You know who gets screwed hardest in an origin movie? The villain. So much time has to be spent developing our hero: first in his or her pre-pajama life; then later as he or she discovers and then dabbles with their new powers; and then later still as they first hear the call to adventure, reject it, and then triumphantly answer. Really, where’s the room for a nefarious Bad Guy (or Girl) in all this, beyond existing solely to direct our protagonist along each stage of the Hero’s Journey?
If you want my opinion (and you’ll get it regardless), only BATMAN BEGINS has truly handled an origin story well, at least in terms of focusing on the guy in the funny costume without losing sight of the other guy in the funny costume. Typically, the Big Bad is wasted for the reasons previously stated; one exception is Tim Burton’s BATMAN, which, while credited for birthing the Modern Comic Book Movie, is equally notorious for containing more Joker than the titular hero. BATMAN BEGINS found a unique way to solve this problem, by crafting a story that was less about a hero battling a nemesis than the deconstruction of an icon for the purpose of reintroducing it. Thus, lower-level villains were chosen from the Caped Crusader’s ample Rogues Gallery, and Nolan leaned into the “problem” of their requirement to push the protagonist into necessary scenarios, in order for him to adopt the image we ultimately know and expect. Carmine Falcone, the Scarecrow, and a mispronounced Ra’s al Ghul function as sign posts, guiding Bruce Wayne into his final incarnation of a developing Batman persona. With that out of the way, it’s all fun and games for the sequel.
It’s pretty gutsy to save the Joker for the second chapter before a second chapter is guaranteed. Most comic book adaptations go after the biggest Name Villain possible when making an origin film, as it’s a character just as exciting as the one with his name in the title, if not more. With Superman, it’s Luthor. Captain America has the Red Skull. Daredevil gets Bullseye. You get the picture. The point is, this is kind of a double-edged sword, since a questionably-profitable genre – and remember, kids, Comic Book Movies weren’t a Sure Thing until about a decade ago – and a less-proven character, needs all the help they can get (Iron Man, et al.); but often, when you use that iconic Bad Guy in the origin film, you’ve wasted them. There’s just no time to do them justice when you’re building your hero from the ground up.
Besides: it’s often forgotten that, until the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along to shake things up, the villain always died at the end of these things. There was an unwritten rule that the Do-Badder has to kick the bucket during the climactic battle, with the possible exception of the SUPERMAN films, and to be fair, this was a hero we couldn’t tolerate standing by as Gene Hackman accidentally hanged himself by a bad toupee. Add to this the fact that SUPERMAN was a mega-blockbuster, and the sequels did respectable business; but BATMAN and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES and THE CROW were still a decade in the future, and while the first had the might of Warner Brothers behind it, the latter two entries were indies or small studio films; hardly a Box Office guarantee between them. Films like FANTASTIC FOUR were shelved before release, and the prints summarily destroyed; THE PUNISHER and CAPTAIN AMERICA went straight to video, and unfortunately, survived. We’re not talking the incarnations we all know and love, either — these early Marvel epics featured such iconic moments as when the Thing’s blind girlfriend, Alicia, is chloroformed, and we see it happen from her perspective, and Steve Rogers stealing a vehicle by faking a stomach ache…twice.
Where am I going with this? Comic book adaptations were a gamble. They couldn’t accurately reproduce the exciting adventures depicted on the page, and consequently, the attempts made were depressing, particularly when made by chintzy studios who spent the entire budget on the title and poster. No one ever actually expected a sequel to these films, and even BATMAN was considered a risk despite the star power and brand legacy. There might exist in-universe locations like The Raft and Arkham Asylum for mustache-twirling cretins, biding their time and plotting their revenge; in the movies, you killed the villain for the sake of (possibly) creating a satisfying character arc for your leading man. Having Jack Napier murder Thomas and Martha* Wayne might fundamentally betray numerous aspects of Batman’s mythology and motivation, but it made cinematic sense when we consider the possibility that the film might one day exist, on its own, in a vacuum. This alteration created character ties, conflict to be resolved, and a dynamic parallel between the hero and his grotesque nemesis.
