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The Peter Principle

Director Sam Raimi discusses Spider-Man's appeal

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In more ways than one, the imminent summer blockbuster Spider-Man (opening this Friday) represents something of a throwback for director Sam Raimi. Not only is it a chance for him to rekindle and reflect the excitement he felt as an adolescent fan of the original 60s comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, but it also marks a return to the highly stylized sort of filmmaking on which he built his career.

Raimi attracted a definite cult following on the basis of his trilogy of Evil Dead horror movies in the 80s, and whatever else there was to say about his first big studio projects (1990's Darkman and 1995's The Quick and the Dead), they certainly exhibited that quirky visual panache of his (which both the Coen brothers and the Wachowski brothers have cited as a major influence). Whether it's a case of deliberately rejecting that reputation for being so "technical," or a matter of simply growing out of it and maturing as a storyteller, Raimi has spent the last several years concentrating on more intimate and less flashy character-driven dramas, from the sublime A Simple Plan to the forgettable For Love of the Game.

But if you see Spider-Man as his way of getting back to the basics of those earlier films, Raimi thinks you'd be wrong. Oh, come on, he seems to suggest during a recent interview in Los Angeles. Just because they both happen to be about comic-book superheroes doesn't mean Spider-Man has anything special in common with Darkman. Instead, he'd have you believe, the new movie is probably more in keeping with the dramatic tone of A Simple Plan.

Say what? "Yeah, just as I loved the characters Scott Smith wrote about in A Simple Plan and felt I knew them and understood them, what I always liked about Spider-Man was this character of Peter Parker and his relationships with other people. Those two pictures are bound up in a very similar fashion to me, unlike a lot of my earlier films, which were about being fun and exciting and sweeping, using different camera angles and editing techniques, shocking the audience either by frightening them or making them laugh," the 42-year-old director tries to explain.

Really, though. To dismiss such obvious thematic similarities to Darkman? "There, I was trying to bring a comic book to life, trying to make a comic book real," Raimi submits with a shrug. "Here, I was trying to tell the story of a real boy who grows into a responsible young man. I didn't even think of the comic books as I was making the picture."

(By the time you hear co-stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe and James Franco attest in separate interviews that they weren't thinking about the comic books, either, so much as all the "human elements" to this story of a high school misfit who's bitten by a radioactive arachnid and transformed into a web-slinging, highrise-swinging superhero . . . well, you realize it was probably best to just let Raimi carry on with the pre-arranged spiel.)

"For me, the great strength of the comic book is that Peter Parker is a real person," he continues. "He's one of us, somebody we can all understand. Even though he becomes this superhero, what I liked was that he isn't also some super-human, you know? It's not like Batman, with a millionaire living in a big mansion with his ward. As a kid, that just wasn't me. I couldn't relate to that. And it's not like Superman, either, where the character just pretends to be a human being. As much as I liked those films, what I always loved about Spider-Man was that he was completely human. He was flawed. He made mistakes. He was a guy striving at, but sometimes failing at, becoming this hero. I wanted the movie to be not so much the story of Spider-Man as the story of this average kid named Peter Parker."

Still, the movie isn't called Peter Parker. And Raimi and company can downplay the significance of the original comic books as much as they want, but there's a large number of potential ticket buyers who won't be quite so dismissive. (There was a big to-do about how Spidey acquires his web shooters in the film, for example, replete with an Internet petition threatening a boycott.) "The studio certainly doesn't want to upset or alienate any of those fans, but at the same time any work undergoes a certain amount of changes when you're translating it to the screen, whether it's a historical novel or a comic book," Raimi concedes.

He pauses and adds, "Look, I'm one of those fans myself, so all I can say is that everything has been done with the best interests of Spider-Man at heart."

Indeed, Raimi was an admittedly "awkward" schoolboy of 12 or 13 at the peak of his own Spider-Man infatuation. "Back in the days before there was much of a collectors' craze or all this mass merchandising, when there weren't so many images around, my parents paid an artist $30 to paint this picture of Spider-Man for my birthday, which I hung above my bed. It was pretty rare for a kid to have an original picture of Spider-Man, so I was like the coolest guy on the block, at least for a couple of weeks," he recalls in a fleeting moment of genuine (i.e., unrehearsed) feeling.

Ask him about some of the difficulties in balancing all the effects in the film with those "human elements" of the story, and Raimi is back on auto-pilot: "There weren't any difficulties, because throughout the whole process I was only guided by Peter's character."

And, in one much-publicized instance, by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The initial trailers for Spider-Man included a scene in which a gang of bank robbers is fleeing in a helicopter, only to become ensnared in a giant web suspended between the twin World Trade Center towers.

"In the previews we had, a giant cheer went up in the audience like I've seldom heard, and we were very excited about the scene," the director remembers. "After the attack, though, I didn't feel it was appropriate to use the image of the towers in any way to garner a cheer or a positive response, so we took it out."

That scene may be gone, but the towers have not been forgotten. It's no mistake that they're visible in the background of a couple of shots, or that they're more prominently reflected in one close-up of Spider-Man's eyes. As Raimi puts it, "I wanted to keep every other image of them in the movie, because I didn't want to let the terrorists win by erasing from our memories what the towers were, or even that they were." *

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