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Movie reviews

May 12, 2004, 4:40PM
Spider-Man

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MOVIE DETAILS
Spider-Man

MPAA Rating
PG-13
for stylized violence and action

Running Time
121 minutes

Released
May 03, 2002
(Nationwide)

Distributed By
Columbia Pictures

The first hour of Spider-Man confirms that Sam Raimi was the perfect choice to direct this $100 million movie incarnation of the Marvel Comics hero whose personal life is as tangled as his web.

Raimi made the terrific Darkman in 1990 a stylish, moody tale of unexpected depth that was everything the Batman movies should've been. Raimi conceived the Darkman story himself, but it captured the spirit of comic-book superheroes far better than any of the big-budget behemoths based on actual comics.

He brings the same energy and visual flare to Spider-Man, at least in the beginning. But just as comic-book heroes have alter egos, the movie makes its own identity switch halfway through.

It starts as a nimble, spirited tale that adroitly captures the flavor of Spider-Man comics, particularly during the early years when it was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko. The film even duplicates classic poses and the comic's sense of humor. But then it gets weighted down by the lugubrious trappings of big-budget fantasy movies.

For long stretches, it doesn't even feel like Spider-Man.

Like the first Superman and Batman movies, this is an origin tale. It tells how nerdy Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gets bitten by a genetically altered spider that endows him with spiderlike abilities. The movie escapes the perfunctory feel of those other origin stories, however, because it focuses on character.

The genius of Marvel Comics, and the quality that made Spider-Man such an enduring hero, is that Parker had the same sort of problems as his readers. He was shy and socially awkward, particularly around the girl he secretly loves, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). He also had other complicated relationships and an insufferable boss.

Superman was always Superman -- Clark Kent was just a ruse -- but Spider-Man could never be anything other than a masked Peter Parker with more abilities. His problems didn't go away. Some of them became more complicated.

The movie has all the web-swinging special effects and super battles that anybody would want, but the tale is anchored by Peter's transformation, which is emotional as well as physical. We watch as he develops a moral sense. He doesn't just become a superhero; he becomes a man.

The death of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), who raised him with Aunt May, and Peter's resulting sense of guilt influence this deeper transformation.

Simultaneous with this evolution is the development of the story's supervillain, the Green Goblin, which occurs when a desperate research scientist (Willem Dafoe) tries out his new "performance enhancer" on himself.

The Goblin's costume differs from that of the character in the comic books. He wears armor and a metal face mask that unfortunately calls to mind Darth Vader.

The battle between good and evil that goes on inside his head is objectified in one scene by the scientist conversing with the mask. It might remind viewers of Luke Skywalker's struggle to resist the dark side, but because it's Dafoe, who starred in The Last Temptation of Christ, it also feels like a camp version of Jesus' temptation scene from that film.

At another point -- perhaps the silliest moment in a movie that becomes progressively sillier as it goes on -- he has a conversation with his reflection in a mirror. As a representation of schizophrenia, it's even more laughable than Russell Crowe's noirish spy-movie fantasy and gun battle in A Beautiful Mind.

Maguire is a surprisingly effective Peter/Spider-Man. My first choice for the role would've been Ed Norton, partly because he resembles Ditko's conception of Peter. Within seconds, however, it becomes hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Without the magic of computer-generated images, this would be a different movie. Much of Spider-Man's web-swinging and acrobatics is done with digital animations -- cartoons, in other words. It's exhilarating to watch him soar and swing between skyscrapers, but too often the way he moves looks cartoonish, which is jarring because of the visual naturalism of the rest of the movie.

After an early period when Peter isn't sure what to do with his powers, he decides to become a force for good, foiling robberies, rescuing babies from burning buildings, and the like. But when the Green Goblin enters the picture, he has a foe that's clearly more than his match.

The Goblin rides on a weapon-equipped device that's like a cross between a magic carpet and a scooter. He also has an array of death-dealing grenades and other weapons.

Lapses in logic pile up as the movie goes on. One is the way the Goblin clearly should be able to squash Spidey like a bug but never does. Another is the way characters interact with Spider-Man and the Green Goblin when they're both in and out of costume and never recognize their voices or notice incongruities that would give away their identities.

And there is a gratuitous scene near the end that seeks to honor New York after the attacks of Sept. 11 but feels like pandering.

It shouldn't have been included, but there is much in the second half that should've been left on the cutting-room floor. It's disheartening to watch the life drain out of the movie with every passing second.

Grade: B



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