The Lost Opportunities of Raimi’s Spider-Man
On Tuesday, Sony Pictures released The Amazing Spider-Man, starring rising stars (and real-life couple) Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as Peter Parker and girlfriend Gwen Stacy. In spite of early grousing about whether or not a reboot was necessary only five years after the last Spider-Man film was released, the film made an impressive opening at the box office, earning $140 million in the week since its release. Critics have not been as kind, but the 72% fresh rating that the film currently holds at Rotten Tomatoes is still a much better showing than the 63% rating that the final installment of Sam Raimi’s series of Spidey films, 2007’s Spider-Man 3.
But to call the Raimi films a trilogy, indicating a completed story, would be a misnomer. From all indications at the time and in the years since the disastrous response to the third movie, Raimi wanted to come back at least one more time, to help dissipate the bad feelings and to provide closure. When Raimi met with Sony regarding the proposed fourth film, he was told that they already had a script for their reboot. Rami’s franchise was dead.
The new series, this time directed by Marc Webb, (previously best known for the quirky rom-com 500 Days of Summer) wipes out any echo of the Raimi series, completely re-telling the origin of Spider-Man, lingering on the mysterious death/disappearance of Peter Parker’s parents, removing the organic web shooters of Raimi’s Spidey, and following the comic’s example by making Peter’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy rather than Mary Jane Watson as in Raimi’s films. The film even jettisons the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”, a line given to Peter’s uncle Ben in the Raimi series that has its origins in the very first Spider-Man story back in 1962.
Such a complete denial of the Raimi films makes it obvious that Sony wants to bury them. Spider-Man 3 failed with critics and fans, in spite of a whopping $890 million dollar take world-wide ($336 million domestic). Now that Sony has moved on we are left to ponder Raimi’s series for what it was, but also for what it could have been. Raimi’s Spider-Man films were plagued by story problems, studio interference, and actor revolts almost from the start. His movies, the true beginning of the superhero movie boom that has dominated the box-office in the past decade, have their faults, but are also propelled by a desire to bring the colorful elements of the Spider-man comics of the 60’s to the screen.
One of the things that we do know about the fourth film that Raimi never got to make is that its chief villain would be—just as in The Amazing Spider-Man—The Lizard. In the comics, The Lizard is a man named Curt Connors, a war-time doctor who loses his arm and becomes obsessed with regenerating it. His obsession leads him to experiment with reptilian DNA, with the unexpected consequence of transforming Connors into a hideous reptilian beast.
Not only was Connors a part of Raimi’s world, he is an integral part of the fabric of the overall story. In Spider-Man 2, Connors is introduced as Peter’s physics professor at Columbia University. He appears in several scenes, and is referenced often by other characters. In Spider-Man 3, Peter takes the bizarre alien symbiote to Connors to study, who warns Peter of its aggressive tendencies. And, like his comics counterpart, this Dr. Connors is missing his arm.
Connors was originally played by Dylan Baker, not a household name, but a very good actor, and his casting seemed to indicate a larger story ahead. This would potentially be a very resonant story for Peter as he tries to subdue his old mentor—especially if he himself is responsible in some way for the mutation.
One of the biggest creative battles on Spider-Man 3 centered on an immensely popular character, Venom, that Sony had been trying to get into the films since the beginning, only to have Raimi kick the can down the road to the next film. Finally, Sony put its foot down and insisted that Venom be in the third film—a decision which caused a logjam that clogs an already overfilled story. Perhaps because Raimi never liked Venom to begin with, the character doesn’t appear until the last half-hour of the film, during a time in which Spidey is already dealing with two super-powered foes, The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and his former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco). But used properly, Venom could have been amazing. His murderous, crawling visage seems a natural fit for an old horror director like Raimi.
Venom represents precisely what Raimi appears to dislike, the in-your-face gore of the comics of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Had Venom either been held over for a fourth film, or merely come to life at the end of the third and continued into a fourth movie, he could have been a truly creepy and formidable foe. Instead, Venom is dispatched without much trouble at all for Spidey, and neither he or Topher Grace would be seen on the big screen again for quite some time.
But by far the most disappointing aspect of Raimi’s series, is Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship. Kirsten Dunst, apparently fed up with a role that consisted of terrified shrieks and wet, clingy dresses, had little interest in returning for the third movie. But out of a professed respect for Raimi and co-star Tobey Maguire (and, we can assume, a truckload of money), she came back. But Spider-Man 3 also introduces Gwen Stacy, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, which initiates a love triangle that goes nowhere—that has to go nowhere, because there is no time in the movie to follow it. Again, Sony’s insistence on including Venom takes away time that could have been used to properly service the newly complicated Peter/MJ relationship. But there is a way that Raimi could have provided closure to their arc and paid tribute to comic book history—while releasing Dunst from her role.
The most famous story in the history of Spider-Man comics is titled “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” and I bet you can guess what happens. The Green Goblin, Spider-Man’s deadliest enemy, kidnaps Gwen and takes her to the top of the George Washington Bridge and throws her off. Spidey is able to catch her with his webs, but the whiplash effect of her sudden stop breaks her neck—killing her instantly. The story is a landmark in comics history, and a dividing point between the often goofy stories of the Silver Age of comics and the more serious Bronze Age. Unlike many characters in comics who have a way of coming back to life, Gwen Stacy has stayed dead, and her absence helps fuels Peter’s perpetual guilt.
In Spider-Man 3 we see Peter give in to the aggression caused by the alien symbiote due to his rage at discovering that his uncle Ben was not murdered by the thug that he had previously thought responsible. This is a dopey piece of retroactive continuity, and provides a weak framework for Peter’s descent into anger. If Dunst was so unhappy, if we need motivation for Peter’s anger, than why not have the climax of the film play out like “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”, but switch Gwen for MJ? In fact, Spider-Man 3 even contains hints of that storyline, in Harry’s sudden amnesia which leads him to forget that Peter is Spider-Man and his sworn enemy (in the comics arc, this happens to Harry’s father, Norman). Is it possible that the amnesia storyline reflects a subsequently abandoned attempt to retell the comics story with the roles reversed?
Killing Mary Jane provides a heartbreaking resolution, but at least it’s a resolution. At the end of Spider-Man 3 we see Peter and Mary Jane reunited but dancing somberly, a gulf between them that may be insurmountable. The scene fades and Raimi’s series is done. Nothing is solved and we’re not sure what the characters have learned. It just ends.
Studios will use Raimi’s non-trilogy trilogy as a cautionary example for decades to come. It’s a shame that it devolved into something so acrimonious behind the scenes and bland onscreen, but it’s even more of a shame that the story will forever remain forever unfinished.