This brings us around to SPIDER-MAN, and its sequel. It bears mentioning that, like its big screen predecessors, the original 2002 film was not a guaranteed slam dunk; the overwhelming presence of product placement bears this theory out. Sony knew they had a popular character, and they certainly dressed him up nicely, but this was also just five years out from the critical and commercial failure of BATMAN AND ROBIN, a film so terrible that if it were my child, I’d break his fucking nose. If you look at the timeline, there was a host of similar films that were announced, only to sputter out and collapse while Gordon had a beer and cheated on his wife. X-MEN had been a recent success, but it also looked one step above MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE in all but casting.
So yes, SPIDER-MAN was certainly made with franchising part of its design, but told a complete story that could be considered comfortably resolved. The difference here is that Raimi chose a villain who could be killed without being wasted: he chose the Green Goblin.
Of all Spider-Man’s villains, Norman Osborn reigns supreme. Whether or not he’s your favorite character, the Green Goblin holds the singular distinction of forcing our hero to accidentally murder his own girlfriend. Gwen Stacy is a conversation for another day, and I promise we’ll get to that fateful night atop The Bridge No One At Marvel Can Agree On; but suffice it to say, comic books were never quite the same after that immortal SNAP! The hero’s love interest never died, because he always got there just in time…until along came a Goblin, and the Bronze Age began.
Gerry Conway took things a step further in his classic two-part story. Spider-Man didn’t do the right thing and capture Osborn for imprisonment — he tried to fucking murder the guy. Unlike the film, Peter knew the Goblin’s identity when the battle began.** SPIDER-MAN retains the bridge sequence, with Mary Jane swapped in for Gwen; in what’s something of a Fanboy in-joke, he dives to save Mary Jane, and succeeds, the same way our brooding hero has long chastised himself for not doing with the girl whose neck he accidentally broke. In the film, Spidey is carried away by the Goblin via tow cable, echoing John Romita’s cover for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #39; in the comic, Webhead simply hunts the creep down, and beats the shit out of him. Both confrontations resolve in the same fashion, with Osborn backed against a wall and initiating a backside impalement of Spidey via his glider. That Spider-Sense that comes and goes throughout Raimi’s trilogy is thankfully present, and Peter gets the hell out of the way while the Green Goblin skewers himself on the tip of his own vehicle. It was thematically satisfying to see the bastard bite it by his own hand, but while Movie Spidey took this moment to remember the father figure his Uncle Ben had been, Comics Spidey had to stop himself from doing something really prison-worthy with that enhanced strength of his.
Killing the Goblin made sense. First off, the deck was cleared to bring in a new baddie should box office receipts warrant a super-sequel. Secondly, the death itself was historically accurate, albeit a bit of a remix that prevented our hero from having to deal with a dead uncle and a dead girlfriend. Finally — and most importantly, from a narrative perspective — the whole thing served to set up Harry Osborn as the Goblin Prince, and future thorn in Spidey’s ass.
Harry Osborn. Didn’t you notice how his Dad’s lab was painted green, and so was his penthouse apartment? Norman had a son who he considered weak and ineffectual, and spent SPIDER-MAN’s runtime grooming Peter as his successor; thus, Peter and Harry routinely inhabit green environments, as both struggle with who they are and where each is going in life. Peter, these are the years when a man changes into the man he's going to be for the rest of his life, warns Uncle Ben, just before a high school graduation where the color scheme is Pea Soup. Peter rejects this, and after a late scene in which Norman more or less declares Harry worthy of the Osborn legacy, the Plan B’s previous wardrobe choices begin to take on an ominous quality.
So let’s take this all the way back to my original point about the villains often serving as props for the Hero’s Journey arc in any first chapter of a comic book franchise. If that’s the case, then the formula is both retained and simultaneously subverted in SPIDER-MAN 2, which becomes a stealth origin story for Harry Osborn, super villain. If it were a Nolan film, it might be called THE GREEN GOBLIN GETS GOING.
