Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man movie is one of the most important blockbuster movies of our time. A landmark movie that kicked off the wave of superhero movies that is still going strong today. It is beloved by many and rightfully so - no Marvel Cinematic Universe today can replicate the feeling of seeing a man in comic accurate Spider-Man costume swing convincingly through the city for the first time. The opinion before Spider-Man came out is that superhero abilities cannot be convincingly be replicated on the big screen. But here is Spider-Man right before our eyes, being made by a director that has no compulsion to neuter down its material, unlike superhero filmmakers before him.
Beyond reason of a doubt, Spider-Man is the best superhero movie... Of its time. The passage of time and better superhero movies since then including better Spider-Man movies reveal that Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man has some flaws that are individually small but tangle into a web when put together. Without the comfort of nostalgia and blindness from its cultural impact, we look at Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man to untangle that web.
We Never Knew What Peter and Uncle Ben's Relationship Was Like
The death of Uncle Ben really makes an impact mostly because of the performance of Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben who can exude a warm salt-of-the-earth father figure vibe that makes the audience feel like they are losing someone they love in his last breath. What hinders it somewhat is that Peter and Uncle Ben never had a scene together in any meaningful way before they entered the car.
We do not have any time to see how they are like on a regular day so we do not have a measure of their bond. By the time they do have a scene together and we see that they do not get along anymore, we are supposed to see how different it has become from before, despite us not having a measure of what "before" even looks like.
What makes it worse is that the Peter that entered the car feels like a different person from what we see before. While that can be explained by his priorities of impressing MJ at the moment, the point is we did not see any of the progression of their relationship up to this point and it becomes very transparent that the only reason Peter is an annoyed teenager with an overreactive proclamation that Uncle Ben is not his father for one specific time is only because he needs to do it to make their last and technically first meeting tragic by hindsight.
It is not hard to buy that Uncle Ben was important to Peter because we can infer from Cliff Robertson's fatherly presence that he was a good father. But what is better than infer, is actual moments to show that he was.Advertisement
'With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility' Is Not Earned
Everyone knows the drill - Peter Parker gets bitten by a super spider, becomes a selfish person, and gets his Uncle Ben killed. The problem here in Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man is that Peter is not really selfish before he let that robber go. He just develop that previously unexplored character flaw, experienced a consequence for it, and then decided to stop having it 5 minutes later. His selfishness at this moment is important for the narrative to move on so he can become Spider-Man but it is not who he is before and he just moves on to be who he was exactly, albeit with the difference of being a superhero and the plot having a different status quo. It just acts as a catalyst for what would otherwise be difficult to justify changes in the hero's life.
So while the film is technically about great power coming from great responsibility, if Peter is not exactly selfish except for a specific scene, the message does not come off as that powerful. Uncle Ben thinks that Peter is becoming some kind of careless teenager who is starting fights because he can, but it is just not true. Peter did not start that fight nor did he beat up Flash because he wanted to, that just accidentally how it ended up happening. Not sharing to Aunt May and Uncle Ben his time is not a sign of irresponsibility, nobody will think of chores when they just got superpowers.
So when Uncle Ben said, "With great power comes great responsibility." it boils down to a misunderstanding that just conveniently comes in handy when Peter decides to be selfish for one moment. Granted, it is an understandable moment and he should not have done that, but it is still not a build-up of Peter becoming a lesser person because of his powers.
The Origin Is Darker Than It Thinks
As much as many are saying that the origin scenes of Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man are great, it did a pivotal scene very wrong. Namely, the scene that Peter Parker has confronted Uncle Ben's murderer. Peter Parker did not exactly push the man off a building but after he sees his dead body, he has a look of satisfaction on his face as if he is saying "Justice has been served!" in his mind. He only gets snapped back to reality when he hears the cops coming his way, and then he just runs off like any guilty man.
For a film about responsibility, he did not take responsibility for that action. There is no scene where he self-reflect with guilt. It isn't a challenge for a flaw that he has to overcome. He just remembers Uncle Ben's words "With great power comes great responsibility" and then with no sense of irony, the next scene is about Peter Parker finally being Spider-Man with a bombastic musical score to celebrate his entrance into the world. The movie goes on and we all just have to pretend that it never happened as it goes on telling itself it is an inspiring hero's journey.
The Film is In Fast Forward
After the events of Uncle Ben dying, the pacing goes all over the place. Faster than any montage can cover - Spider-Man has already been around for a while and everyone knows him. Peter and Harry are now suddenly living together. Harry and Mary Jane are suddenly going out together. We only just barely get to know all of these characters and suddenly they are being re-shuffled through random places.
The Green Goblin makes his villain speech about how the people of the city will eventually hate Spider-Man despite everything he has done for them, it turns out "eventually" means the very next day.Advertisement
Green Goblin Has No Motivation
Willem Dafoe made an excellent performance as Norman Osborn that it is a shame that for most of his time as Green Goblin, a mask needs to cover up his animated face. When people think of Green Goblin, they see a good villain only hindered by a terrible costume. But the big issue is that we do not know what he wants.
