Genre Index


Spider-man, 2002. Directed by Sam Raimi. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Defoe, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, J. K. Simons .

Synopsis: Peter Parker's life is complicated. Once upon a time, he was a nice, normal kid, bookish and a bit of a misfit, but a kid with family values. Peter lives with his doting Aunt May and Uncle Ben. He has an unrequited crush on Mary Jane Watson, the girl next door. One day, on a field trip to a science lab researching spiders, Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered "super spider." At first, it makes him sick, but when he awakens, his scrawny frame has bulked up into something that might have been sculpted by Michaelangelo. His vision has improved so that he no longer needs his glasses. And he has new, strange powers: he can walk on walls, he has a preternatural sense of danger, and he has developed spinnerettes on his wrists. At first, Peter revels in his new abilities, running across the rooftops of Queens with giddy abandon. Then he realizes that there might be some money in his new abilities. He creates a primitive costume to hide his identity and enters a wrestling contest as "The Amazing Spider-man." The promoters of the contest cheat Peter of his winnings and when they are robbed, Peter doesn't lift a hand to stop it. Unfortunately for Peter, the robber car-jacks a getaway vehicle, a car driven by Peter's Uncle Ben, leaving Ben Parker dead. This teaches Peter a bitter lesson: with great power comes great responsibility. Upon graduating from high school, Peter moves in with his best friend, Harry Osborne. Harry has problems, too. His industrialist father, Norman Osborne, is going insane, having subjected himself to an untried process designed to create a super soldier for the military. His personality has split down the middle, and the murderous, paranoid half of his psyche manifests itself as The Green Goblin. Spider-Man and The Green Goblin seem to be on a collision course...

Amazing Fantasy: Spider-man's creator, Stan Lee, had a great epiphany in the early 1960s. What if, he thought, superheroes had the same problems that ordinary people had. He first implemented this idea in The Fantastic Four (conceived to cash in on the success of the Justice League of America over at "the distinguished competition"). The Fantastic Four was quickly commandeered by its artist, the great Jack Kirby, who transformed it into grand opera during the course of his run on the book--Lee may have been credited as the writer, but the book was Kirby's. Following The Fantastic Four's success, Lee embarked on one of the great creative spurts in comics, creating just about the entire line-up of Marvel Comics (mainly in collaboration with Jack Kirby). It was Lee's third creation for the fledgling Marvel line-up--Spider-man--that distilled his innovation to its purest incarnation. Lee didn't like Kirby's take on Spider-man and handed the art duties on this new creation to Steve Ditko. Even though Ditko did some of his best work on the early Spider-man comics, the book remained Lee's principal outlet for the revolution he hoped to create in comics. Spider-man, even more than Lee's previous creations, is Everyman. He broke all the rules. He wasn't some adult hero's teen-sidekick, despite being a teenager himself. He had no great desire to fight crime. He wasn't just disguised as a mild-mannered nobody: he WAS a mild-mannered nobody. And all of what Spider-man would become can be found in the fifteen page origin story that ran in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy. This story, which provides the first half of the new film version of the character, is a stark morality play in which Peter Parker gets bitten by the spider, tries to make it in show business only to discover that the bank won't cash a check made out the "Spider-man," and fails to save his Uncle Ben, thus learning that "with great power comes great responsibility." Parker's essential masochism finds its genesis in this story, and would later manifest itself in deranged instances of self-pity as Parker shoulders the responsibilities of the world.

Oddly enough, most of this makes it into the movie.

Spider-man's origin story is left in the movie practically verbatim (although some of the details are changed slightly). Peter Parker's pathological need for expiation makes it into the film too. Director Sam Raimi and company largely do right by the character and the film is a marvelously conceived entertainment. But it's not perfect by any means.

