By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris and JK Simmons
Back in the summer of 2002, the world needed a hero. September of the year before saw America’s soil the target of the biggest terrorist inflicted disaster in history, and while I don’t want to call it desperation, there was a need for someone in emblem baring tights to help us feel good again. The rise of a hero was something that, no matter how it was portrayed, would help us turn away from and make the problems that were quickly arising around us go away. At least for a couple hours. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Spider-Man. A film that presents its hero in the exact way that was needed, but unfortunately faltered when it came to everything that had to do with the villain of the story. Nonetheless, Spider-Man is filled with enough humor, action packed thrills, and web slinging fun to make for an overall entertaining entry in the ever growing slew of super hero films.
The film is not without its controversies, however. When glancing at his resume, Sam Raimi would not seem to be the perfect choice to be Spider-Man’s director. After all, this is the same guy who did schlocky (but nonetheless entertaining) horror films like Evil Dead and Crimewave. His decision to cast Maguire, much like Tim Burton’s decision to cast Michael Keaton 13 years before for Batman, was met with skepticism from the studio and derision from fans. How could a guy who has been in movies like Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys fulfill the dream screen portrayal of their favorite neighborhood Spider-Man that was concocted by every boy who read the comic growing up (me included)? And, in a fit of irony, the biggest controversy wasn’t provided by anyone on the current production, but by none other than James Cameron. While the movie was going through an over decade long development hell, Cameron had come up with the idea of having Spidey’s web slingers not be home made, like the comics. He thought of them being organic, as in coming from the body. So, like any first in a series of comic book movies, this film had some hurdles to jump. Some doubters to please. And, a franchise to start. However, what about that other hurdle that seemed to be knocked over before the race even started: the one of a good villain?
Now, I will be the first to say that Dafoe is a great actor. You put him in the right role (Boondock Saints, Clear and Present Danger) and he can give you almost the perfect feeling of both unease and weirdness that a film like this needs. The problem is that in Spider-Man, he suffers from the same thing that Nicholson did in The Shining. He is here to portray Norman Osborn, a character that is slowly going nuts. Yet, he seems nuts from the moment he appears onscreen. This is a big problem in Spider-Man, and it doesn’t help that once he does finally become Green Goblin, he is flying around in perhaps the worst mask to ever be worn by a comic book villain onscreen. The eyes show periodically, and the much talked about non expression qualities of the mask make it almost impossible to have an inkling of what he is thinking or feeling. People can use the, ‘that’s the mystery of him going crazy’ line all they want. The truth is that this mask, and character of Green Goblin period, overall really brings the quality of Spider-Man down more than a few notches.
As for the overall performances, I really enjoyed how Mary Jane Watson (Dunst) and Peter Parker (Maguire) played off each other. The two have an excellent chemistry, and it was a joy seeing them bounce this said chemistry off one another in scenes like when Parker is taking pictures of her during a tour and the scene of them talking that takes place outside their houses. And, of course, who could forget about the famous upside down kiss in the rain? Dunst, who after gaining great press (and rightly so) for her performance in Interview with the Vampire, lingered around in weird comedies like Dick and Bring It On until this film came along. And, while I have never been overly put off by her, she, more often times or not, comes off as a combination of shrill and annoying to me (though, she also had a highlight or two, as next to Interview, my other favorite performance of hers was in the criminally underrated Sofia Coppolla film Virgin Suicides from a few years earlier). I did like her here, as she brings the exact kind of characterization that Mary Jane had to fruition, and I liked seeing her portray her character going through struggles like wanting to put a happy upfront that she was now, after high school, a working actress when instead, she was suffering as a waitress not even close to her dream. Of course, our top billed neighborhood title character wasn’t too shabby either. It was great fun seeing Maguire here, and his scenes with Uncle Ben (Robertson) are some of the most famous in the history of comic books. He comes off very well in these scenes, and the struggle he has to honor his uncle’s death comes out in spades. It was a comic book character struggling with inner issues. But, like the film itself, Maguire does a nice job of not lingering on these issues too long.
Spider-Man, overall, is a fun comic book film. One thing it has over Batman’s director Tim Burton, is that Raimi was a massive reader of the comic books growing up, and he wanted to honor them the best way he could. In fact, if you look closely, you could see quite a few parallels with that first Batman film. You had frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman doing the score (supplying a more than serviceable main theme), you had a parade accompanied by hot at the time pop songs (anyone even remember Macy Gray?). However, the biggest similarity is that both films were made by directors who match the style of film they were trying to make. Burton and brooding go hand in hand. And the swooping, off the cuff style that goes with how Spider-Man looks while swinging through the city (a ballet in the sky, if you will) is perfect for Spider-Man. Sure, there are certainly times when Raimi’s old stylistic sensibilities come out (get a load of the scene when Aunt May is taken. It looks straight out of one of his 80s horror films). And a scene of an explosion dissolving into graduation hats being thrown in the air is right in his line of directing style as well. But, it unfortunately falters under the pressure of a badly designed and written villain, which is pivotal when doing a super hero film. However, thinking about when Elfman’s theme kicks in at the end of the film, and Spider-Man is swinging through New York, landing right on an American flag and looking at us. Maybe that moment is what this film is really about. A hero fighting for us. Then again, who needed yet another dangerous villain at that point anyway?
3.5 out of 5