Before X-Men debuted in 2000, the only Marvel Comics character to have successfully launched onto the big screen was an obscure vampire hunter named Blade (1998).
DC Comics had, with their Superman and Batman franchises, owned the cineplex since the late '70s and Marvel, despite its stable of iconic figures like Captain America and the Incredible Hulk, had enjoyed no luck breaking their stranglehold. In fact, even X-Men, with its $157 million U.S. gross, offered no guarantee the company had a viable moviemaking future.
Everything changed in 2002 when Spider-Man debuted to record numbers, almost $115 million on its opening weekend alone. All told, it brought in $806.7 million worldwide and its 2004 sequel, Spider-Man 2, raked in $783.5 million. Sam Raimi, a director with a long resume of cult classics like The Evil Dead, Darkman and Army of Darkness, had transformed Spider-Man into a new American hero, revitalized Marvel Comics and re-legitimized the comic-book movie that Joel Schumacher's Batman series had tried to murder in the 1990s.
Topher Grace, who in this weekend's Spider-Man 3 plays the fanged villain Venom who wags a tongue even Gene Simmons would be jealous of, can't deny his affection for Raimi's movies. A lifelong Spider-Man fan, he says at a recent press day in Los Angeles, "I told Sam when we first got together that I thought there were only three franchises in history (besides this one) where the sequel was better than the first one: Aliens, The Godfather 2, and" -- he smirks -- "The New Testament."
James Franco, who played vengeful Harry Osborn throughout the Spider-Man trilogy, agrees that Raimi brought a quality and level of artistry to the movies he never anticipated.
"When I signed onto the first one, I loved Sam and I loved working with him, but I didn't know what kind of movie it would be," he says. "I knew it was going to be a big blockbuster, but I didn't realize the heart he would put into them -- and the emphasis he would put on the characters and developing the characters and story."
The attention to character and story that Franco cites is, in fact, what has helped Spider-Man transcend the comic-book movie genre -- as Bryan Singer did with the first two X-Men movies before Brett Ratner fucked up the third part -- and win the adulation of not only diehard comic-book fans but also critics who have notoriously loathed movies about tights-wearing do-gooders.
Whereas many directors who have been in a similar position have typically drawn attention to the super in their hero/es, Raimi has always been more interested in weaknesses and, consequently, a more relatable protagonist. When he sat down with his brother Ivan and screenwriter Alvin Sargent (who also penned Spider-Man 2) to discuss the third installment, weakness was again at the forefront, as was how confronting those weaknesses changes us.
"This time, the story was set up by the first two pictures," Raimi explains in his nebbish manner, soft-spoken and nervous. "It was about ... trying to figure out how best to wrap up these storylines and where next our character Peter Parker had to grow as a human being.
"We approached (that) problem like this. Where is Peter Parker at the end of the second picture as a human being? He's a kid in these stories, they're coming-of-age stories. So my brother and I spoke for some time, and we felt that the most important thing Peter had to learn at this point in time is this whole concept of himself as the hero. He considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains he nabs. So we felt it would be great if he learned a less black-and-white view of life. That he's not just the hero and they're not just the villains. We're all human beings and he, himself, might have some sin in him. And those he calls criminals have humanity within them, and the best we can do in this world is to strive for forgiveness, not vengeance.
"It's all about taking in other points of view," he adds. "There are so many more truths than any of us can see."
The first step in this was shaking up the mythology established by Spider-Man. Peter Parker's uncle was murdered by a man he let get away from a hold-up, and so ever since he has been trying to pay down this guilt. In Spider-Man 3, we discover that it was actually a petty criminal named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) who murdered Uncle Ben and, after a freak accident -- as all accidents in comic-book movies are -- Marko is transformed into a shape-shifting monster made of sand called, appropriately enough, Sandman.
"We had to make the villain someone absolutely unforgivable in Peter's eyes, to take him to a place that the audience understands his quest for vengeance," Raimi says. "That way the kids say, 'Yes, bring him down, Spider-Man.' But by the end of the piece (they) say, 'No, actually, as my hero, the thing I would rather have you do is forgive this man.' "
Forgiveness being necessary since Marko was a victim of circumstance, a man who never wanted to hurt anybody. It turns out he is just desperate to get the money necessary to get his sick daughter proper medical treatment.
Raimi and his cohorts chose Sandman because he had a vague origin story they could play with and not piss off the fans, something Raimi has always been afraid of after he was named director of Spider-Man: A petition with 2,000 signatures was sent to Amy Pascal, the chairperson of Sony, to have Raimi removed from the picture because he, as they saw it, was clearly not the right person for the job.
Joining Sandman is Grace's Venom, a villain born of an extraterrestrial black goop that at first attaches itself to Spider-Man's costume, thereby transforming him into the black-costumed Spider-Man we've all been seeing on posters for several months. This symbiotic goop brings out the worst in Peter and, according to Raimi, "he falls victim to his own pride. He starts buying all the stories about him."
He adds, "Working on those sequences with Tobey (Maguire) as the dark Spider-Man, it was a difficult thing for me. It wasn't fun for me, because I didn't like those sequences. I didn't like watching Spider-Man go bad."
Maguire will laugh at this statement later.
"I've heard Sam say that before, but I'm not quite sure I've ever believed it," he says.
Maguire says the costume and movie offer up "a new side to Peter Parker, something I think is kind of unexpected to see."
After Superman Returns tanked last summer, it's interesting to hear Raimi explain how he sees Spider-Man as a great American myth much more relevant to today than old Supes.
"I felt more than any other character Spider-Man represents America," he says. "He's self-questioning, he makes mistakes, he's even hurt the ones he loves. And yet he wants to do what's best. He is powerful, and he strives to do good and risks everything for it. I'm sure, when everyone was behind going to Iraq, we all wanted it to be the right thing, but now we question if it was. It's hard to have a hero who knows it all when we don't. It's much easier for us to have a hero who asks questions and is capable of making mistakes."
Raimi remains vague about plans for Spider-Man 4, a movie that will happen with or without him according to the producers.
"If there was a great story to tell and I had a good take on where the character could grow to now, then I think it'd be great," he says. "But I'd have to have a tremendous passion to do it because so many people love Stan Lee's character that, if I didn't think I could do it passionately, then I should step aside and let a younger director do it who said he could do it with the greatest passion on Earth." ©