3 Stars
Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 120 minutes
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The colossal success of the movie X-Men meant that a wave of films based upon other properties of publisher Marvel Comics was inevitable. Now while the sequel Blade II is technically the first of this group to be released since, it’s the long-gestating “Spider-Man” for which the fans have truly been clamoring.
For those of you who either turn your nose up at pop culture or were actually popular in junior high, “Spider-Man” is the story of high-school misfit Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a smart kid who is one day bit by a radioactive (mutated, whatever) spider, only to wake up the next day with amazing superpowers. “Spider-Man”, the movie, also makes use of much of the comic’s supporting cast, such as the neighborhood girl Mary Jane Watson he secretly loves (Kirsten Dunst), Peter’s troubled rich-kid best friend, Harry (James Franco), Harry’s rich, crazy scientist dad, Peter’s boss at the Daily Bugle J.Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), and Ben and May Parker (Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris), the elderly relatives that raised Petey’s orphaned ass. For good measure, the filmmakers also cover in parallel the origin of Spider-Man’s best known nemesis, the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Now that we’ve got the basics covered, is the final product any good?
Um, well, er…, sort of. Don’t get me wrong. “Spider-Man” doesn’t suck. Then again, it’s not exactly the masterpiece it threatens to be. I guess I’d put it at around 80% of the way there. What happened?
With entries in this genre, artistic success boils down mainly to two things: The storytellers (director, writer(s), and star(s)) and an understanding of what, at the most basic level, the material is about. What went wrong?
Well, it’s definitely not the star. Already considered possibly the best actor of his generation, Maguire’s not only reveals his inner Spider-Man, through his eager, yet subtle performance, but obviously laid on the muscle to create his outer superhero as well.
It’s not really the director, either. Sam Raimi, the auteur behind the 5-star masterpiece “Evil Dead 2″ proves to be the right auteur with the right vision for this story. The action sequences particularly are as great as I could have possibly imagined.
No, the big problem here is mainly the script, and a lack of comprehension of what one (but not all) of the characters is about. When adapting a story from any media, you’ve got to take the time to understand what made the original special and try to build around that. The X-Men is about racism and racial identity, and how social interaction is defined when everyone within a defined group has super-powers. Not so coincidentally, Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman are all orphans. From there, their paths widely diverge. Raised by a kindly, all-American couple, Superman, the last of his race, uses his abilities to help mankind. Having witnessed his parents brutal, senseless murder at the age of 10, billionaire loner nut Batman dedicates his existence to perfecting his mind and body while ending crime and prevent his fate from befalling any other children. In the end, none of those goals can ever be attained.
Spider-Man is a bit more complicated. His story has always been about how superpowers, like money, won’t necessarily bring you happiness; just a lot more complication to your life than you’d ever expect. The harsh (and frankly, very realistic) lesson that young Peter Parker has to learn is that sometimes when you try to do good, when you stick your neck out for someone, you’ve got to be careful that someone else doesn’t try to chop it off.
Thankfully, Raimi, Maguire and the team of credited writers all seem to get everything I just said. Too bad they could never figure out the Green Goblin, because that’s the number one failure of the whole film. Why is it always the villains? “Batman Returns” was almost sunk because of director Tim Burton’s fetishistic re-imagining of the Penguin. For apparent budgetary reasons, the absolutely horrid 1977 live-action series starring the sleepwalking Nicholas Hammond abandoned costumed villains altogether (not to mention night-shoots, actual New York City locations, or talented actors). In the new movie, the problem is really too much of anything involving the Goblin. Dafoe is way too over-the-top crazy through nearly his entire performance, which is itself given way too much screen time. I don’t want to sound like one of those nitpicking fans, but when the character first appeared in print, he was just some lunatic that was eventually unmasked as someone near Peter Parker’s inner circle. Such an approach would have vastly improved this film, which bogs down the greatness of the unfolding Spider-Man origin by interspersing the leaden sequences of Dafoe chewing the scenery. In the end, though, what makes the Goblin tick isn’t really that important. Though significant to the Spider-canon, it’s not as if he’s the kind of twisted psychic doppelganger that the Joker is to Batman, or Doctor Doom is to the Fantastic Four. Spider-Man’s existence is not defined by the Green Goblin, though the big emerald psycho does kind of encapsulate all the crap the wall-crawler will have to face for the rest of his superhero career.
Again, don’t get me wrong, here. There are other problems. The film is weighed down with some howling-bad dialogue sounding as if lifted directly from a 1960’s comic book. The love story between Peter and Mary Jane seems to have lost something that would have emotionally defined some very specific turning points in their story. An awkward voice-over near the end attempts to establish such a point that should have been (but wasn’t) made clear earlier.
Overall, though, I still think this is an entertaining movie. No, it’s not as good as X-Men, but It is worlds better than any of the “Batman” films. For all its faults, “Spider-Man” is a good film, and you’ll probably have a good time watching it. I’m just annoyed because it was very close to being great. Oh well, there’s always the sequel.

Posted on May 3, 2002 in Reviews by

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