by Corinne Rizzo
If ever a man could give a modest superhero the edge of one who not only slays science fiction-y comic book villains but ones who truly threaten our psychologically modern society, Sam Raimi would be that man. In his first attempt at a feel good blockbusting summer flick, Raimi takes an undertortured and understated high schooler turned college student and turns that character not only into our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but a superhero of classic proportions. Raimi shows the story of Peter Parker, not by using the drama of his own life, but the drama involved with the villain, which any viewer or Raimi fan can tell, is the character type he seems most comfortable with creating.
Though Raimi does forge Spider-Man’s character without the drama of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the Mary Jane saga or the idea that Peter and his best friend are as estranged as long lost cousins, Raimi does seem to pile the heaviest load of drama on to the villain in the first of the three Spider-Man films.
In the first installment, Raimi’s villain of choice is the Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is a surprising choice for such a summer blockbuster, as he can be truly menacing in appearance while also offering a cynical yet terrifying psychological aspect to his characters. Dafoe does this with the Green Goblin as he illustrates how Norman Osborne is so bent on the results of his laboratory, that he tests his latest chemical weapon on himself, spawning the Green Goblin’s character.
But what sets apart the development of this villain is the style with which Raimi exposes the viewer to the grit and horror involved with these changes. While Peter Parker simply gets bitten by a spider and gets a bit of a fever, the villain is clearly shown to the audience while in the midst of change. Locking himself in a glass chamber and exposing himself to a gas that has been shown to increase violence and aggravation in rational men, Osborne seizes and foams at the mouth, his eyes roll back into his head when his assistant attempts to stop the experiment, Osborne murders him almost immediately. Then in a fit of exhaustion, Osborne falls asleep and awakes with no memory of the events and experiences a sort of schizophrenia, a divide within his personalities of ration and greed. Dafoe’s face becomes even more upturned and menacing, his voice just a bit more terrifying and now rounded out by a villainous laugh.
Raimi does well to ensure a wholesome superhero like Spider-Man doesn’t become a film about a boy scout trying to better his city and save his girlfriend from evil-doers, by focusing on the villain, which is where the most creativity can be found in this film and the subsequent Spider-Man films. Though here in the first film, it is as if Raimi’s imagination is too much for the practical applications available to him at the time.
The film, printed in 2002, already looks its age. At a time when a lot of great strides were being made in CGI film editing, the magic was in not indistinguishable from reality. Many scenes appeared as though one could almost see the green screen in use, as though no wool was being pulled over the viewer’s eyes. This gives the film a super-campy effect, but with no real sense of itself.
While Raimi does an excellent job of keeping the action and fear alive in the film, he attempts to cover too much ground, which is unfortunately a common situation when dealing with the presumed massive exposure of a character only truly familiar with comic hero buffs. The attempts to tell back story, while creating the current story of Ben becoming a victim of a car-jacking and Aunt May being lonely and warm hearted, don’t really come alive, as the viewer might feel a sense of being rushed into knowing them—in other words, Peter Parker’s drama doesn’t seem as interesting and it is because so much is being introduced at once and so rapidly that one loses sight of who is important and why the audience should care.
Ultimately, Raimi wins the affection of the viewer by trusting him to build a truly terrifying and psychologically thrilling villain and surrounding circumstances. By using his talents for creating fear and anxiety with his typical scary movie formula, Raimi successfully turns an underwhelming, seemingly too classic for true nail biting potential, into an edge of your seat thriller that at the very least, leaves you open to a sequel.
Spider-Man is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
For more from Corinne, check out her new website the ish.