Sam Raimi, USA, 2002
Posted: May 7,
Kevin F. Moreau
Finding fault with the long-anticipated Spider-Man feels a bit
like picking on poor old Peter Parker. The shots are there if you want to
take them, but the intended victim is so likable and earnest that you feel a
bit dirty and ashamed of yourself for doing so. It's a hard row to hoe,
trying to kick-start a successful film franchise while dealing with the
guardedly optimistic expectations of an often-disappointed fan base and
hopefully paving the way for a slew of comic movies (Daredevil,
Hulk) to fill Hollywood's coffers. And because of that, you want to cut
the poor guy some slack.
But given enough webbing, Spider-Man gets awkwardly tangled,
pulled between following the conventions of a comic-book movie and
delivering a big-ticket summer blockbuster. That Sam (Evil Dead, A
Simple Plan) Raimi's popcorn hit has achieved the latter is beyond
doubt: the film has already broken a box-office record, raking up the
biggest opening weekend in celluloid history to date. And Spider-Man
certainly stays true to its comic roots, remaining relatively faithful to
the source material. (Not for us the consternated hand-wringing over such
trifling changes as Parker's ability to spin webs organically instead of via
mechanized web-shooters; this writer has had sex, thank you very
Where Spider-Man stumbles is in trying to be both things -- a
faithful "comic book movie" and a summer spectacular -- at the same time. To
be fair, some comics lend themselves more readily to the multiplex movie
treatment; Where Tim Burton's first Batman film succeeded (to the
extent that it did; this writer's still not convinced), it did so by making
its different elements -- set design, characterization, scenery-chewing
acting -- all of one Gothic, Grand Guignol piece. That's a more difficult
trick to pull off when the comic in question is noted for its "real life"
approach to character development, which is at diametrical odds with the
larger-than-life, exaggerated approach so common to comic book adaptations.
And you can't very well make a comic book movie -- especially one as visually
arresting as Spider-Man begs to be, and very often is -- without that
sense of slam-bang, bigger-is-better theater.
The irony is that the comic, which is considered the inferior medium, has
managed over the years to strike that delicate balance (not all the time,
granted, but often enough), while the movie fails to do so. The sweetly
human elements (Peter Parker's evolution from embarrassingly awkward geek to
self-assured stud, his poignantly painful crush on Mary Jane Watson, the
popular girl next door) clash with the ham-fisted, jump-cut editing and the
tawdry, Stallone-as-Judge-Dredd headache that is the Green Goblin's costume.
Likewise, scenes wherein Parker (a perfectly-cast Tobey Maguire, expertly
fleshing out the subtext of super-powers as puberty) shows up school bully
Flash Thompson and clumsily practices his web-swinging bring both comic
relief and endearing empathy to Parker's journey of self-discovery. But
Raimi's time's-a-wasting pacing, which criminally glosses over Spidey's
burgeoning career as a crime-fighter (not to mention Parker's graduation
from high school and his moving into an apartment with pal Harry Osborne),
sacrifices those hard-won moments.
There are other, more negligible beefs: The fight scenes between
Spider-Man and his nemesis, the Green Goblin, lack edge-of-the-seat flair.
Willem Dafoe laudably inhabits industrialist Norman Osborne as more than
just a cardboard cut-out, but his maniacal turn as the Green Goblin,
Osborne's alter ego, belongs in a different, campier film. And while Peter
Parker is expertly captured, the whimsical, wise-cracking persona of
Spider-Man isn't developed; when it is displayed, it seems forced and
out-of-character (not to mention painfully embarrassing, as when Spidey
calls the Goblin "Gobby.") Most exasperatingly, the fact that Mary Jane and
Parker's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) don't figure out that Peter is
Spider-Man, given the many obvious hints, stretches the notion of
"suspension of disbelief" past its breaking point.
But there's a lot to like about Spider-Man, as well. Kirsten Dunst
gives Mary Jane the right mix of girl-next-door familiarity and sex-kitten
mystery, and her kiss with an upside-down Maguire shoots real sparks. J.K.
Simmons (Oz's creepily likable Vern Schillinger) does a lot with the
very limited role of Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, casting him
as a believable headline-chasing tabloid-style manipulator rather than the
paranoiac hothead of the comics. (The utterly wasted Bill Nunn, meanwhile,
who seems to play fellow Bugle editor Robbie Robertson, gets
less screen time than the genetically-engineered spider whose bite gives
Peter his powers.) And the scene in which Parker battles the leviathan
wrestler Bonesaw ("Macho Man" Randy Savage) in a cage match (is it legal for
wrestlers to hit volunteers with real metal chairs?) is a campy delight.
Admittedly, accusing a comic book movie of being too over the top, too
blockbuster-y, is like criticizing a porn flick for having too much nudity,
but that's exactly where Spider-Man swings into a brick wall. Zigging
where it needs to zag, it gives in too readily to the tropes of conventional
summer fluff-films, jarringly undercutting the tender would-be romance
between Parker and Mary Jane and the surprisingly well-handled coming-of-age
story Spider-Man has always been at its core. Still, the fact that
those elements exist at all is reason to cheer for a film clearly exhibiting
some endearing growing pains of its own.
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