Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 1, 2004)
Finally Ė a comic book movie that got it right! One shouldnít interpret that statement to indicate that I donít like any superhero films. Superman and Superman II offer enjoyable experiences, and Iíve always absolutely adored both Batman and Batman Returns.
However, for all the pleasures of those flicks, I canít say I think they really capture the spirit of the comics. Theyíre good pieces of work, but they didnít quite reproduce the tone of the material that inspired them. Even as much as I liked the Tim Burton Batman films, they didnít really seem to ďgetĒ the character as much as Iíd like.
I finally found a comic book movie that matched its source with 2002ís Spider-Man. Though not a flawless piece of work, Spider-Man provides a tremendously entertaining flick that nicely matches the tone and attitude of the comic series.
Like a good first movie, Spider-Man starts at the characterís beginnings. We meet Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a nerdy and unpopular high school senior who gets picked on by his classmates. He maintains a friendship with rich kid Harry Osborn (James Franco), a behavior problem who transferred to public school after he got booted from a number of private settings. Peterís parents died when he was very young, so he resides with Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). Peter lives next door to Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the object of his affection since that family arrived about 12 years earlier, though Peter canít quite muster the nerve to declare his fondness for the bubbly MJ.
At the beginning of the flick, Peterís class goes on a field trip to a science lab. At this place, theyíre working on genetically altered spiders, and one of them bites Peter. When he gets home, he feels woozy and passes out for the night. After he awakes, he finds that quite a few changes have taken place. Scrawny Peter now looks decidedly buff, and he discovers that he possesses super strength and the ability to crawl on walls. Peter heads to school where he notices other powers like webs that shoot from his wrists and a ďspider senseĒ that alerts him to potential dangers.
After a heady day of discovery, Peter decides to capitalize on his abilities when he sees that MJ gets happy over her oafish boyfriend Flash Thompsonís (Joe Manganiello) new car. He signs up for a three-minute wrestling match with muscle-bound brute Bone Saw McGraw (Randy Savage) and uses his powers to knock out the lout. However, when Peter thinks heíll get the $3000 prize, the promoter (Larry Joshua) cheats him and gives him only $100 on the grounds that Peter didnít last the whole three minutes.
As revenge, Peter fails to stop a crook (Michael Papajohn) who steals the promoterís gate money. This backfires when Peter leaves to meet up with Uncle Ben, who gave him a ride to town; the crook carjacks Benís vehicle and shoots Peterís uncle in the process. Ben soon dies, and in his grief, Peter takes Benís earlier message to heart: with great power comes great responsibility. This means that Peter decides to use his abilities to stop criminals.
In the meantime, we see the problems that befall Harryís scientist/inventor/industrialist father Norman (Willem Dafoe). Contracted to deliver secret weapons for the military, he runs into problems because General Slocum (Stanley Anderson) opposes the Oscorp project and it displays problems. Norman takes chances with a ďsuper soldierĒ formula and quaffs a sample himself. This increases his physical abilities but drives him over the edge mentally. In a set of increased paranoia and psychosis, Norman unconsciously adopts an evil alter ego known as the Green Goblin.
The rest of the film follows the development of the hero and the villain. Peter also tries to get to know MJ better, something that becomes more difficult when she and Harry start to date. A lot of exposition and character growth occurs along the way, but the film largely revolves around the battles between Spidey and the Goblin as well as the burgeoning relationship between Peter and MJ.
As a teenage comic geek, Batman and Spider-Man always resided at the top of my list of favorites. Interestingly, they both share somewhat similar origin stories, as the two characters became crimefighters due to the violent death of those close to them. However, Batman seemed more motivated by revenge, whereas guilt prompted Peter Parkerís transformation. In any case, this lends a layer of depth to their personalities that lacks from many superheroes and helps make Spider-Man so memorable.
First let me get some complaints about the movie out of the way. My prime problem with Spider-Man relates to its computer effects. Frequent readers will know my disdain for those processes, and Spider-Man often includes some weak material. Actually, it displays fairly solid sets and non-animated pieces, but the human components look rather artificial. Computer animation usually fails to capture motion accurately, and the scenes of Spidey and the Goblin jumping and flying mostly come across as cartoony and fake.
I also donít like some of the changes to the original Spidey mythology. Despite my affection for the comics, I donít feel that the movie needed to show a slavish devotion to those elements. I understand that filmmakers will want to adapt various components to better fit into the cinematic framework, so as long as the alterations remain consistent with the character, theyíre fine with me.
