Spider-Man
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

 
With Sam Raimi’s name (of Evil Dead fame) attached to Spider-Man, you might expect a startlingly different take on superhero lore. Indeed, while the movie was in development, which is where it languished for several years, Raimi promised to create an entirely different type of superhero lead character (based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko). But is Raimi's Spider-Man really any different? You’ll no doubt get contradictory responses to that question.

Spider-Man is certainly different than Batman, for example. While Batman was dark and foreboding, designed with a steely gleam and a restricted color palette, Spider-Man is bright and (relatively) optimistic, with a wide range of colors. But most significantly, while Batman emphasized the tortured psyche of its leading character—he’d witnessed the death of his parents at the hands of a thief—Spider-Man is about a teenager named Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who’d love to be normal.

Peter is lovesick for the pretty neighbor girl, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and wishes he could work up the courage to talk to her. But Peter is a brainy geek, who the other kids delight in tormenting. Superpowers are thrust upon him courtesy of a genetically modified spider that bites him on the hand while he’s visiting a laboratory on a school field trip. Soon afterwards he discovers he has capabilities that he doesn’t understand. He can now deliver devastating punches and his reactions are so quick that everyone else seems to be moving in slow motion. More significantly, however, webbing now shoots from his wrists, and when he needs to climb—like up the side of an office building—Velcro-like hairs emerge from his palm and fingers.

No, this new Hollywood take on superhero lore bears little resemblance to Batman. But it’s not all that different than Superman—just imagine a different origination story. And instead of Lois Lane wondering who Superman really is, while poor Clark Kent suffers from lack of attention, Mary Jane (Dunst) dreams of Spider-Man while nerdy Peter Parker moons over her. We even get scenes amazingly similar to the transformation scenes from Superman, but Peter doesn’t use a phone booth when it's time to change into his Spider-Man garb. He just runs for an alley. And while Peter can’t exactly fly, he soon enough learns to soar by swinging on strands of spider webs.

Spider-Man is like Superman with teenagers in the hero and heroine roles. Tobey Maguire is okay in the lead, but Kirsten Dunst is little more than a pretty smile as the love interest, making Mary Jane hardly worthy of Peter's adoration. In addition, not much is really made of Peter’s intelligence. Aside from his geekiness, he’s a fairly ordinary kid (in spite of his laments about not being ordinary). As a result, Spider-Man remains trapped by Raimi’s lack of imagination. Spider-Man is certainly fun to watch, in a bland, seen-it-all-before sort of way. It certainly isn’t a bad movie, but neither is it the kind of movie to really get excited about. However, after the advertising blitz that we all have endured over the past few weeks, many moviegoers are no doubt primed to consider this the greatest blockbuster of all time … or at least of the past three or four months, anyway.

Spider-Man is a wonderfully energetic tale, but it’s as bland as Peter Parker. We get a few hints that Raimi has more in store for his leading character, and maybe that depth will appear in future episodes of this superhero franchise. It's almost guaranteed to. Late in the movie, Peter laments about not being able to have a normal life, but at this point in the Spider-Man saga, his lament doesn’t carry much weight. It's just a hint of what may come. It’s an interesting idea and it indicates that Peter Parker will find being a superhero carries a big downside; however, Raimi isn't particularly interested in following through. At least not right now, anyway.

As such, Spider-Man is a somewhat cumbersome start to the Spider-Man franchise. It lays out the origination of Spider-Man in dutiful fashion, but Raimi has succumbed to the Hollywood thirst for blockbusters by fashioning a movie that revolves around its special effects: Spider-Man swings down crowded downtown streets, one web pulling him this way, another web pulling him that way; Spider-Man climbs up the sheer vertical face of buildings; he uses powers similar to ESP that allow him to sense dangers, depicted in super-slo-mo scenes reminiscent of the bullet-dodging scenes from The Matrix (sans the by-now cliché maneuvers where the camera suddenly swings around the frozen actors); he takes on a super-villain dubbed "The Green Goblin," who is actually his best friend's father, a zealous businessman (played by Willem Dafoe) who tests out a secret serum on himself and soon develops homicidal tendencies, which he attempts to realize while surfing through the sky on a tiny glider and wearing a metallic green suit that makes him practically invincible.

So in other words if all you’re hoping to get out of Spider-Man is the thrill of impressive special effects, you’ll no doubt love this movie. But if you expect more from your superheroes, if you expect a fascinating lead character, then you’ll have to be patient and wait for Raimi to deliver on that promise in future installments.


[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Columbia Pictures
Movie Web site: Spider-Man

 


 

Photo credits: © 2002 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.