The original Spider-Man trilogy paved the way for super hero movies as we know them today and I think that part of their iconic success is due to their impeccable ability to bring the characters to the forefront and show their true colors. Much like how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is constantly pulling strings in the background of the main story in individual films to feed the overarching narrative, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy uses similar efforts to tell the story of it’s characters that spans the trilogy.
Let’s Get it Out of the Way
Yes, I love the Raimi Trilogy. Yes, Spider-Man 3 is in that trilogy. Yes, I don’t give a shit.
The economy of story telling
Story telling is like telling a joke. You want to start as late as possible and get out as quickly as you can. Spider-Man’s story doesn’t start with Peter’s birth for the same reason that we don’t need to hear about the chicken waking up that morning to know why it crossed the road. Being economic with your story telling is key to getting as much across in as little as possible.
The trilogy uses this economy of story telling to define its characters effectively in certain key moments. I first noticed this in what is my favorite scene in the first movie, when The Green Goblin attacks J. Jonah Jameson in his office. Gripping Jameson by his throat, the Goblin is demanding the identity of Spider-Man’s photographer. Throughout the whole movie, Jameson is depicted to be a ruthless, cheapskate with no empathy, so it is only expected that he sell Peter out to save his own skin.
They say that a good character will do exactly what you expect, and a great character will surprise you.
So what does Jameson do when his life is on the line and it’s him or some kid who sells him pictures occasionally?
I don’t know who he is! His stuff comes in the mail!
He's the one who can take me to him!
I don’t know who he is!
At that point, Jameson has been given ample opportunity to turn Peter in, but he doesn’t. It is in this moment that we learn who J. Jonah Jameson truly is through his actions. In an exchange of five lines, we understand exactly who he is and where his values are. It is rare to find such a well-executed defining moment, and it made me wonder how is this technique used elsewhere and how does it contribute to defining Peter as a hero?
Putting your characters first
After watching Spider-Man, I immediately popped in the Blu-ray for Spider-Man 2, and 3 followed the next morning. What I came to realize is that this trilogy is hardly a super hero series. It’s a movie about people.
I believe that the entire trilogy is succinctly condensed to one sentence in the opening narration to Spider-Man:
‘Let me assure you, this, like any other story worth telling, is all about a girl. [Cut to first shot of Mary Jane] That girl, the girl next door. Mary Jane Watson. The woman I loved since before I even liked girls.’
At their core, all of these movies are all about the relationship between Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and Harry Osborn and the pressures that Spider-Man’s existence has on them. What works phenomenally is the way that they use superhero themes to enhance the story and effectively advances the narrative in a natural way. In Spider-Man 2 especially, I was blown away by how absent Spider-Man was from the movie, but at no point did it feel lacking because I was so invested in these characters.
By providing an abundance of attention, detail, and insight to who these characters are, the stakes are higher, we care about who they are and what they want in life, and it hits so much harder when they don’t succeed.
Sam Raimi is a master at crafting scenes much like one with J. Jonah Jameson in which we can learn a plethora about who everyone is despite being given so little. This economy in story telling is crucial to packing a worthwhile story and no character is left behind.
Right off the bat we are given an idea of who Mary Jane is at heart when she is the only student on the bus willing to speak up for Peter and tell the bus driver to stop for him. The way the scene is framed, we see students laughing at him and even the driver seems to get joy out of not letting Peter on. Not only does this scene tell us about who Mary Jane is, but also as an opening to the entire trilogy it shows us that the world will always be against Peter.
In the Thanksgiving scene, Harry is provided with a whirlwind of emotional turmoil as he is left to choose between siding with Mary Jane or his father who he desperately wants to impress. He ends up choosing his father in a poor decision that reveals to us the sinister side of Harry bubbling underneath.
Interestingly enough, in this scene we can notice that Peter is wearing The Green Goblin’s colors; Norman Osborn who is the Goblin wear’s Spider-Man’s colors, and Harry wears a suit comprised of a mix of both, indicating the internal struggle of his allegiance.
Peter’s defining scene is what I consider to be the best scene in superhero cinema in terms of character development and character discovery. Throughout the entirety of Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, Peter just can’t catch a break. He can never catch the school bus on time, he barely makes rent, J. Jonah Jameson won’t stop branding Spider-Man as a menace, he’s failing classes, it’s near impossible for him to attend Mary Jane’s shows, and even when he grabs a drink from a waitress passing by with a platter he finds that the glass is empty.
His problems stem from the fact that being Spider-Man is hard. It comes in the way of his social life and he damages his relationships and all other commitments. Halfway through Spider-Man 2, he decides to quit being a hero. And you know what? It works. His life becomes monumentally better. He mends his relationships, his grades go up, and almost all of his problems go away. This brings us to his defining scene:
Reminiscent of the scene in the first movie where he saves a baby from a burning building, Peter finds himself facing the same situation, but now he is no longer Spider-Man. He doesn’t even have his powers anymore. Instinctively, he begins opening his shirt to change into his costume the moment he sees the fire, only to sadly remember that he is no longer wearing it. In this moment, he has to make a choice.
His life is finally going well and he knows that being a hero again will destroy that, but he chooses to put others before himself. Peter running into that burning building, knowing that he has no powers is what truly makes him a hero. Per Robert McKee:
‘True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.’
We see Peter face adversity for two movies and when given the chance at a normal life, he throws it away because he knows that he has a duty to provide for those in need and his needs are subordinate to his ability to help.
I can’t think of a better instance in a superhero movie where this has been implemented. In fact, I think that this scene is so solidified in the lexicon of superhero film jargon, that the meaning behind it is echoed still to this day. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tony Stark takes away Spider-Man’s upgraded suit. Peter pleads with him:
‘But I’m nothing without this suit.’
To which Tony replies:
‘If you're nothing without this suit, then you shouldn't have it.’
This concept that the hero is defined by how they act under pressure is crucial to defining character. In Batman Begins the line ‘It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me,’ is used twice and it speaks volumes about who Batman is. Examples of this can be found throughout most of (good) super hero movies. Personally, I believe that you either are or aren’t a hero.
As Aunt May says:
I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.
I sincerely do think there’s a hero in all of us, and it’s about making the right decisions in those defining moments. It’s about doing what you can when you can, and never forgetting that with great power, comes great responsibility.