By the beginning of the movie, what he wanted is the killing of the Board of Directors so he can do as he please with Oscorp. But, by the time of his first fight with Spider-Man, he had already accomplished that easily with Spider-Man helpless to stop him. So why is he so obsessed with Spider-Man? When he said the only one who can stop him from reaching his goal is Spider-Man, what goal exactly does he want to accomplish? Why does he view Spider-Man as a threat if he was powerless to stop him before?
If we are all going to follow the unwritten supervillain handbook, then he must want to take over the world, but that is not stated within the film, and having such a generic supervillain plot is not exactly a good thing.
Spider-Man Is Not Proactive
Peter Parker made one big decision in Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man, he becomes a superhero and that's it. Outside this brief moment of choice, Peter just becomes a passive victim at the mercy of the plot. He still does a lot of things as Spider-Man, but they are just reactions to decisions where he has no other option. Peter made a choice to stop Green Goblin and save Mary Jane in the parade, but the alternative is doing nothing and letting other people die. In a superhero film where we already know he is the good guy, this is just the default thing to do, and it doesn't add on to the character other than what we already know. It may have a lot of cool action and he jumps a lot, but he is still technically passive.
Things happen to Peter but Peter does not make things happen. So even if the movie still escalates in its pacing and level of danger, without his choices driving the movie, Peter feels disconnected, only riding along in his own movie. If anyone says that being Spider-Man is a big character choice, the movie is still left with a problem that Peter does not develop further until the movie just ends.
After Green Goblin attacks the parade, Peter contemplates to himself with conviction that somebody has to stop him. Yet we never really see Spider-Man do anything to try and stop him until Green Goblin is the one who keeps on finding him instead - Green Goblin drives the plot but Spider-Man doesn't reciprocate. Even when Goblin attacks Aunt May, and Peter knows that Goblin knows who he is, he still does not do everything in his power to try and find him, leaving Goblin again to do all the work by kidnapping Mary Jane. The bigger problem that doesn't help is because...
Everyone Hating On Peter Parker For No Reason Hurts Character Growth
When writers make a protagonist be head-over heel beloved by everyone, many would consider it lazy writing, but the opposite extreme is equally insidious. In this movie, everybody hates Peter Parker for no reason other than the story needs it. Peter is not treated that way because he has some kind of flaw he has to overcome, people are just jerks to him by default. And if there is no reason he has to change, he is just flawless, similar to a character that is just automatically loved.
Peter is a scrawny nerd, so it's not hard to see why people bully him. However, in a narrative, if Peter has a problem, he is expected to confront his flaws to solve problems. If being bullied is Peter's problem, the writers should find ways to give Peter any growth or action from it.
No one is saying that J.K. Simmons is not amazing as J. Jonah Jameson, but in terms of character, Jameson is just a strawman Peter can just ignore and remain the same unflawed person he started as. What if Jameson has a real motivation for hating Spider-Man? What if he is actually making legit criticisms for the way Peter is acting that would reflect on Peter's character flaws that would lead Peter Parker to self-reflect and grow as a person? In this hypothetical alternate scenario (Called, The Amazing Spider-Man) his criticisms can tie in on the themes of great power, comes great responsibility...But no, Jameson is just a jerk to him.
As stated before, Green Goblin hates Peter for no reason but the story needs him to. Since Peter does not have a choice when someone is trying to kill him, it does not test his character or reveal any insight into him other than he does not want to die. Well, no one does.
Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man is not about a boy growing into a better man, it is about a person who is already good from the beginning placed with unfair obstacles entirely out of malice from 1-dimensional characters around him. If everyone is just a strawman he can look good in front of, he is left with no one to learn from and compare himself to. If he cannot self-reflect on his flaws, then he does not have to change.Advertisement
Most of The Movie's Problem Boils Down To The Movie Being Uncritical As A Wish Fulfillment Fantasy
Every growing nerdy boy at some point in their life fantasizes about beating up an army of bullies to save a crush while doing backflips and one-liners, ending with a kiss from the crush. What the movie is good at is really making those same nerdy boys feel like Peter - people pick on you, girls don't notice you. So look out in 2002 for the blockbuster adaptation of your wish-fulfillment fantasy where you can imagine you can change all that.
This movie is relatable, but to be relatable it sacrificed character development. Relatability vs. character growth is usually a false dichotomy, but in this case, it's hard not to put them in competition. The problem is while the daydream of beating the bad guys and saving the girl may seem like an innocent hero's fantasy, it is actually a revenge fantasy. What it is actually tapping is the need to show up everyone who ever looked down on you. It is about getting even and gaining respect from everyone around you.
What the movie does is validate this self-serving perspective. If everyone is out to get you, then beating them up is nothing but heroic. You are just the faultless victim, unjustly shunned by fundamentally bad people.
So, if Peter changes from this perspective and grows as a character, then the movie would be telling the audience that relates to Peter that what they are actually relating to is Peter's self-serving desires. And that just wouldn't work well on a T-shirt so you cannot sell a Spider-Man movie that way.
If the villains are more than just monsters but people with reasonable motivations, then it gets harder to fantasize about yourself as heroic when you beat them up. If you realize that the girl you have a crush on is more than a prize to be won, then fantasizing about trying to save and kiss her is just creepy.
The text of the movie says "With great power comes great responsibility." The subtext accidentally said, " With great power gets us everything we want with no responsibility for what happened to us...but be humble about it okay."