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Webbed In

 

Spider-Man

Sam Raimi, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: May 7, 2002

By 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 much).

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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