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With great expectations from comic geeks and movie geeks alike hanging heavy on its thorax, Spider-Man was released last week to the relief of many who claimed, tellingly, that it’s as good as the first Batman film. It’s actually better than Batman, but Sam Raimi’s screen adaptation of the Marvel superhero shares a sensibility with the Tim Burton adaptation of the DC Comics superhero. Batman inaugurated the trick of murking up the parameters of its fantasy world with sloppy attention-getters and filming busy, underlit sequences that imply action without allowing the audience the catharsis of following it.
As often as the sets and characters recall a comics-heyday ’40s Manhattan (which handily precludes the use of modern weaponry that could put a fast end to a superhero’s career),
Spider-Man also draws a tender, realistic portrait of gritty middle-class life in Queens. It includes both a villain whose realm is militaristic futurism and a lame Julia Roberts crack not nearly funny enough to warrant the shattering of the fantasy realm so expensively created elsewhere. Furthermore, in the effort to emphasize the puberty drama at the core of Peter Parker’s transformation into Spider-Man, the central conflict between the empowered high-schooler and his corporate-billionaire nemesis is rendered extremely odd. The film is consistent in its subtext—a vivid Oedipal drama—but the surface text lacks integrity, and frankly, it may be easy to interpret a film entirely as a parable, but it’s not much fun. So let’s try to spend our eight bucks in the realm of the conscious and give the mind games a rest.
Tobey Maguire is wonderful as Peter, a put-upon science nerd who’s regularly the victim of the bus-aisle trippers and lunch-stealers at his high school. Maguire registers his character’s feelings mostly in his cool blue eyes, retaining a small sense of amusement at his predicament no matter how fiercely Peter is being bullied, as if he knows that it’s the smart, quiet ones who will have their turn after the ferocious hierarchy of high school dissolves into irrelevancy. For Peter, of course, it won’t be college that transforms him into the man he was always going to become but the bite of a genetically pumped-up spider that chooses him, angel-like, as he’s taking photos of his comely neighbor and classmate, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).
The spider knows, and we know, that Peter deserves better—he deserves to get the girl and the grown-up body, and to express his basic goodness in a spectacular fashion. After all, he lives with his elderly aunt and uncle in an atmosphere of mutual kindness and slight emotional reserve, and he allows his handsome and gregarious best friend to make a move on M.J. even though he’s longed for her himself since they were toddlers.
Literally overnight, Peter’s new tricks kick in, and, like any teenager, he’s bursting at the seams to try them out, shooting web goo across the cafeteria and scaling walls for kicks. In a charming and silly sequence that recalls a much darker one in 2000’s X-Men, he signs up for an amateur wrestling contest so he can buy a fancy used car to impress his girl; he even puts together a ridiculous costume out of a sweat shirt and red sneakers and hotly tells the announcer to call him “the Human Spider.” But soon enough he takes his powers to a bigger audience. When his beloved uncle is killed in a street crime, the newly Lycra-clad Spider-Man starts swinging from skyscrapers and swatting down bad guys, to the consternation and delight of the local newspaper, not to mention the locals, whose varied reactions are recorded in a funny montage of man-on-the-street interviews.
Since I said I wouldn’t press on the subtext, the following isn’t easy to report without inflection, but here goes: Peter’s newfound powers are granted an opposite force, and not a minute too soon. It seems that the same day Peter is bitten, industrialist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) climbs into the genetic-enhancement contraption his company has built to create a race of supersoldiers. He emerges a violent, insane mutant who encases himself in green armor topped by a helmet with a distractingly immobile mask; the press dubs the do-badder the Green Goblin. Osborn, the father of Peter’s best friend, is a nice enough fellow in his Dr. Jekyll mode, except for the fact that he has a face full of prominent bones and a creepy manner—in other words, he’s Willem Dafoe—but as an adult scientist and already a father figure to young Peter, he’s also the dark side of masculinity personified…oh, I promised I wouldn’t. Still, it’s disconcerting to watch the mild-mannered Osborn show up at Peter’s humble house for a homey Thanksgiving dinner and then to see the teenager and the industrialist face off as equals with no acknowledgment of the vast gulf in age and social power between them. And when the Goblin figures out Spidey’s identity, he goes about planning to destroy the superhero via the boy’s secret-identity life and loves—which is a little queasy-making given that he’s just a kid and lives in a kid’s realm.
The action sequences are some of the worst-edited ever put on the screen. Raimi can build an atmosphere, and he has a light hand with dialogue and downtime that has kept his elaborate horror work from ever being pretentious. But the digitally crafted web-swinging is vertiginous without being exhilarating—the bristle of buildings leans inward, giving a claustrophobic chintziness to the space, and when Spider-Man, or the fakey computer-generated figure that stands in for him, lands on something, it’s a surprise but no achievement. A fight in the dark between Spidey and the Goblin is impossible to track—if good and loud, full of sickening, bloody cracks of connecting fists that is the film’s only concession to being badass.
To Raimi’s credit, he’s no badass himself; he indulges in nice grace notes such as giving Mary Jane a blue-and-red coat as she talks with Peter in her concrete back yard, and seems more comfortable shaping connections between the characters in their quiet moments than busting out with cartoony excess. Dunst and Maguire are adorable together; she brings freshness and bounce to her sweet-kid act even after retreading it a dozen times, and she has never looked prettier. When the film lingers in their scruffy neighborhood or offers a garish, funny, and fast-talking version of an old-fashioned hotshot newspaper editor at work, it’s a delight. But the confused action, jarring anachronisms, and unresolved subtext end up making Spider-Man half a really enjoyable film, and a totally overpriced one. CP