SpiderMan Review

by Greg Novak (Deerboy67 AT cs DOT com)
May 11th, 2002

Spider-Man: A Review
By Greg Novak

SPIDER-MAN is the latest comic book adaptation to hit the big screen, and it does justice to its predecessor incarnations, such as Superman (1979) and Batman (1989). Actually, it blows them away, and Spider-Man rightfully takes its place at the top of the superhero genre. After earning a record breaking 115 million its opening weekend, Spider-Man just might stick around long enough to outlast all the Star Wars hype.

Spider-Man himself is a unique superhero. Unlike Superman, who has extraterrestrial origins and hence never quite fits in, Spider-Man is quite human. However, he has in common with Superman an estrangement from his peers. Superman is lonely because he is an alien, literally. Spider-Man is an alien in a different way. The young Peter Parker is a freak and a geek in a world where conformity and popularity counts. Parker is bad at sports, enjoys science, and is hopelessly in love with someone way outside his class. Such is a recipe for teen-age angst and peer isolation. He gets picked on, beat up, and overlooked, and all he can do is take it. Parker is the quintessential underdog (not to be confused with another cartoon superhero), and as such, one cares for him from the start.

Parker's days as an outcast soon changes thanks to a school visit to a science lab, where Parker becomes the victim of a genetically altered spider, whose bite suddenly gives Parker spider-like powers. He doesn't leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he can sure climb over them pretty fast. Tobey Maguire won the role of Spider-Man, and his meek and childlike form, makes him an unlikely candidate for such a part. He's the last person you'd expect to see swinging from skyscrapers. But Maguire projects a natural innocence that disarms and rewrites the traditional superhero stereotype.
Clark Kent only acted like an innocent geek. Parker really is one. Superman director, Sam Raimi, had an answer to those who originally criticized his choice of Maguire as Spider-Man. "I wasn't looking for Spider-Man," he announced, "I was looking for Peter Parker." In Maguire, he definitely found him.

However, the film would not have worked if Raime got the superhero right, but the villain wrong. From the beginning, the film threatens to be a trite two-dimensional rendering of the good vs. evil archetypes so prevalent in the superhero genre. As such the movie could easily have degenerated into cliché. When I first saw scenes for Spider-Man, the trailer emphasized snippets of "the Green Goblin," a devise that dampened my original anticipation for this film. I've long ago tired of the evil super-villain whose only goal in life is to destroy the good guy. I want to see superheroes kick the ass of ordinary people for a change.

But, William Dafoe, who plays the menacing and twisted Green Goblin, actually delivers some dimension to his character. Dafoe is the latest to join the club of heavy weight actors who have portrayed similar villains, such as Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. And Dafoe does a wonderful job! I especially enjoyed his troubled and schizophrenic conversations with his evil alter ego.

The film cleverly adds dimension to his character by showing the Green Goblin as a caring, if someone strict and stern father. The Goblin is actually Norman Osborn, rich industrialist, and father of Parker's best friend. Osborn is impressed by Parker's intelligence and maturity, and as such, he tries to help Parker advance his career, not knowing of course that Parker is Spider-Man. That twist adds an element of humanity to the Green Goblin, an element often lacking in this genre. It actually has shades of the wonderful depth given to Lex Luthor in the current hit TV series Smallville. Half the time you hate the Green Goblin; the other half, you pity him.

Osborn actually starts out as somewhat likeable. He demands a lot of his son and has plenty of respect for the hard working Parker. However, a little introduction to "performance enhancers" designed by his company for military application, not only increases his strength, but it enhances his darker side as well. His natural competitiveness turns into a psychopathic obsession to destroy his enemies.

In additional to well drawn characters, the film also develops a decent script, one that doesn't take itself too seriously. The film's humor is a particular strength. Who can forget the wonderful counsel of Parker's aunt, who is concerned about Parker's excessive schedule? "You need to slow down," she advises, "You're not Superman, you know." And I wasn't expecting to see a hilarious prototype of Spider-Man's costume, the one he had before he got it right!

Equally hilarious was Parker's attempt to get a name for himself. All the unimaginative Parker could devise was the somewhat uninspiring "the Human Spider." It took the spin and imagination of a wrestling announcer to immortalize the name "the Amazing Spider-Man!"

Parker's editor at the Daily Bugle, outrageously played by J. Jonah Jameson, also deserves credit for injecting humor into the film. He gives us the cheesy name, "The Green Goblin," in order to sell papers and then demands a quarter in royalties from anyone who uses it! The humor allows the viewer to gloss over any potential cheesiness to these characters. You can't laugh at the corniness if they've already done that for you.

One hardly needs to analyze the action and the special effects. The age of computer-generated images has rendered it virtually impossible to do these poorly. Suffice to say; when Spider-Man swings from tall buildings, you get vertigo. From beginning to end, the film delivers great action, great effects, and great suspense. All that, combined with the humanity of its characters, a well-written script, and some great humor, and Spider-Man sets a new standard for the superhero genre. Now all he needs is a good song by Five For Fighting. "I can't stand to swing, I'm not that naïve. Men weren't meant to ride, swinging in the breeze." Hmmm, doesn't quite work.

A few nits: The film reveals that Spider-Man can stick to walls because of the hairy filaments sticking out of his appendages, such as his hands and feet. However, his costume covers his entire body! He shouldn't be able to stick to anything while wearing his costume. I also found myself asking how exactly spider venom rewrites human DNA? Venom acts as paralyzing agent in its victims, and as far as I know, it can't perform genetic engineering. Nits aside, with a little suspension of disbelief, this film quite easily draws you into its world.

Improvements: In the original Spider-Man, webs don't come with Spidy's superhero package. The highly intelligent Parker has to manufacture a clever devise to create his webs. I always hated this. Spider-Man's signature powers were manufactured! They corrected this mistake for the film, and Parker now gets the full range of spider traits, including his webbing.

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