Spider-Man (2002)

D: Sam Raimi
S: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst

I am a lot older now than I was when I first read Spider-man, and older than I was when Nicholas Hammond donned the tights and crawled the walls in TV movie distributed theatrically in Ireland in the 1970s: but there were moments during Sam Raimi's adaptation of the popular comic books when I wanted to have super-powers. Not since Superman The Movie has a comic book movie so vividly evoked the visceral thrills of superhuman strengths. Aided by a digital toolbox without which the film would have been impossible, Raimi has brought the web-slinger to life as a leaping, swooping, wall-crawling, building-bounding figure which truly brings the comic book to life. What could only be suggested in print is fluid and mobile on the big screen, even if it is computer-generated, and once again and for the first time in many years I found myself transported to another place ­ familiar but different, recognisable but fantastical. If only the feeling had held out all the way to the end.

Spider-Man is two-thirds a terrific movie. It is not Bergman, or Shakespeare, or even Donner or Singer, but as popcorn-munching summer fare goes, the film has the guts of a solid little script and some tremendous action set pieces which generate genuine excitement. With years of comic book storylines to set precedent, it is very solid in the first third especially; when establishing the origins of high schooler Peter Parker's super-powers and setting up his character's quirky, almost self-parodic attitude to life. Peter (Tobey Maguire) is the shy but bright class weakling who watches beautiful Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) from afar and dreams of being more than just 'that guy' (didn't we all?). Teenage angst, adolescent physical maturation, and fantasy come together beautifully when, following a bite from a genetically enhanced "super-spider", Peter begins to go through some changes.

The film is at its best and most witty during the high school scenes, especially as Peter finds his new powers growing out of control. He quite literally has to deal with involuntary emissions from the most unexpected of places, but his improved reflexes and ability to climb walls open up all kinds of new possibilities. Events reach a crescendo of self-referential hilarity when he opts to compete in an all-in wrestling competition in a home-made "human spider" costume, an image of infantile awkwardness which sits uncomfortably with Peter's capabilities. "With great power comes great responsibility," warns warm and well-meaning Uncle Cliff Robertson, as stern a warning for teenage boys as teenage superheroes, it would seem.

In the way of comic books and comic book movies, the villain is also given his 'origin' story here. Willem DaFoe is entirely convincing as Norman Osborne, industrialist and scientist whose experiments with genetic enhancement on humans go horribly wrong, transforming him into The Green Goblin (a title given to him by the Daily Bugle's hilariously played editor J. Jonah Jameson). Adding complication to the relationship between hero and villain is the fact that Osborne's son is a classmate of Peter and Mary Jane's and a love triangle develops which makes the drama which transpires even more personal. This aspect of the dramatic story works surprisingly well, bringing unexpected depth to the emotions portrayed. The actors also benefit enormously from this, as they are not forced to mouth one-dimensional aphorisms all the time and get to generate genuine human drama in some scenes. Dunst and Maguire work particularly well together: one finds oneself urging Peter to take a chance and speak his mind more than once, and the editing brings an almost spontaneous sense of human interaction to some of the scenes of romantic near-misses throughout.

The film begins to go in a curious direction when The Green Goblin's campaign of terror seems to reach a very early climax with an attack on Osborne's corporate enemies in which Spider-Man gets to show his skills to the world on an epic scale. The rest of the film sees the villain trying to convince the hero to join him in his quest for... what, I wonder? This quickly becomes repetitious, and though there are good scenes in between, the action highlights seem to have nowhere to go anymore, and there is no build up to the decidedly anticlimactic climax (which also features an obligatory, and rather embarrassing post 9-11 scene which even American audiences didn't like). There is some thematic rumination in here about father-figures and the nature of social responsibility, but where is the spectacle that we expect from a movie of this nature? The film's best scene of villainy is a dynamically shot, edited, and acted mirror scene in which Osborne is tormented by his alter-ego while DaFoe gets to switch facial expression and body language with almost every edit. Jekyll and Hyde it is, to be sure, but where is the big finish among the tall buildings that we might expect in a film involving a hero who swings between skyscrapers and a villain mounted on a hover-bike. Ah! Of course: the shadow of the real has fallen hard upon the landscape of the imagination. It is well known that one early pre-release trailer for this film was withdrawn after 9-11, and the uncertainty of how to handle the New York skyline has definitely had an effect on the final film on more than one level.

The film does recover enough to pull off an emotionally resonant coda in which Peter is forced to balance his social and personal issues with unexpectedly adult results. The film's final beat manages to bring through some of the more interesting thematic threads and resolve character issues in a way which sets up any number of sequels without being clumsy about it. Another 9-11 moment closes the picture, but this one is less intrusive given that it involves Spidey (finally) swinging his way to the top of the tallest New York buildings as he is wont to do.

Spider-Man is terrific entertainment when it is at its best. The computer generated effects are not used to conjure up massive explosions or earth-shattering pyrotechnics, but, as noted, they give speed and form to the central character's movements in a way which really energies the visuals. The film has a dynamic rhythm which directly matches the fluidity of its central character's movements. The decision to use full facial masks on the characters was obviously in part determined by co-creator Stan Lee's original designs, but also contributes to the sense that the characters are larger-than-life in spite of some attempt at psychological and emotional realism. Maguire and DaFoe are forced to do more with their voice and body language than is usual in the genre when they are in their superhero/villain costumes, making them at times again yet more akin to original drawings come to life than real-live actors playing roles. There is almost a noh-like fascination with masks which runs through DaFoe's character which the actor feeds off of very well, and Maguire meanwhile seems to have been the perfect choice for Peter Parker, blending wide-eyed awkward charm with a sense of inner strength which allows the character to work.

In contrast to the comparatively serious X-Men, Spider-Man is avowedly light in tone. Though capable of throwing up the brooding themes of a Batman, Spider-Man has always tended to work best with a dash of humour, and Raimi has been faithful to that approach. A deft series of scenes which provide Peter with his motivation to become a crime fighter establishes some of the same vigilante and watchdog dynamics as Batman and Superman (and their movie equivalents), but the script gives them enough twist to keep us in the Marvel rather than the DC Universe. Fans should not be disappointed in this regard.

Summer movies are inevitably not to all tastes though, so Spider-Man is a qualified recommendation. It has lots going for it, and the movie cries out to be liked in a way that some will warm to and others will not. Raimi has had a go at this genre before, in Darkman, and after some rather more serious properties (A Simple Plan, For the Love of the Game) it is fun to see something of his early career exuberance come out in the digital paintbox world in which this film has been made (we are a long way from nailing the camera to a two by four these days). The film definitely loses its grip about two thirds of the way in, and never really rallies, but there is enough here to provide summer entertainment which should not prove too embarrassing in twenty years, unlike Spidey's first, and then only limited, theatrical appearance. Hell, I was there then and I enjoyed it, so why should the kids of today be any different? Enjoy. Why not?

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.