It’s important to note that the Harry of the comics is not the Harry of the films. One would be hard pressed indeed to draw any connection if presented with an image of the two, free of context. Steve Ditko introduced a frail, weaselly-looking Manchild prematurely dressed like a fifty year-old Bible salesman, and with a head of hair resembling a corn cob a bear has used to wipe its ass. The casting of James Franco is odd in this regard; there’s a passing resemblance to Willem Dafoe, albeit with ninety-seven-percent less Nightmare Fuel and three hundred-percent more Date Rape Drug. In both cases, the character is rather pathetic; Franco captures the neediness of the neglected child who never matched a dead parent’s expectations, while also coming off somewhat hapless in the role of the heir to Norman Osborn’s industrial empire.
But Destiny is lurking in the shadows, just out of frame. While many scoffed at the amnesia subplot introduced in SPIDER-MAN 3, it’s true to the source material — Norman and Harry both suffered short-term memory loss following each of their latest escapades in the Halloween costume. Harry first took on the mantle of the Goblin in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #136, just fourteen issues after his Dad became back alley wall art; he’d grapple with bouts of madness up until his death in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #200.*** When Harry informs Peter that he swears righteous vengeance on the masked adventurer he (wrongly) believes murdered his father, those in the know saw what was coming — and indeed, it made SPIDER-MAN’s closing scenes better for the knowledge that, yes, the soap opera elements that best defined our hero would carry over into the following installments. This wasn’t a BATMAN RETURNS situation, here.
Neither Goblin is able to get the full treatment: the key elements of both are distilled and presented in a Greatest Hits fashion over the course of three movies. Each SPIDER-MAN cherry picks plot points from decades of stories, resulting in narratives that are at times strikingly faithful, and in other cases, fairly liberal with their application. A reasonable argument can be made that SPIDER-MAN 2’s antagonist is Doctor Octopus — he not only provides Peter Parker with the immediate threat both to himself and the people of New York, but a parallel story that underlines the concepts of power, responsibility, and choice. Yet while Doc Ock is unquestionably the hands-down best onscreen realization of a Marvel Comics villain to date, his role in Peter’s story is peripheral; his real purpose is in positioning Harry Osborn to become the second Green Goblin.
On the page, Harry made a more interesting nemesis for Peter. For one thing, they were best buds, which made the relationship personal in a way that it never was with Norman. The dynamics within their circle of friends (abbreviated here in the films to include Mary Jane and no one else) were constantly affected by the on-again, off-again conflicts, which weren’t limited to the skies above New York. Besides, Norman was an asshole who enjoyed being an asshole. Harry was a damaged child, and closer to Kylo Ren where his father had been Darth Vader.
Octavius is there to first ruin Harry’s newly-inherited company — thus fulfilling Norman’s premonitions of failure — and then to become a monstrous abomination to both science and humanity, all with the Osborn name firmly attached by close association. Later, in his attempts to procure the materials needed to continue his experiments (which, frankly, are neither important nor particularly interesting), the good doctor cuts a deal with the devastated young heir to Nothing: Ock will bring Harry Spider-Man in return for the Tridium needed to make a sun, or something. I could make a joke about synonyms here, but I fear it would lead me to further pontification of mistaken or unintentional symbolism.
There’s Harry’s motivation, folks: Spider-Man. In a classic case of Seeing Your Dad’s Corpse Brought Home By A Weirdo in Spandex, Harry is convinced that the Wallcrawler murdered the elder Osborn and handily deposited naked Willem Dafoe on a very expensive set of sheets. You’d be pissed, too! Adding insult to injury, Harry’s best friend Peter just happens to be the only photographer in New York capable of getting Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, and Ultimate photos of the one and only Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. How does he manage that, Harry wonders. They must have cut some sort of deal with one another. Maybe Peter even knows who he is! Harry might not bug out on LSD the way he does in those painfully-antiquated “Drug Issues” written by a well-meaning but very naive Stan Lee, but he hits the Maker’s Mark like a champ. Can we blame him when he confronts Peter on the latter’s birthday, reminding him that Uncle Ben was murdered, too — shouldn’t Peter of all people understand? Maybe he goes too far when, in a moment that’s shocking both in its sissiness and realism, Harry slaps Peter not once, but twice. In public! Couldn’t Peter just be straight with the guy? They’re Besties, after all. At the very least, make up an excuse, Pete, because you look like you don’t care how the guy feels.