Spider-Man makes two changes that I donít like. One seems minor. In the comics, Peter uses his scientific brilliance to develop his web-shooting abilities, while the movie Spidey gains these powers through his physical transformation. Some of the comic characterís drama comes from problems related to the web-shooters, which the movies will lose. Itís not a huge concern that the film alters this, but I donít care for it and I donít understand why they felt the need to do this.
The other difference that I disliked seems more major. It also may offer a spoiler, so if you want to skip it, move ahead two paragraphs. In both versions, the criminal who Peter lets escape after he robs the promoter is the same guy who kills Uncle Ben. However, in the comics, Peter allows the crook to pass due simply to his own arrogance. The promoter doesnít rip him off, so he fails to stop the dude just because he feels smug and superior.
In the movie, Peterís refusal to stop the criminal seems more justified. After the promoter screws Peter out of the money he earned, it makes sense that he wonít lift a finger to help the jerk. Audiences cheered when Peter tosses the promoterís sleaziness back in his face, something that wouldnít have occurred if the film kept the comic version of the tale intact. The presentation makes Peterís guilt seem less substantial. Sure, I understand that heíd feel very upset that the guy he let escape killed Uncle Ben, but this slaying appeared less related to Peterís arrogance; the movie made his inaction come across as much more acceptable.
Aside from these minor gripes about Spider-Man, I think it does virtually everything right. For one, the cast seems perfect. Maguire aptly takes on Peterís nerdiness and uncertainty and he also appears physically appropriate for Spidey. He brings the right level of tortured heroism to Spidey and makes it difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.
Dafoe also seems born to play Norman and the Goblin. He needs to deliver a lot of different emotional tones to the role, and Dafoe takes on a slightly comic book influenced tones but never becomes broad or campy. Instead, he captures the vivid nature of the role and makes him alternately warm and paternal or harsh and cruel. Dafoe looks little like the comic book Norman, but he totally gets the part and makes him very effective.
As the third main participant, Dunst offers an exceptional performance as MJ. The character suffers from a conflicted home life but pretends to be chipper and bubbly all the time, and Dunst perfectly adopts the appropriate tones. She perfectly demonstrates the way that MJ fakes her happiness for the crowd. She conveys the sadness in her heart even as she puts up the shell of pleasantness. Dunst brings a layer of emotional nuance to the part that one doesnít expect from this sort of movie, and she makes an underwritten role rich and compelling.
Spider-Man also benefits from excellent chemistry between the different participants. Dafoe and Franco really connect as father and son, and the combination of Maguire, Harris and Robertson creates a warm and convincing family unit in their limited time together. Best of all, Maguire and Dunst demonstrate tremendous energy in their shared scenes. The kiss in the rain between Spidey and MJ already has become legendary, and the pair show genuine life and spark in their other segments. I canít think of another screen comic book pair who interact as well as Maguire and Dunst; they take the movie to another level.
The suits at Columbia did their jobs when they hired Sam Raimi to direct Spider-Man. As the DVDís supplements repeatedly tell us, he grew up as a Spidey fan, and his love for the source material shines through via his affectionate and exciting approach to the project. Raimi doesnít treat the piece with excessive reverence, but he also avoids allowing it to become too glib or campy. The tone feels absolutely perfect to me, as the movie always conveys the right sense of comic book energy and flair.
Spider-Man also manages to convey a level of depth that makes the flick more substantial than one might expect. The characters never come across like cartoon figures. They always seem surprisingly real and three-dimensional, and the film never forgets Spider-Manís roots in tragedy. ďWith great power comes great responsibilityĒ remains at the heart of the flick, and even in Spideyís most high-flying moments, the theme of grief and pain stays within our consciousness.
Amazingly, Raimi delivers an ending that manages to seem heart breaking, heroic and exuberant all at once. Itís a finish that reminds us of Peterís angst but sends us out with cheers nonetheless. Raimi walks the high wire with astounding skill throughout the whole movie. Somehow he manages to deliver a flick with terrific action, rich characters and emotional depth that never sacrifices its comic book roots. He also creates a piece that satisfies old-time Spidey geeks like myself while it effortlessly brings in new fans as well. I canít count the number of times I smiled out of recognition simply due to the fact the picture appeared to nail the right character or setting tones. Spider-Man falls short of being a perfect comic book movie, but it comes awfully close.