Adapted by David Koepp from Spider-Man! by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Spider-Man is the first Marvel adaptation to feature their “flicker” logo. Which is an important visual aspect, because this was Marvel’s first major cinematic venture. This was the first time they had, as a company, attempted to successfully take one of their characters to the big screen and start a chain of other adaptations. And it has to be said that, in everything they’ve made since, particularly the Cinematic Universe, nothing has matched the simplicity, minimalism and effectiveness of Spider-Man.
What stands-out about it the most is the way it looks like the comic book that inspired it. Every colour is bright and cartoonish, and the various aspects of motion picture production come together to create something that looks as if we’re literally inside the world of the Spider-Man comic books. But there’s more than that.
As the first Spider-Man adaptation, it’s also his origin story, and that leads to a lot of subtext about identity and hero worshiping. The two protagonists are promoted as Peter Parker and Mary Watson, but are actually Parker and Norman Osborn. The hero and the villain. Comic books are dualistic, and chronicle the battles between good and evil. And Harry Osborn is his greatest enemy, so it makes sense for him to begin this trilogy.
Parker transforms into Spider-Man as a result of biology and nature. His abilities are part of him, and are things he can do. So when he turns them to crime-fighting, he chooses to cover his whole face to be unseen. He becomes a canvas on-which people can place their image of a hero, and New York soon debates against itself his motives, with many coming-out and defending him. Osborn’s transformed into Green Goblin as a result of science and technology. He doesn’t have his powers, and instead flies by means of a glider and blows things up with pumpkin bombs, rather than save and defend with webs. Naturally, this still means we get the cliched “we’re the same” speech between hero and villain, ala Batman/Joker. Spider-Man may have been controversial, but Green Goblin was an obvious villain, and the New Yorkers recognise this, which is ultimately what turns them toward Spider-Man. Meanwhile, J. Jonah Jameson manipulates their perception through the Daily Bugle, which Parker works for. The Bugle might question Spider-Man’s alignment, but the media’s completely turned-against Osborn by the end. This is a tale of people choosing their Gods, and which side to take in a battle.
In Osborn’s quarters are a variety of tribal masks, and the Green Goblin becomes one of them when Osborn hears his dark side speaking to him through it. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Piano Man parody about Spider-Man described him as scarier when not wearing it, and this is true – as the plot progresses, he begins to look like it. Instead, Parker’s using his mask to score with Watson upside down in the rain (leading to a gloriously uplifting shot of her laughing up at the stormy sky). Whereas Osborn is totally evil on the outside, Parker is good on the inside, and that’s the heart of the story: what’s on the inside.
Spider-Man‘s bookended by Parker narrating to the audience the story of how he came to be who he is. Uncle Ben tells him that his age is part of the age group where a man becomes the man he’s going to be for the rest of his life. That doesn’t really make much sense, but it fits with the idea behind the story, because he tells him about how great power comes with great responsibility, a theme which plays right through, and is the most important part in all of this. Osborn uses his power to eliminate his rivals, whereas Parker uses his powers to protect people. And this even means protecting Watson by rejecting her despite having been desiring her since he first saw her. If they were together, she could become a target because of his other life as Spider-Man. And he chooses to sacrifice a life with her just to keep her safe. And in that moment, he embraced the challenges that came with being a superhero. And for someone like that – someone who was an outcast – to make that kind of decision is the kind of inspiration that superheroes are about, and none other than Spider-Man. Because he’s just like us. His life has a through line. There’s an underlying idea behind everything, while also having an over-laying optimism in colour and performance. He doesn’t need to repeat a word often enough for it become a theme (looking at you, Man of Steel) and he shows us what life is really about: the power we have, and what we do with it.
Spider-Man: inspiring subtext over optimistic mise-en-scene. 7/10
Oh, and J.K. Simmons is freaking awesome.