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Part 2: Along came a spider

By Owen Jones (2005-09-01)

As seems to be the case with any trend there comes a time, normally after the first thrust of excitement has waned, of uncertainty and reflection.

When the first questions are raised about the validity of the trend and what it offers. In the case of the comic book movie this came shortly after X-Men when commentators looked around and saw no Batman or Superman on the horizon. Who could possibly fill that vacuum? The answer was clear and authoritative. Your friendly neighbourhood wall crawler combined with the master of low budget horror, that’s who

My first real understanding of how successful Spiderman might become, came as the credits were rolling on my first viewing of the film at the local cinema. As my friend and I got up to leave, we turned to see an old man in the row behind sitting, head down, crying. I can only guess as to whether he was a life-long fan or not but I’d like to think so because it meant that I wasn’t the only one who thought the ending was 1.) unexpected (2.) bloody good and (3.) atypical of the smaltzy cheese normally dished out as ‘happily ever after’.

What Spiderman managed to achieve was a perfect balance between satisfying the massive fanbase and appealing to the average cinema-goer who didn’t have a clue who Peter Parker was. Though the special effects were at times superb, it was the human element of the story that drew so many people. The conception of super-heroes and villains amongst the mainstream is just that, ‘super’. Fictional characters with no ties to real life. Spiderman proved what a mistake such an assumption is, opening the door for the current iteration of comic book movies, which attempt to balance the fantastical, escapist element of comic books with a down-to-earth reality embedded in their characters and environment. For Spiderman this was New York and at a time in real life when 9/11 was still so raw. This connection contributed to the success of the movie quite considerably, New Yorkers are a tough breed and even in the face of such a devastating event looked to bounce-back. People looked to heroes in real life – the emergency services, the mayor – and also in their escapism. The hook with Spiderman has always been that Peter Parker is an everyman, something Stan Lee explained prior to the release of the film, just an ordinary guy minding his own business, trying to get the girl-next-door and make his way in the world. He is the classic hero because Peter Parker is simply the right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time trying to make sense of a nonsensical situation. As Stan Lee pointed out, he is one of us; you, me, the kid next door. There was nothing alien about this character, no vendetta, no lifelong mission, and this is where the appeal managed to escape the often strict boundaries of the fan and out into public perception.

Spiderman also tapped into an element that would be massively important for the genre as a whole, a director who understood the material. Sam Raimi, prior to Spiderman, was known for the awesome Evil Dead series and a few movies that gained moderate success such as For Love of the Game and The Gift. On the surface, hardly the most qualified person to take control of a big budget movie with one of comics favourite sons. Surprise turned to acceptance rapidly as Raimi displayed his knowledge, desire and genuine admiration for Spiderman, winning fans over with a mix of telling interviews and later an enticing trailer. Fans everywhere were happy, they’d found someone who cared and in whom they could trust their most treasured stories because Raimi was one of them, a fan. Their trust was of course validated both at the box office but more importantly on the big screen where the wise-cracking web-slinger produced the necessary start to a franchise, an origin story that makes the audience accept the characters and wish to learn more.

Quality performances helped, Tobey Macguire was arguably the perfect Spiderman. Macguire was the indie scene’s poster child, a talented, reflective performer who was a little troubled by fame, he had lots of talent without carrying the weight of a ‘name’ around with him, which has been the death of many big films. Between Macguire and a red-haired Kirsten Dunst as girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, the couple brought a fresh-faced honesty and innocence to a genre so used to dealing with grizzled, toughened fighters and crusaders. As with Blade, Spiderman was never going to win any acting awards, or even nominations as it turned out, against the theme-heavy The Hours and The Pianist, but that has never been the point. Instead fans showed how their opinion differed to those of the critics with nominations in all the major categories at the MTV Movie awards. Now certainly the MTV Movie awards doesn’t hold the recognition of the Academy Awards or BAFTA and using nominations in the MTV show as proof of the quality of a film isn’t going to convince a lot of people, but what is important for comic book movies is not critical acclaim but fan and public recognition. In this small way the MTV awards prove that Spiderman made the right noises to the right people and greenlit an explosion of comic book movies.

Owen Jones © 2005



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