SpiderMan Reviewby Shannon Patrick Sullivan (shannon AT morgan DOT ucs DOT mun DOT ca)
May 6th, 2002
SPIDER-MAN (2002) / *** 1/2
Directed by Sam Raimi. Screenplay by David Koepp, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst. Running time: 121 minutes. Rated PG for frightening scenes by the MFCB. Reviewed on May 4th, 2002.
By SHANNON PATRICK SULLIVAN
Synopsis: When nerdy high school student Peter Parker (Maguire) is bitten by a genetically engineered spider, he finds himself developing spider-like abilities. He can climb walls and spin webs, is preternaturally strong and agile, and even has a precognitive sixth sense. Peter sees his newfound powers as a way to make a fast buck until his irresponsible behaviour results in a tragedy he could have averted. Forging a costume and christening himself "Spider-Man", Parker seeks to make a name for himself as a hero. His first challenge is the Green Goblin, the psychotic alter ego of millionaire scientist Norman Osborn (Dafoe). The Goblin plans to strike at Spider-Man through those he loves most, including his elderly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Mary Jane Watson (Dunst), the girl next door Peter secretly loves.
Review: The super-hero genre has long trod a rough road at the cinema. Past examples have run the gamut from the downright awful ("Batman And Robin") to moderately good pictures hamstrung by poor casting choices (Margot Kidder in "Superman", Kim Basinger in "Batman") or mediocre scripts ("X-Men"). Indeed, the best comic-to-film transitions have mostly been those which eschewed the graphic novel's men-in-tights tradition -- "Ghost World", for instance.
With a flood of new super-hero movies on the horizon, we can only hope that "Spider-Man" heralds a reversal of this trend, for it may well be one of the best examples of the genre ever. It's not perfect by any means, but as both a faithful adaptation of one of comics' most successful characters, and as an early-summer crowd pleaser in its own right, "Spider-Man" is on target.
What made the early issues of the first Spidey comic title, "Amazing Spider-Man", so successful, was that the eponymous hero was not just a bland, square-jawed good guy. Creators Stan Lee (who cameos in the movie) and Steve Ditko sought to craft a character who was more complex than that -- one who not only saw his incredible powers as being as much a burden as a gift, but also one whose super-heroic travails were counterpointed by the same day-to-day problems which afflict any teenager. Not only would Spider-Man have to go out and fight Doctor Octopus or Mysterio at night, but then Peter Parker would have to wake up the next morning and figure out how to pay for Aunt May's medical bills.
Raimi and Koepp have not lost sight of this fundamental element of the "Spider-Man" legend in composing their feature film. Whereas Bruce Wayne was little more than a convenient cipher in the "Batman" movies, Peter Parker is just as important in "Spider-Man" as his costumed alter ego. Fortunately, Maguire is more than up to the task of portraying this key inner conflict. His Peter is extremely sympathetic, skillfully evoking the same turmoils which many of us faced as teenagers. At the same time, he makes Spider-Man a delightful character who is easy to cheer for. Indeed, it's just a shame that we aren't exposed to more of Spidey's trademark witty banter.
Similarly, another attraction of those early "Spider-Man" stories was the fluid artwork of Ditko. Spidey is not a muscle-bound grunt who can easily batter an opponent to the ground. He relies as much on his nimbleness as his enhanced strength. Hence it is very impressive that Raimi's depiction of Spider-Man's heroics concentrate principally on this very facet. Scenes of him bounding from rooftop to rooftop, or swinging along the streets of New York on his webbing, are thrilling to behold.
Although Koepp and Raimi have diverged to some degree from the character's four-colour origins, the changes and updates are smart and logical. For example, one of the reasons Lee and Ditko had Parker bitten by a radioactive spider in his comic book origin was because radiation was a key concern for the general public in the early Sixties. That's not really the case any longer, so to maintain a similar sense of relevancy, in the film the spider is genetically engineered.
As the Green Goblin, Dafoe is very good, crafting a villain nearly as memorable as Jack Nicholson's Joker in the first "Batman". The Goblin is scary enough to be a potent menace, but maniacal enough to retain the spirit of the comic book character. Dunst is rather less successful; her Mary Jane is unfortunately somewhat bland, and we're never quite convinced that she's as incredible a girl as Peter clearly thinks she is.
Of the supporting castmembers, by far the best is JK Simmons, who embraces the notorious J Jonah Jameson with evident relish. Jameson -- a cigar-chomping newspaper editor who decides that Spider-Man is really a menace who must be brought down -- is an inspired character, and Simmons is a lot of fun to watch. It's too bad that he doesn't get more scenes in which to strut his stuff.
Harris does a good job as Aunt May; as in the comics, the frail but loving May is both a boon and a hindrance to Peter, and Harris finds the right mix of these aspects. James Franco, who plays Harry Osborn -- Peter's roommate and Norman's son -- is a tad featureless. Consequently, an effort to show a sudden strength of character in the movie's latter scenes rings rather false.
The story as a whole hangs together well, skillfully blending character moments with adrenalin-pumping super-heroics. The second half is not quite as impressive as the first: it's unfortunate that the Green Goblin doesn't really have much of a plan besides "get Spider-Man", causing the film to lose some of its dramatic impetus after Peter has established his costumed identity. The climactic showdown between Spider-Man and the Goblin, in particular, comes across as rather perfunctory, although it certainly has its share of thrills.
Caught up in legal tangles and studio wrangling, "Spider-Man" has had a long, tough road to the silver screen. It was worth the wait. This is a comic book super-hero brought to life like you've never seen before.
Copyright © 2002 Shannon Patrick Sullivan.
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