Spider-Man (2002)

2002, Columbia. Directed by Sam Raimi. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, J. K. Simmons, Michael Papajohn, Joe Manganiello, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +0
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: Stylized, sometimes intense comic-book violence; fleeting crude language and sensuality.

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Spider-Man (DVD)

Spider-Man (VHS)

By Steven D. Greydanus

From its breathless, cartoony title sequence, with the letters of cast members’ names stuck like flies in a vast spiderweb, Spider-Man makes its intentions crystal clear: This is one wide-eyed comic-book movie that revels in its pulp origins.

Eschewing both the restrained realism of Bryan Singer’s X-Men and the overwrought stylizations of the Batman franchise, director Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan) and screenwriter David Koepp (Panic Room) stick to the basics that made Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation one of the most popular super-heroes of all time. A sympathetic protagonist with real-world woes; a laboratory accident; the thrill of discovery and the joy of super-powers; a colorful costume; a fleeting lapse in judgment with irrevocable consequences; a moral lesson, learned the hard way, about power and responsibility; and of course epic battles against the super-powered evildoers of the world… it’s all here.

The result, while not the best film ever made about a comic-book super-hero, may be the most satisfying cinematic comic-book super-hero experience to date (the only other possible contender being Superman’s battle royal with the three Kryptonian supervillains in Superman II). In other words, there may have been better super-hero movies than this, but this one, for better or for worse, may be the best realization of the spirit and feel of its comic-book source.

Certainly no other movie has ever given us anything like the dizzying vision of Spider-Man reeling and swooping through the concrete canyons of Manhattan on his web-lines. High-flying jumps and leaps may be familiar sights in this post-Matrix and Crouching Tiger era, but no one in the history of film has ever moved quite like Spider-Man at the end of a web-line. Granted, in places the computer-generated imagery is as obvious as the bluescreening in the old Superman movies; but then no stuntman or gymnast could possibly give Spider-Man’s acrobatics the needed superhuman dimension, so it’s a necessary tradeoff.

If Spider-Man’s acrobatics are superhuman, his life outside the costume has to be mundanely familiar. Unlike Superman or Batman, young Peter Parker is in no way exotic — neither a visitor from the stars nor a billionaire playboy, only an ordinary teenager in high school with the same problems and heartaches we all went through: bullying; loneliness; unrequited love. An orphan living with an elderly aunt and uncle, Peter is sympathetic and admirable: smart, quiet, studious, respectful to adults, but with a spirited streak that will serve him well.

A familiar hero lives or dies by good casting (think of the string of actors woefully trying to pass themselves off as Bruce Wayne throughout the Batman franchise). In Tobey Maguire (Pleasantville), Spider-Man has a star who embodies the Peter Parker fans know and love as persuasively as Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Maguire not only looks the part, he’s got the right blend of earnest awkwardness, slightly self-aborbed introspectiveness, and basic decency. Watching him, I have no trouble accepting that this is Peter Parker.

Peter’s transformation from mild-mannered teenager to wall-crawling super-hero is deftly and effectively retold. The challenge here is to tell a 40-year-old origin story in a way that is both familiar and fresh, to respect the spirit of the established story while reimagining it for a new era and a new medium. It’s a delicate balance: Cleave too close to the source material, and the result is uninspired and unimaginative; depart too radically from it, and the result is no longer recognizable as the same story, the same hero. Alan Moore expressed it best when he praised The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s groundbreaking reinvention of Batman, in these words: "Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it’s all completely different." That, in a nutshell, should be the goal of every storyteller who sets out to reimagine a familiar and beloved legend.

And that, on balance, is what Sam Raimi has achieved. The basic outline is the same: the laboratory spider-bite, the emergent super-powers, a brief flirtation with show business and prizefighting, the robber Peter could have stopped but didn’t, the tragic personal consequences and the subsequent lesson learned.

At the same time, events are reinterpreted and rearranged, often to shrewd effect. In particular the prizefighting, the escaping thief, and the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben are skillfully telescoped into a single sequence that makes better psychological sense regarding Peter’s passive response to the flight of the thief and also diminishes the element of coincidence.

One of the most controversial changes is that, while Spider-Man still shoots webs from his wrists, he doesn’t do it by means of the mechanical wrist-mounted web-shooting devices the character has always worn. Instead, following a controversial innovation from a proposed script treatment by James Cameron, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man simply develops web-shooting spinneret-like organs in his wrists along with his other spider-powers.

This may seem a minor change, but fan response has been massive — if mixed — passionately debating the issue from every conceivable angle, from the plausibility of a high-schooler inventing mechanical webshooters to the aesthetic drawbacks of a hero with mutant orifices on his wrists that discharge a sticky white bio-fluid. (The obvious Freudian associations of this image, while possible in the film as it stands, are mercifully much less obvious than in Cameron’s original scriptment. Still, the traditional mechanical shooters would have eliminated the issue entirely. On the plus side, it can be said that the organic shooters do move the story along, and also provide a couple the story’s funnier sequences, in which Peter first discovers, then attempts to master, his web-shooting powers.)