When Doc Ock brings a captive Spider-Man to Harry’s apartment, there’s a sense of inevitability: What happens next will be bad, and there’s no coming back from this particular brand of it. And that’s exactly what happens. Octavius leaves with the Tridium, eager to get back to work on his Something-Something, and Harry, antique dagger bared, goes in for the kill. But first he wants to see the face of his father’s killer, and it’s not what he expects. Stunned, he falls back, and Peter breaks free of his bonds, saying, Dude, I know you’re shocked right now, but I gotta go save that progressively haggard-looking chick who seriously isn’t worth all this trouble. In that moment, Harry needs something — some explanation, some assurance that everything he has believed up to this point hasn’t been true…but Peter can’t take five seconds to say, Look, I’ll explain as soon as I get back. I love you, and I swear you’ve got it all wrong. Nope. He says, There’s bigger shit going down than your feelings, and takes off. An hour later, he could swing back and set matters straight; instead, he mopes over a girl so loathsome she’s willing to marry a guy she doesn’t love, unless, of course, she decides to — literally — leave him at the altar. By the time SPIDER-MAN 3 rolls around, it’s been long enough for her to audition for, be cast in, rehearse for, and then premiere in a Broadway play, and Peter still hasn’t checked back. Great friends, Harry.
And then comes the film’s finest sequence. Harry, forgotten by his friends, sits there, drunk, depressed, and disillusioned. His entire universe has been turned upside down. He has nothing left. And then he hears it: the creaking of his study door, that now swings inexplicably open; followed by the hair-raising sound of a maniacal laugh, issuing from a mouth that can only stink of the grave. If ever Raimi’s roots in Horror are on display, it’s here.****
When Norman appears in that familiar floor-length mirror, his image as much a reflection of Harry’s hidden aspirations as the Goblin was Norman’s, we have to ask ourselves: is this a dream? A premonition? Is Norman’s appearance here a supernatural one, or the result of faulty genetic wiring? The answers never come, but the questions become more horrifying when Harry shatters the mirror and finds Norman’s Goblin lair behind it, literally hidden inside the manifestation that similarly visited Norman. The passage within leads Harry into the recesses of his father’s demented psyche, and to the elixir that will truly allow him to reach his fullest potential.
While SPIDER-MAN 3 fails to deliver the promise of these closing scenes, its sequel offers the cruelest unresolved narrative since THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. One could only imagine the dark hallways Harry might walk in that shadowy place behind the mirror image of Norman Osborn; as with Peter, the greatest lesson he learns is that like anyone else, he has the choice to be whatever, and whomever, he wishes to be. SPIDER-MAN 2 is Harry’s story as much as it’s Peter’s, and it’s the one that offers the more compelling dilemma.
*WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAAAAAAAME?????
**One gigantic missed opportunity in Raimi’s first SPIDER-MAN was denying us the Green Goblin unmasking. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #39 shocked readers with its final page, in which we learn that the mysterious villain who had been bugging our protagonist since Issue 14 was the father of Peter’s new college pal, Harry Osborn. It was completely unexpected, and rumored to be a component in original artist Steve Ditko’s departure from the series. Regardless, it would have made for one hell of an onscreen shocker.
***The death of Harry Osborn as written by J.M. DeMatteis (who is unquestionably one of Spidey’s finest scribes) formed aspects of SPIDER-MAN 3’s climax, to say nothing of Norman’s ghostly visitations. DeMatteis has had the honor of murdering Kraven the Hunter, Harry Osborn, and, most notably, Aunt May; each story was emotionally powerful, and then criminally retconned later on.
****SPIDER-MAN 2 is the most “Raimi” of the three films; it’s also, visually, the one truest to the sensibilities of the page. While I’ve struggled to find the best way to articulate this, sci-fi author Megan Morgan summarized it perfectly when she said (and I paraphrase, here): Most Comic Book Movies bring the characters to life; SPIDER-MAN 2 brings the comic book, as an art form, to life. She’s right.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)