Sam Raimi's Spider-Man

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Directed by Sam Raimi

A marvelous sequence early in Spider-Man finds teenage hero Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), recently bitten by a genetically altered spider and cursed with fantastic powers, sitting alone in his bedroom with pens and drawing paper, trying to figure out what sort of costume his wall-crawling alter-ego should wear. It's too early in the story for Peter to embrace his destiny fully; right now he's taking baby steps, coming up with an outfit to wear to an amateur wrestling match, which he hopes to win so he can use the prize money to buy a hot car and impress his dream girl, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). But it's still the first step toward total transformation.

Director Sam Raimi goes for an old-fashioned series of overlapping dissolves, juxtaposing Peter's obsessive facial expressions, his fluid pen strokes and the vibrant, playful drawings themselves. The sketches are so loose and rough that they seem in danger of popping off the page and dancing through the air like the pink elephants in Dumbo. It's a marvelous, go-for-broke sequence that will please not just comic fans, but anybody who remembers the mix of intense solitude, self-loathing and fanatical naivete that defined adolescence. When the smart, lonely, bullied Peter draws himself as Spider-Man, he isn't just a kid inventing a fictional character; he's an artist redefining his identity so he can take control of his life.

At moments like this, Spider-Man becomes sublime, and the hearts of Spider-fans will soar. You can tell when filmmakers understand their material and when they're faking it; Raimi isn't faking anything. He loves this stuff. Anybody who's seen his previous movies, with their deep-focus compositions, raked angles and hell-on-wheels dolly shots, already knew he loved this stuff. But it's still pleasing to see interest translated into joy, and parts of Spider-Man are truly joyous.

Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Stir of Echoes) have thought their material through?as thoroughly as one can think through comics without killing them?and they've made a light-footed, enjoyable comic book movie, one that aims to please comics geeks and the general public in equal measure. There are three or four bang-up action sequences (Peter discovering how to swing through Manhattan on ropes of webbing is a delirious high point), a weird, amusing villain performance by Willem Dafoe (as demented industrialist Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin) and a superb star turn by the diminutive, soft-voiced Maguire, a counterintuitive casting choice who gives the most surprising and original comic-book-hero performance since Christopher Reeve suited up as Superman. (Peter is told that he looks taller when he's wearing his Spidey suit?a good joke on both superhero outfits and movie stars.)

But any comic book movie that aims to please everyone has chosen to make a creative tradeoff?and Spider-Man is no exception. Since the first blockbuster Superman movie back in 1978, audiences have been inundated with comic book movies, to the point where they now feel, with some justification, that they've seen it all before. Spider-Man offers fresh superhero action (the hero swings from strands of webbing rather than flying through the sky or zipping through the streets in a Batmobile) and a fresh attitude (Spidey, the first self-aware, sardonic superhero, narrates his own ridiculous life, even during major action sequences). But there's only so much it can do to reinvent the genre, and it's only willing to go so far, because it doesn't want to turn anyone off. Spider-Man doesn't hurl the camera at the audience, De Palma-style, like Raimi's turbocharged 1990 comic book movie Darkman, and for the most part, it avoids the brooding, sludgy oppressiveness of Tim Burton's overrated Batman movies, which stressed their villains at the expense of their heroes and swapped urban Gothic art direction for narrative drive. Yet Spider-Man also lacks the cornball populist majesty of the first two Superman movies, which stressed comedy, sincerity and post-Watergate patriotism over self-consciously "stylish" visuals. Spider-Man aims to fall somewhere in the middle, and the middle, alas, is inhospitable to excellence.

In the end, the result is just another comic book movie with splashes of flair?but only splashes; when Peter isn't contemplating his predicament in hypnotic closeup or sailing from web-rope to web-rope like an urban cousin of Tarzan, Spider-Man has a Good-Enough-for-Government-Work feel. You don't want every composition in a movie like this to be stereotypically "dynamic"?that stuff gets old fast?but you expect detail and spatial tension. When Raimi and Koepp's characters talk to each other in apartments and offices, they stand around like sitcom characters who don't quite know what to do with their hands. The camera always seems to be in the wrong place, and the lighting is monotonously flat and bright, like something out of a Kevin Smith movie. (I can only assume that the great cinematographer Don Burgess, who shot Forrest Gump and Cast Away, was ordered to light the dialogue sequences this way by the studio; ditto for Raimi, whose movies rarely feature a single undramatic composition.) The action scenes perk up the movie; the best of the bunch has Norman, suited up in his biomechanical Green Goblin outfit, screaming out of the sky on a jet-powered hoverboard to end a corporate-sponsored Times Square event by lobbing hand grenades at the revelers. In long shots, the arc of smoke behind the bad guy's hoverboard recalls the Wicked Witch's skywriting in The Wizard of Oz; Spidey rises to the Goblin's high-flying level by jumping from one giant parade balloon to another, trampoline-style. But it's foolish to praise great action sequences for their own sake; a hyper-expensive summer blockbuster better have a couple of nail-biters, otherwise it's doomed.

Two qualities elevate a comic book movie from competence to excellence: the strength of its characterizations and its overall sense of life. Spider-Man possesses the germs of both qualities, but for whatever reason doesn't develop them to their full potential. Koepp's script is segmented, with plot holes that suggest it was worked over by many hands; for example, we see Norman's son, a classmate of Peter named Harry Osborn (James Franco), introducing the future hero and villain to each other for what seems to be the first time, and by the end of the movie, despite an absence of meaty scenes between Norman and Peter, the former taunts the latter by insinuating that Peter thinks of Norman as some kind of father figure. This isn't elliptical storytelling; it's more like somebody tore pages out of the script and forgot to put them back in.

The best parts of the film concentrate on Peter's status as teen outcast, a condition Stan Lee and his Marvel Comics gang understood better than any comics artists before or since. Marvel didn't make its mark on comics fans by offering the same-old same-old; it made its mark by replicating the adolescent mindset in the context of its good guys and bad guys, turning every confrontation into a showdown between misunderstood teenagers acting out on different sides of the law. Spider-Man gets the essence of that notion, and when a movie does that, you can forgive quite a few flaws. I loved the scenes where Peter shyly courts Mary Jane, a next-door neighbor and wannabe-actress whose family is as abusive as Peter's is supportive. This cagey young man is waiting for just the right moment to make his move?and when he's suited up as Spidey and Mary Jane makes her move on him (with an upside-down kiss on a rainy street corner), you can't help smiling at the sight of a teen dream fulfilled. Peter's trying to fulfill his power fantasies while remaining a good person?a striking contrast to Norman, who only cares about the first part of the equation. "These are the years when a man changes into the man he's gonna become for the rest of his life." So warns Peter's beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). It's a good, promising line, and even though Spider-Man sometimes fails to dramatize those changes, you'll appreciate the sentiment.

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