There are a few storytelling hitches. When we first see Peter in costume — at a WWF-style prizefighting event — it’s a humorous reality check: Instead of appearing in a big-budget movie quality costume, he’s got on something that looks like what a high-school kid would come up with: ski mask, sweats with a spray-painted logo, etc. So I thought: Fair enough, they’re going to explain where he gets the pro costume from (the prizefighting people, maybe, like in a recent comic-book retelling of Spidey’s origin). But then when Peter finally gets serious about super-heroing, the "real" costume just appears without further explanation.

Then, when Peter finally swings into action for the first time as Spider-Man, we aren’t immediately given a chance to really see him in action, thwarting muggings and robberies, etc., like any self-respecting super-hero origin story (cf. Superman: The Movie). Instead, we get a frustratingly brief montage of webbed-up bandits and returned money, followed by some humorous New Yorker man-in-the-street reaction to the mysterious webslinger.

These are flaws, but not huge ones. Like any first installation in a super-hero film franchise, Spider-Man labors under the double burden of establishing its hero (which in this case means explaining his origins) while also confronting him with a credible interim threat to give the story weight and drama until a full-scale conflict can be arranged for the second film. This was the strategy pioneered by the first two Superman films (originally conceived of together and meant to be filmed back to back); and Bryan Singer seems to be following a similar strategy with X-Men.

Raimi’s film follows this well-established path with the introduction of Norman Osbourne (Willem Dafoe of Shadow of the Vampire), the ruthless industrialist who is transformed into the villainous Green Goblin. In an underwritten part, Dafoe emerges as the movie’s strong acting center, creating a mesmerizing super-villain mostly by sheer force of personality — or personalities, rather. Even the disastrous decision to sheathe the Green Goblin in bright green armor (another unpopular revision that obscures Dafoe’s features behind an inflexible metallic helmet while simultaneously abolishing the spooky goblin-ish presence the character is meant to have) can’t entirely blunt the force of his performance.

Strong as Dafoe is, he doesn’t upstage the hero, as Batman foes have been wont to do. Instead, hero and villain play off one another in epic comic-book style battle sequences like nothing we’ve seen since Superman II. These sequences have some nifty touches, such as the slo-mo spider-sense aided contortions with which our hero avoids flying blades in a burning building, and Spidey’s flamboyant resolution of an impossible life-and-death choice on a bridge over the East River.

Supporting roles are generally well cast. As Mary Jane Watson, girl next door and Peter’s lifelong heartthrob, Kirsten Dunst (crazy/beautiful) is actually something of an improvement — though not perhaps enough of one — on the vapid party-girl first seen in the comic books. Here MJ is winsome and sweet, but still not, alas, very interesting, whatever Peter might see in her (beyond her ever-present skimpy T-shirts and deep cleavage).

In fact, their whole romance is a bit shallow and trite — like a lot of high-school romances are, surely, but it doesn’t make for the best possible storytelling. At one point Pete’s got a line that begins, "The great thing about MJ is…" — and I couldn’t help thinking that, whatever he might go on to say, it couldn’t possibly be very profound. Later MJ has a speech in which she declares her true feelings for Peter, but it falls so flat there that I actually thought it was going to turn out to be one of those fantasy sequences inside Pete’s head, and that any moment we would snap back to reality and she’d be saying something like "…which is why you’re a really great friend."

Like so many love-interest heroines for whom the soulful hero carries a torch, MJ is pretty, popular, and romantically linked to an unworthy jock — in this case a mook named Flash Thompson, here if possible even more one-dimensional than his comic-book equivalent — whom she doesn’t seem to realize doesn’t deserve her.

It’s one of the film’s weaknesses that it trots out this familiar romantic-triangle formula without bringing anything new to the table. As an example of how the same device can be effectively developed, see the new WB series "Smallville," in which a young Clark Kent carries the torch for a dark-haired Lana Lang who’s a much more substantial character than poor MJ, and who is involved with a more complex and conflicted version of Flash named Whitney.

Other than Flash, minor roles are well-cast. Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson are ideal as Aunt May and Uncle Ben Parker, James Franco is effectively poignant or shallow as required in the role of Osbourne scion Harry, and J. K. Simmons (The Mexican) is positively uncanny as the irascible J. Jonah Jameson (never mind that this sort of imperious, abusive management style is about as likely to be accepted today as a popular high-school jock nicknamed "Flash").

Parents should note that, despite Spider-Man’s strong appeal with young children, this is not a movie for pre-teens. For one thing, the violence is considerably more intense than that of, for example, the Superman, Batman, or X-Men movies. Also, while physicality between the hero and the heroine goes no further than two kisses, those are two pretty steamy kisses (particularly the first one).

For the rest of us, though, Spider-Man offers a super-hero roller-coaster ride not quite like anything we’ve ever seen before. It may not have the mythic power of the first two Superman films or the depth and complexity of X-Men, but Spider-Man has a swashbuckling flair and style all its own.

Tags: Make Mine Marvel, Spider-Man, Superheroes & Comic Book Movies, Action, Adventure, Romance

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