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Empire List #437: Spider-Man

Growing up I used to watch two superheroes on T.V: Batman and Superman. To me Spider-Man was just this old cartoon from the 60’s with a cheesy theme song. So when I saw the first teaser trailer for Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” that was to come out in 2002 (infamously showing a helicopter caught in a web between the twin towers) I didn’t think much of it. “Spider-Man? Who cares?” Shows what I know.

Months after 9/11 I had moved from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile and was starting over yet again in a new high school. This was to be my last year in South America before going back to Canada. “Spider-Man” had been released in North America months before and was being hailed as one of the summer’s biggest hits so it was probably worth the admission price after all. Back then I used to hang out with just a few expatriates from Quebec so me and another Quebecer went to see it with our parents. Call it one last evening out before leaving it all behind.

This being a superhero movie, we go through the usual sequence of events when dealing with the hero’s origins. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a high school kid from New York bitten by a genetically engineered spider while visiting a science lab. Back at his house in the suburb he tells his aunt May (Rosemary Harris) he is feeling sick and goes upstairs to collapse in his room. The next morning he wakes up pumped up and with six-pack abs. That spider must have been on some steroids.

After experimenting with his newfound strength, Peter realizes he can climb walls, shoot spider webs out of his arms and jump ten feet in the air. Much like a normal person, he chooses to use his strength for personal gain and competes in a wrestling match to earn some extra cash. The cash will be used to buy a car to impress the “girl next door” Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who will later play the role of “girlfriend in distress.” He wins the match (during which Sam Raimi’s old friend Bruce “hail to the king” Campbell has a cameo) but the manager won’t give him the money. A burglar then robs the place and out of spite, Peter lets him get away. Unfortunately, the same burglar later shoots Peter’s uncle (Cliff Robertson). From then on, it’s time to fight crime in New York.

A superhero is only as good as its villain and “Spider-Man” has one that reminded me of Batman’s Joker with his mad cackling. Willem Dafoe, always a good casting choice, plays Norman Osborn, a scientist and CEO of a company that provides weapons for the army. His latest project is a strength-enhancement serum, which so far has had the unfortunate side effect of making rats crazy. To salvage his contract and save his company Norman tests the serum on himself. Yeah, that’ll work. The serum turns him into the demented Green Goblin, who flies around the city skyscrapers with a glider equipped with grenades, machine guns, and rocket launchers.

That’s pretty much it. Spider-Man and the Green Goblin will of course face off at the end of the movie while Mary Jane’s life hangs in the balance. As a superhero movie, “Spider-Man” didn’t bring anything new to the table, but I found Willem Dafoe to be great not just as a maniac, but as a man slowly losing his mind. There is a great scene when he his alone in his penthouse and he hears a voice echoing in the room. When he realizes the voice is coming from inside his head, he begins talking to himself in the mirror, changing facial expressions every time the Goblin takes over.

Another scene-stealer is J.K Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the Daily Bugle where Peter gets a job as a part-time photographer. With a cigar always nearby, Larry King suspenders, and a pencil moustache, this guy makes it his personal quest to unmask Spider-Man and demonize him in his paper. Who cares if he saves people, just as long as it sells paper? Fox News would love this guy.

Two things happened after this movie came out. First a couple of girls in school started calling me Spider-Man. Not unwarranted, but I would have preferred Batman. Second, superhero movies started coming out just about every summer. We’ve had a lot of good ones (“Spider-Man 2,” “Iron Man,” The Dark Knight,” “X2: X-Men United”), some so-so (“Hulk,” “The Punisher,” “Daredevil”) and some utter disasters (“Catwoman,” “The Spirit”). Next summer, exactly ten years after the first “Spider-Man” movie, the studio will restart the franchise with a whole new cast and director. I guess they’re hoping to repeat history. My biggest complaint about all this: no Sam Raimi in the director’s chair means no Bruce Campbell cameo.


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