Review: “Spider-Man”

With any film based on pre-existing material you have two kinds of audience – long time fans of said material keen/afraid to see it up on screen, or those who’ve little to no knowledge and decided to check it out. I fall in the latter – I’m a true “Spider-Man” virgin, in fact I’m a comic book superhero virgin as I never read any really before seeing the film adaptation and even now I rarely check ’em out.

Throughout the years only a handful of adaptations have got it right. The first “Superman” movie was a truly epic adventure and established origin story quite well but it was poorly paced, had some bad casting choices (esp. Kidder) and Lex’s scheme came only in the second half (which was substantially weaker than the first) so the buildup to the climax was not very high. Its sequel had great knock down-drag out fights with the three supervillains, but the script was woeful and the romance subplot was poorly handled.

The first live action “Batman” will always remain a personal favourite as its the first big comic book movie I ever saw as a kid, even if it has flaws mostly related to Kim Basinger’s incessant screaming. The sequel was good but had its fair share of problems due to the Penguin, and the less said about the Schumacher era the better. “Blade” and its sequel were both good adaptations but the story wasn’t epic enough and the villains were average at best.

“X-Men” remains the best attempt to turn a comic into a contemporary-set pseudo-realistic tale but it still took itself too seriously along with some bad dialogue, lack of humour and a villain’s scheme that no doubt suffered from a relatively limited budget (another re-write and $10 million extra dollars would’ve made that movie radiate rather than simply sparkle). To this day though its the 1990’s “Batman” animated series and its “Mask of the Phantasm” spin-off movie that remains arguably the best adaptation of any comic, and now the live action arena has finally caught up.

“Spider-Man” is very good, Sam Raimi has gotten the exact mix right to create certainly one of the best superhero films ever made (a genre notable for being one of the toughest to yield a good movie). Its not as cinematic a story as “Superman” nor does it establish as distinctive a style as “Batman”, but it has more of a complete and well paced narrative driving it than the first films of that pair. They say the ‘origin’ story is always the most difficult to do and yet its those scenes, which make up the first 1/3 of the movie, that are the film’s strongest and never falter or disappoint.

All the hype and fuss over the project though make the film out to be grander than it is. None of the scenes or stunts in this will really “blow you away” and many elements will seem familiar, but the project has a warmth and humour lacking from recent movies combined with well planned out action and an excellent use of FX. Other superhero adaptations seem to be constantly struggling to make their antics as suited to reality as possible – that never happens here, Raimi knows exactly the tone to take with it and revels in the slightly off kilter feel (reality but slightly enhanced) rather than shy away from it.

A lot of people were surprised by the choice of Maguire for the role but I guess I was one of the few who was happy with it from early on – he was an unlikely choice sure but over the years the unlikeliest choices for roles in superhero films (Keaton, Jackman, etc.) have proven the best so I was hoping lightning would strike again and it sure has. Maguire is perfect in the role of Peter Parker – a geeky but kind-hearted young man, introspective, good looking in that unconventional way, and can convey a lot of emotion and intensity purely by facial expression.

Whilst he may have all the problems of a secret superhero identity lifestyle that we’ve seen played out many times before on screen, the fact that it is an unassuming young man from the suburbs rather than a clumsy reporter or somewhat cold millionaire playboy makes it more accessible whilst all the angst-ridden problems that come with it feel quite natural for someone in that late teens/early 20’s stage of life as many of us go through our own identity problems and difficulties at that time (though I’m not sure about the point of the subtext here of a young man having the odd uncontrolled release of a white sticky substance even if it is from his arms).

The film’s early “learning to use his powers” scenes are good tongue-in-cheek fun, visually impressive, unfold with a zippy natural pacing, and end on a personal (and powerful) tragic note to push into the usual ‘Good vs. Evil’ antics which dominate the rest of the movie. There’s some hilarious and adrenalin pumping sequences ranging from Parker’s first test of his powers with building leaps and web slinging, to a fight scene at school, to a simple thing such as the costume design illustrations montage. Whilst its never really explained how a high schooler can come up with such an eventually snazzy costume, there’s an interim bit with him in a tracksuit version for a wrestling match that’s charming and you’d never see without the likes of someone like Raimi at the helm.

