“Are you sure you won’t have a bite?”
“No thanks, I’ve had one.”
Please feel free to debate this with me but I honestly feel that, not only in the twenty film span of Marvel movies to date, but for comic book films in general, there is not a single one which has more perfectly captured the spirit and tone of its source material than Sam Raimi’s first ‘Spider-man’. Coupled with the living breathing spirit of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics of the 1960’s on screen is a wonderfully zippy energy and pace, a perfectly cast Tobey Maguire in the lead role, an intimate story entirely focused on the dynamics of two families and a few flaws to boot.
But no where in this article will I be dredging up the usual criticisms hurled at the film. I will not be complaining about the Green Goblin’s costume or moaning about the miscasting of Kirsten Dunst. The problems with Mary Jane and the Goblin have, in my opinion, nothing to do with those.
In order to discuss the Mary Jane character I have to start by confessing a not too popular view; I liked Kirsten Dunst in the first film very much. You have to look at it this way; the first film is, exactly as Peter Parker says in the opening narration, all about a girl. It’s about a kid falling in love with the most amazing girl in school, having to climb over that metaphorical invisible wall just so she’ll notice him (I’ve been there Peter), and earning her love and respect. And just as he gets the girl, the hero has to make the toughest choice of all and give her up. If you don’t buy Peter’s quest to win Mary Jane then the film doesn’t work. Since the general consensus seems to be that ‘Spider-man’ was a good movie, the film must work and Kirsten Dunst must work as Mary Jane.
For me, the only problem in retrospect is that the character was called Mary Jane at all. Even though Sam Raimi chose to skip past Peter’s first (and tragic) love Gwen Stacey due to not liking the character, what ended up on screen was a strange hybrid of both her personality traits and Mary Jane’s. I have on friend who has always referred to her as ‘Gwen Jane’. What I find strange about the fan reception to Dunst over the course of the trilogy is how she has been accused of not suiting the role of MJ at all and how the character is portrayed as vapid, self serving and unlikable. I lose the part where this is Dunst’s fault. It seems to be another one of those classic cases of the viewer not being able to distance the actress playing the part from the character she plays as written by somebody else. She does give a terrible performance in the third film undoubtedly but I firmly believe that if she were playing the part of Gwen Stacey, there wouldn’t be that many fans complaining. The character of Gwen, as depicted in the comics, was vapid and I think the readers were happy to see her die.
By making the simple switch of having Dunst play Gwen Stacey, I think the fans would have happily put up with her safe in the knowledge that everyone’s favorite red headed bombshell, and Peter Parker’s true love, would be turning up on his doorstep eventually. By turning MJ into Gwen for the film, the filmmakers would have also been able to bring in her father, police captain George Stacey and provide a much needed face to the law in the city (as well as set up his own death in the second film but I’ll get to that in a few weeks).
One of the most rushed plot points in the film is the sudden slandering of Spider-man, calls for his arrest by the public and the police trying to bring him in. It is neither given a proper set up or any conclusion. Just adding the presence of Captain Stacey in key scenes would rectify that. For example, at the end of the Times Square battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin, just seeing him having to deal with the results of their clash as the streets are littered with dead/injured civilians and cops is enough to justify his personal motivation to stop both costumed characters. Of course, all this time the Stacey’s are the family next door to Peter, further emphasizing the intimate nature of the film which makes it work so successfully for me.
The film is very much about fathers and sons; the fractured relationship between Norman and Harry Osborn, and the surrogate father relationships between Peter and Uncle Ben and between Peter and Norman Osborn. In the scene which crystallizes this motif, both Spidey and the Goblin break from a session of beating the hell out of each other in a burning building so they can both individually rush to Thanksgiving dinner with Harry, MJ and Aunt May. Why not throw in Captain Stacey (who has also been at the scene of the burning building trying to bring in both Spidey and the Goblin) as well. Then you have three fascinating characters, all devoted to a duty of some sort but also family men. Setting up events for film two that are right out of the comic book, the audience would also get the impression, as Osborn has figured out Spider-man’s secret identity, that Captain Stacey is putting the pieces together as well.
But back on the subject of the Green Goblin himself, it is a lack of narrative drive which hurts his character and the whole second half of the film, not an admittedly silly costume. Norman Osborn is a character pushed into a corner by others who want to destroy him and the company he built (both a rival company called Quest Aerospace and the members of his own board). That’s something a lot of us can empathize with on a smaller scale I suppose but while we can only fantasize about getting payback, Osborn actually equips himself with hi-tech weaponry and bombs the crap out of his enemies. The problem is that he accomplishes this by the one hour mark of the film leaving the character nothing to do but fight Spider-man (together with the obligatory “join me” speech).
Another simple change was needed to rectify this by having Osborn’s mission to destroy Quest Aerospace extend through the majority of the story. For example, instead of the Goblin and Spidey facing off in a regular burning tenement block, move the action to Quest’s headquarters or research facility. Further adding to the intimacy of the film, we realize by the end that Osborn, despite his insanity as well as his fondness for Peter Parker, is largely trying to ensure Oscorp’s survival to provide a legacy for his son and to ensure he will not have to face the same obstacles. To that end, both Peter and Gwen must die.
But Gwen would not die. Regardless of thinking that they should have used the character, it would make no sense to see her befall the same fate on screen during the Queensborough Bridge climax of the film. Nor does it make any sense for her and Peter to be together after that. I’ve always found it amusing to see people criticize Peter’s choice to not get the girl during the final scene of the movie. I remember, just to call one person out, Mark Steven Johnson on his director’s audio commentary for ‘Daredevil’ mentioning how Peter’s choice made no sense given how much he loves MJ. I love hearing it because Johnson is clearly saying he would make the easy choice. He would immediately take the risk of living a double life which brings new dangers and enemies every single day and share that with another without them knowing what they were in for. Peter makes the hard choice which is what makes HIM, not Spider-man, a hero. And that final scene is what justifies the entire film. Despite the mistakes with other characters, Peter Parker himself is 100% nailed.
Speaking of Mark Steven Johnson, he’s next on my hit list as next week we delve blindly and without fear (sorry, sorry, sorry) into his adaptation of ‘Daredevil’. Have your director’s cut DVD at the ready. You’re going to need it.