Performances: The casting for this movie is letter perfect. A better choice for Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire would be difficult to imagine, and his cast of supporting characters, from girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) to poor little rich kid Harry Osborne (James Franco) to kindly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) to wise Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) shows more attention to character than to box office than one would expect from a hundred million dollar blockbuster. Of special note is J. K. Simons as prickly newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, who has a scant five minutes of screen time, but never the less walks off with the movie ("Slander! I resent that, Parker! If I publish it, it's LIBEL, not slander!"). Only Willem Defoe seems out of sorts in this mix. He's an obvious choice for a deranged lunatic and, to his credit, he underplays the Green Goblin's alter-ego, Norman Osborne, marvellously. AS the Green Goblin, he's trapped inside a bad costume that looks to have been stolen from the set of some dumb Japanese kiddie show and is given dialogue like, "You've spun your last web, Spider-man." The Green Goblin part of the movie is particularly troubling, given that the origin story from Amazing Fantasy #15 actually has everything that the movie needs (although trying to convince a film executive that a superhero doesn't actually NEED a supervillain might be a problem).

In directing the movie, Raimi's hand is most evident in the casting. In addition to the major characters, Raimi has given bit parts in the film to his friends (Bruce Campbell shows up as a wrestling promoter, Lucy Lawless is a punk rock chick on the street, Ted Raimi works for the Daily Bugle, etc.). Raimi is NOT in evidence as a director here, though. The Raimi of old never saw a dutch tilt he didn't like, never saw a way of moving the camera he didn't want to try, and never saw a way of giving the audience a thrill that he wouldn't go out of his way to attempt. The Raimi who directed THIS film, however, is anonymous. The direction is flat and the opportunities presented for visual flash are largely ignored (a POV shot of what it's like to swing through the canyons of New York, anyone?). The film is grounded by its script to its own detriment. Also to the film's detriment: the CGI effects never look like anything but CGI effects. The characters involved in these sequences look like they escaped from a video game. They fail to convince.

Ah...the script. Here's where Spider-man begins to get into trouble. There are niggling little inconsistencies in the script that begin to add up over time. Why, for instance, does Peter's "spider sense" work flawlessly when mere humans are throwing punches at him but not when the Green Goblin is throwing punches at him. Why do the police show no interest in Norman Osborne as a suspect in the deaths of his board of directors, even though he is the person who benefitted most from their deaths? And why does Peter Parker blow off Mary Jane at the end of the movie after pining for her for the film's entire length? This last part is instructive, though. It DOES point to Parker's essential masochism. The scene, as played, makes one wonder why Mary Jane doesn't come right out and ask Peter if he's gay, although it also hints that she knows Peter's true secret.

Mary Jane Watson is the biggest troublemaker for the filmmakers. Part of the problem with her character is that the filmmakers have no real grasp of what makes her tick. In Mary Jane's early years in the comic books, she was a vivacious, free-wheeling product of the women's movement of the late sixties. A sexpot, to be sure, but one who is her own woman and independent of the needs of those around her. She was the perfect foil for Peter Parker's insecurities. In the nineties, the comics transformed Mary Jane into an adolescent male fantasy figure--a big-titted, fashion plate of a sex kitten. Fortunately for those of us who have grown out of that mindset, the filmmakers have ignored this version of the character (although, not entirely--the scene where Spider-man kisses her in the rain is particularly--ahem--revealing). What the filmmaker's HAVE done, though, is transform Mary Jane into an amalgam of the seventies version of the character and Spider-man's girlfriend from the sixties, Gwen Stacy, and overlayered her character with a soul-crushing background that transforms the character into something else entirely. This has an essential danger to it, though, since Gwen Stacy met a particularly grim fate at the hands of the film's villain, the Green Goblin. Further, the film restages the scene where Gwen Stacy died--substituting Mary Jane for Gwen Stacy--and changes the outcome. This sequence also holds the unanswered question of whether spider silk or human muscle or connective tissue has the greater tensile strength...but I digress. This entire sequence is largely unsatisfying. Since this is the film's big climax, it harms the film as a whole.

Still and all, the film approaches the character and the world he inhabits with a modicum of respect, and finds its best moments in its characters rather than its set pieces and involves the audience in the human beings on the screen rather than state of the art special effects. And how many summer blockbusters can make THAT claim? Not many, that's for sure...