The supporting cast is also quite enjoyable. Kirsten Dunst does a decent ‘Girl Next Door’ routine which certainly isn’t among her best work (ala “Bring it On”) but she and Tobey do share some memorable scenes together from an upside down kiss to the laboratory ‘photo posing’ scene which induce a giggle. James Franco is still channeling his James Dean routine in an average role as Harry Osborn which doesn’t do much in this first chapter – he’s a likeable friend character, that’s about it.

Stronger are Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson as Peter’s charming uncle and aunt who display a warm parentage many of us can only envy. J.K. Simmons chews the scenery as the cigar-chomping cynical prick editor of the Daily Bugle – J. Jonah Jameson. The character is a real over the top caricature which seems old-fashioned but it works extremely well and I really hope they give him more screen time in the next adventure. Also watch out for some enjoyable little cameos from Sam Raimi film staples like Bruce Campbell as a wrestling announcer, and Sam’s brother Ted as an assistant of Jameson.

The problem with the “Batman” film series is that so much screen time and presence was devoted to the villains that the hero always seemed to play second fiddle, whilst in “Superman” the villains were just never interesting or developed enough. Here the time ratio of the two is perfect – “Spider-Man” gets a little more (its the first one remember) but Dafoe gets plenty of screen time too. However, the villain is one of the film’s few weaknesses as the Goblin is a forgettable baddie – not great (ala Joker, Catwoman) but not bad (Penguin, Mr. Freeze) either.

There’s an attempt to create a sort of Jekyll and Hyde style storyline which works some of the time, and the scenes with Dafoe establishing himself as a pseudo-father figure to Peter are enjoyable for the tension and subtext. What fails is the weak dialogue of Dafoe’s Goblin persona combined with a lack of motivation. At first the Goblin is out to wipe out those that threaten to shut his corporation down – a reasonable motive but by the halfway mark it changes and just becomes an all round bad guy out only to cause mayhem. Had the character been more developed to show not only more of a reason for emerging but also a bigger struggle between the two competing personalities in Norman’s head, and had Dafoe better delivered his bad guy lines, the character would’ve clicked.

There’s been debate over the FX and certainly the CG is somewhat cartoonish at times, especially in some of the more severe “swinging” scenes yet because this is a comic book adaptation it feels perfect for the material and either way all the web swinging through the Manhattan skyline is not only breathtaking but strangely addictive that you’re hanging for the next sequence.

The action comes quite thick and fast, writer David Koepp is known for his big set pieces and here’s no exception as on top of the origin fun and an intense chase of a burglar in a stolen car, we get to see our good and bad guy duke out regularly ranging from a great one-on-one fight & destruction sequence in Times Square, a hell of a face-off on a bridge, and another one-on-one in a burning building. The dialogue between Spider-Man and the Goblin in these sequences is patchy but the spectacular visual action covers many of those holes.

In fact aside from the aforementioned weaknesses with the villain, what other little quibbles there are here pretty much tie back to Koepp’s solid yet indistinctive script. Some of the dialogue is weak yes but not as much as you may think and because of the project’s pulp style it feels suited. The origin story in the first third is so strong that the last 2/3 of the movie pale, albeit slightly in comparison. The resolution scenes at the end are also on the cheesy side with storylines left dangling so deliberately for a sequel that it results in both a frustrating and yet interesting ending. Danny Elfman’s score is a good but unremarkable effort, with the project lacking a central theme whilst the opening credits music sounds too “Batman” for its own good.

But a problematic script and a forgettable villain are about the only problems (and surprisingly only minor) one can find with this. Its an epic tale told on a very personal level and while its not particularly deep, it has that loveable feel of a comic book that so many other adaptations fail to grasp and certainly will be a highlight of the Summer season, if not the year in whole. It’s fantasy brought to life with a human touch, and pure escapist fun. You will not only believe a man can swing, but you’ll be keen to slip on the hi-tech latex to join him.