Why the Spider-Man Movie was Nifty-Keen

I've been a Spider-Man fan since I was a little kid.

Of course, I've also been a fan of the New York Yankees, Star Trek, and Jethro Tull since I was a little kid. But Spider-Man's different. He's special.

I first came across the web-head on The Electric Company, and loved the character back then. My parents got me a subscription to Spidey Super Stories--the kids' comic that tied in to the TV show version of the character--which were my first-ever comics. In the mid-1990s, my first short story sale and my first novel sale were both Spider-Man stories. Spider-Man is, without a doubt, my favorite super hero.

So it was with a due sense of anticipation and dread that I went to see the new Spider-Man motion picture. Going for it was some fantastic advance buzz, the presence of director Sam Raimi (the man who has given us Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena, Darkman, Evil Dead, etc., not to mention A Simple Plan and For the Love of the Game, and a man who is known for his affection for comic book material). Going against it…

Oy.

For every successful translation of comic books to film (whether it be financial successes like Superman or brilliantly executed undeserved flops like Mystery Men) there are dozens of failures. Even with the recent renaissance in comic book films (Blade, X-Men, Ghost World), Batman and Robin wasn't all that long ago to remind of us of what happens when comic book films go bad.

On top of that, Spider-Man is difficult to pull off visually. The very qualities that make his the world's most convincing super hero disguise (it covers his entire body, thus masking all descriptors, and muffles his voice, not to mention his peculiar body language makes height determinations difficult) also makes it unattractive to the filmic process, since you, in essence, lose your actor in the costume.

Still, there was hope. The Matrix--by far the most overrated film of the last twenty years--proved, if nothing else, that special effects technology had reached the point where Spider-Man's acrobatics could be convincingly portrayed in live action.

So, with all that rummaging through my head, and knowing that I would be hypercritical of the thing, I went to see Spider-Man.

I absolutely, positively, without reservation, loved it.

The biggest reason why some comic book movies fail is an inability of the creators of the film to understand what makes the character(s) tick--or an unwillingness to understand it, preferring to insert their own vision onto it. Raimi, bless his heart, does not do either of these things.

The only changes to the mythos that were made were sensible ones. In 1962, radiation was magic. Nobody knew much about it, so using it as the catalyst for super powers made perfect sense. In 2002, we know that being bitten by a radioactive spider is most likely to result in an early grave--but genetic engineering is our new magic that nobody knows much about, so using it as the catalyst for super powers makes pluperfect sense. So now Peter is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider. (I'm sure forty years from now, it'll look just as silly as radioactive spiders proferring powers on teenagers looks now, but such is the march of science…) And having the webbing be part of his powers as opposed to something science wiz Peter Parker invented also was the right choice because, bluntly, Peter should never have had money troubles if he could invent webbing like that--he could just sell the patent and live a happy, wealthy life.

Just as X-Men two years ago distilled the essence of the X-Men to make a good two-hour story, so too does Spider-Man capture what has kept Spider-Man an icon for forty years. Peter Parker is a tragic hero. He isn't a hero because his Mom and Dad raised him right, he isn't a hero out of a desire for vengeance, he's a hero because he did something colossally stupid and his surrogate father (Uncle Ben, played quite well by Cliff Robertson) paid for it with his life.

"With great power comes great responsibility" has always been Spider-Man's motto, and that infuses this movie. Norman Osborn's story parallels that of Peter, and shows him taking the same road, but with important differences. Peter got his powers by accident, and must rise to the occasion. Norman deliberately gave himself the powers that made him into the Green Goblin for selfish purposes, and then used them to get more power and relieve himself of responsibility.

Raimi struck a perfect balance here. He never lost sight of the fact that he was making a summer blockbuster, and so Spider-Man is full of glorious action scenes, things blowing up real good, suspense, thrills, chills, and excitement. But he also never lost sight of the fact that he was making a movie about Spider-Man, and Spider-Man has always been about the characters. For Superman and Batman, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne are the true disguises; the super heroes are what they are, the "secret identities" who they pretend to be for the general public. But Peter Parker is the real person, with Spider-Man simply being a persona he adopts periodically. The arc of Peter's burgeoning romance with Mary Jane Watson is played out beautifully, Peter's relationship with his aunt and uncle, and later aunt by herself, is charming and believable, Peter's friendship with Harry Osborn and the strain of his dating the girl Peter loves shines through without being overplayed. Little touches abound, from everyone referring to Aunt May as "Aunt May" (even Norman) to the actual goofy hero names of "Spider-Man" and "Green Goblin" coming from, respectively, a wrestling announcer and the Daily Bugle.

So many things make this movie work. The teenagers are instantly recognizable as adolescents moving from high school into the "adult" arena, whether it's Harry trying to make it on his own without depending on Daddy's money, yet finding it necessary to do just that, or MJ struggling with being a waitress and a failed actress after being the most popular girl in high school. The parallel plots of the Goblin and Spider-Man play out nicely without beating the viewer over the head with the similarities and differences. The mix of CGI and stunt work is not always perfect, but the CGI is generally brief enough that you don't have the same disconnect from reality that you get, say, in the Gungan/Battle Droid fights in The Phantom Menace.

The casting is spot-on. Kirsten Dunst is the same MJ we know from the comics: the life of the party, but covering up a wealth of insecurity and family troubles. Willem Dafoe brilliantly captures Norman's psychosis; a scene where his two personas converse on either side of a mirror could have been played for laughs (intentionally or not), but Dafoe makes it vivid and spooky. All the supporting roles are solid--there's not a bad performance in the bunch, and several are outstanding. Most spectacular of all is J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, a character I would have thought impossible to portray properly in live-action format. Instead Simmons--best known as a neo-Nazi on HBO's prison drama Oz and as a psychiatrist on the various Law & Order TV shows--inhabits the yellow journalist with a heart of stone that is JJJ. It's all there in a remarkably brief role: his cigar chomping, his cheapness, his nose for sensationalist news, his greed--and, beneath all that, his integrity, as he refuses to give up the name of his photographer to the Goblin, even at the risk of his own life. They even kept Jonah's bad haircut and Hitler moustache. Even if the rest of the movie was lousy, it would've been worth it for Simmons.

As for Tobey Maguire, he gives us all of Peter Parker's complex characteristics in his performance: geeky adolescent, smartass, hero, boy in love. Best of all, he magnificently gives us the sheer giddiness that accompanies the realization that you've got super powers--only later tempered by the sense of responsibility that turns him into a hero.

One of the absolute high points of the movie is the way Raimi turns action movie clichés on their ear in the movie's pivotal scene. As in the comic books, Peter gets paid for his wrestling demo. He gets paid less than he'd hoped, and complains, to which the manager says that he doesn't see how that's his problem. A few minutes later, the receipts are stolen, with the thief running right by a dejected Peter. Given the opportunity to stop him, Peter lets him go. When the manager complains that he could've done something, Peter throws the exact line about it not being his problem right back in his face.

In any other movie, that would be a grand moment. The audience cheers and we get to see just how cool our hero is. And about half the theatre--obviously ones not intimately familiar with Spider-Man's backstory--did cheer.

Minutes later, Peter finds his Uncle Ben, scheduled to pick him up, lying dead on the street, victim of a carjacking. Getting back into costume, Peter joins in the chase and tracks down the murderer--only to find that it's the same guy he let go. If he had been responsible, if he had done the right thing, Ben Parker would still be alive.

That's what makes Spider-Man Spider-Man. Without it, the whole story falls apart. With it, we get the heart and soul of an excellent movie.

[First published in the May 2002 issue of SFRevu.]

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