This is the troubled tale of a regular, geeky kid who’s into science and photography and lives with his aunt and uncle in a modest home. He gets regularly harassed by nasty no-neck jocks and has a crush on a girl that he’d never, ever muster up the guts to ask out — that is, until he just happens to get bitten by a radioactive hybrid super-spider on a high-school field trip.
As if adolescence weren’t enough, Peter Parker transforms into one of America’s most beloved and versatile superheroes, Spider-man, that sticky-fingered, web-wielding red-and-blue guy who weaves between buildings and crawls out of dark crevices with snappy crime-slapping dialogue, at least in the comic books.
Tobey Maguire makes a great Peter Parker, with his mixture of nerd-next-door looks on top of a crazy undercurrent of super-mystery. As Parker’s love interest Mary Jane, Kirsten Dunst rocks, adapting from high-school sweetheart to super-villain-victim like an acting chameleon. And swinging psychically from scientist Norman Osborn to “the powers of good” nemesis the Green Goblin is a piece of cake for Willem Dafoe.
But even with a great cast, director Sam Raimi’s Spider-man is only adequate. It covers the genesis of the superhero and gives you all the pieces necessary to follow and conclude the Green Goblin uproar, but is that enough? Anything goes with superheroes, but you’d never know it from the lackluster script and looks of this film. It starts out well enough, with shots that vary from a spider’s point of view to playing within the space of a room, but far too much of the screen is filled with stilted, claustrophobic camera work favoring straightforward upper torsos in unestablished environments.
And aside from the scenes with J. Jonah Jameson (exquisitely portrayed by J.K. Simmons) where you get that classic, over-the-top mix of comic-book high drama and quick quips, Spider-man suffers from a much too serious “I’m a human being too” chip on its shoulder. Maybe Raimi isn’t in the right creative mental space to deal with the comic-book character dynamic. Lately, he’s focused on solemn subject matter with films such as The Gift and A Simple Plan, both very different from his initial goofy-toned films, but well-done nonetheless. Perhaps his recent grim movies have weighed down the humor inherent in the Spider-man character, a humor that helps to merge the two contrasting identities. Raimi’s recent concentration on psychological, realistic films may be the reason he chose to relinquish so much screen time to Parker’s home life — let’s face it, this is his less interesting side.
If you happen to blink at the wrong times, you might miss Parker’s genetic transmogrification — or the Green Goblin’s. Some action scenes are so quick you barely register them before being flung back into the Parker home for some more weeping. Science takes a back seat to family drama and, although you may not understand what Osborn’s “human enhancement” experiments are really trying to accomplish, you’ll sure have plenty of time watching Cliff Robertson (as Uncle Ben) trying to connect with his troubled teenage nephew.
Maybe having such a big budget and being able to afford so many computer effects (which aren’t so hot anyway) crippled the creativity of the film. Raimi should look back to his own directing past when he was making movies for next to nothing. In his Evil Dead 2 and Darkman days, the camera eye was like a carnival ride and Curly Howard’s sense of humor seemed to possess every angle. Raimi could have used some of that low-budget creativity when shooting scenes like the Goblin trying to convert Spidey to the dark side: Both Maguire and Dafoe are in masks that completely cover their faces (except for Dafoe’s eyes) and are shot from the chest up without any movement compensation from the camera or the actors’ bodies.
If you’re a fan, you’ll go see Spider-man despite what any reviewer says, as well you should. But just remember to hold onto the film you have in your imagination instead of replacing it with a vision that’s nowhere near as daring as the Amazing hero it’s attempting to capture.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].