fine as Harry but him and Peter rekindle their friendship in about five seconds. This film is carried by the relationship by Peter and Gwen once again but it also flirts with the dangerous Maguire/Dunst territory at times. Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is average at best and, like Spider-Man 3, killed off the series.

Luckily, Sony and Marvel announced a partnership for the character in early 2015. While Sony would continue to own the film rights for the character, Marvel Studios would be allowed to introduce Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland was cast as Peter Parker and introduced in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. While there was a fan push for Miles Morales from the newer Spidey comics, Holland stole the show as Peter in a hilarious scene with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and as Spider-Man in the airport melee on the side of Iron Man.

This week, Holland will look to do the same in the character’s return to Marvel in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Early reviews have been favorable and it wouldn’t be surprising for it to have a massive opening weekend. Audiences have already seen Holland as the new Peter Parker in Civil War and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The resurrection of Michael Keaton continues as he takes on the role of the villain, Vulture, with Marisa Tomei signing on as a younger Aunt May. On top of everything, Tony Stark plays a big role in the development of Spider-Man so there should be plenty of light-hearted, comedic moments to be had in Homecoming. With our third iteration of Peter Parker in 15 years, it’s up to Marvel to save the character now. In what could be the character’s last chance on film, Spider-Man has finally returned home.

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One Thought to “State of the Franchise: Spider-Man”

  1. […] we won’t delve too much into the history of Spider-Man in cinema (for more on that, check out our State of the Franchise from last week), we’ll get the important facts out of the way. After promising beginnings, […]

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