With the next installment of the new Spider-Man series nearly upon us, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the film that started it all.
I’ve been a Spider-Man fan for a very long time. He’s my favorite Marvel hero, and I watched the animated series religiously as a kid. So when the movie came out, I was pretty thrilled. I still own all three of those movies, and now that there’s a new film out (and a second one coming), it’s a little bit easier to look at the films more objectively. So try to let go of your Tobey Maguire hate, or your Andrew Garfield hate, and I’ll guide you through a fresh look at Spider-Man.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” That’s the film’s tagline, and was the comic’s tagline in the series’ classic era as well. You could see from the trailers that this statement was going to be the film’s focus. First, though, it can’t resist being all about the girl: Mary Jane Watson. Contrary to popular opinion, Spider-Man is not Captain America; his story did not begin because if an ingrained moral virtue or a sense of duty. It began because he was trying to impress a girl. So after Peter gets bitten by the spider and finds these miraculous new abilities, he sets out to impress Mary Jane by buying a car. To be a car you need money. To get money you need . . . to win a cage fighting match? To each his own, I guess.
When the manager in charge of the prize money cheats Peter, and a man subsequently robs the manager, Peter lets the thief go with a sense of smug vengeance. This sets up Peter’s character very well. Peter will become a hero, but right now he’s a teenager. He might be a “good kid” as some might say, but he’s sometimes selfish, and sometimes arrogant. Superpowers tend to exacerbate those problems, too, at least in the beginning. His whole world comes crashing down, however, when the same man who Peter let escape kills his Uncle Ben in a carjacking. Peter subsequently tracks down the killer, and while he doesn’t kill him, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that it’s due to Peter that the man dies.
Thus begins Peter’s shift from selfish teenager to selfless hero. That’s a very important and very dramatic shift that the film pulls off very well. It’s reminiscent of some passages, as well.
“Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” – Ephesians 4:22-24
A lot of people criticize Tobey Maguire’s performance. I agree that his acting may not have been too great in the sequels, but when it comes to this transformation in the first movie, he did great, and that, I believe, is the most important part of this movie. It’s a worldview that rivals the likes of Captain America and Superman in terms of morality and virtue. In some ways it’s even more powerful, because while Captain America and Superman are always pictures as good and virtuous characters, you see Peter Parker change, which shows me that if I haven’t been moral and virtuous, I can change. I don’t have to be born that way.
The other big piece of the film’s worldview goes back to the tagline: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Uncle Ben’s statement is one of the most iconic quotes of superhero film history, and with good reason. It’s not exactly original though. Jesus said essentially the same thing in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. The parable tells the story of three servants who are left with talents by their master. A talent in Biblical times was a financial term, a measurement of silver or gold. So two of these servants invest their talents and have more to give their master when he returns. One servant hid his in the ground. The master was pleased with the first two, even though they had different sums to return to him. He was not pleased with the third who hid his talent. The message to us in Spider-Man as in Matthew 25 is that we need to use what we have to do good. If we have talents (or power) we must use it responsibility, and use it for good.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Not only does our hero use his powers for good, but he does so while his reputation is shredded day after day after day. J. Jonah Jamison is determined to tarnish Spider-Man’s public image, and does so consistently. So Spider-Man is not only doing this without any thanks, but is doing so while being ridiculed and insulted for it. This applies to Biblical principles in two ways. First of all, Matthew 6 tells us not to do good to be seen of others. Secondly, we’re told that as Christians we will suffer for doing good (2 Timothy 3:12). Superman does good things, but he’s loved. Captain America does good, but he’s an American hero. Would you do good if you were reviled for it? You should. In a way, this film might be a huge slap in the face to those of us who aren’t as diligent in doing unto others as we should be. If that’s the case, then good. We need it.
That’s the worldview of this film. Now that sounds all nice and good when you’re saving kids from being run over or stopping muggers from hurting a little old lady, but what about when things get serious? What about when a mad scientist starts terrorizing the city, with pumpkin bombs, flying around on a glider? What then? That’s the conflict when the Green Goblin arrives. It’s no longer a kid helping people out. It’s a war for the soul of New York City. Sometimes people forget, nobody asked Peter to do this. Nobody asked him to be Spider-Man, to fight the Green Goblin to the death, but he does it anyway. The great responsibility concept applies even when things get tough. Even when things are hard, we are to serve. To Christians, this means we serve God, even if it may endanger our life to do so.
As for the other aspects of the story, it’s done pretty well. James Franco does a great job portraying Harry, and Kirsten Dunst isn’t a bad Mary Jane. My biggest complaint with Mary Jane is that they basically plugged Gwen Stacy’s personality into Mary Jane’s character. Mary Jane is a little rough around the edges. She likes to party. She smokes. She has an attitude. She had to be tamed a bit by Peter. Gwen was the sweet one, and Peter’s first girlfriend as well. In the comics she was killed by the Green Goblin, which was the most devastating thing in Peter’s life. I’m fine with them skipping Gwen, but I wish Mary Jane’s character would have been more faithful to her character from the comics. As it is, though, Kirsten Dunst did a good job portraying her. There’s also the matter of Willem Dafoe as Norman Osbourne. Say what you want about the acting. Say what you want about the script. Willem Dafoe took the cake as Norman Osbourne. As far as I’m concerned, nobody will ever top him, ever.
Then there’s the webbing. It wasn’t part of his powers, he made it … with SCIENCE!
Sorry, I just had to bring that up. I never did quite get over it . . .
All in all, the film is often criticized, but it was the first Spider-Man film. Remember also that Sony made this film, not Marvel/Disney, so it’s not bound to the same formula as other Marvel films. It was great in its time, and should still be appreciated, because Spider-Man has one of the Biblical of worldviews in the superhero world. That, I believe, is more important than just the acting or storyline, so I’m giving this a 4/5.