by DAVID KEYES
"With great power comes great responsibility."
- Uncle Ben
Something has always baffled me about the
notorious existence of the neighborhood hero Spider-Man,
and until I saw Sam Raimi's movie adaptation of the popular
comic book just this last week, I still wasn't quite sure
what that was. As an observer in the past to the web-slinger's
penchant to topple heroically off of high-rises and into
the murky streets below, moving swiftly to protect innocents
from foreboding shadows, I admittedly had as many high hopes
going in to the experience as I did unresolved questions.
The answer came to me shortly after the movie's hero made
his obligatory transformation, but by the time the second
act began to unfold, quibbles and speculations no longer
mattered, because what I was seeing was not simply popcorn
entertainment, but one of the most exhilarating (and silly)
screen adventures ever to be inspired by the pages of a
Now about that issue I have with Spider-Man himself: turns
out it's all in his mask. During the course of the movie
(and the comics themselves, for that matter), Peter Parker
is able to convey his speech clearly and meticulously through
a spider mask without any kind of outlet near his mouth.
Sometimes it almost feels as if he's simply speaking mentally
to others. Of course, common knowledge explains how this
is all possible (the mask is certainly not soundproof),
but the result looks too awkward and unconvincing to really
come across. The comic books never resolved that issue,
and Raimi doesn't see the need to do so, either.
But never mind about minor glitches; "Spider-Man"
is a solid and amusing package of bright visuals and energetic
storytelling, torn from the pages of the 30-year-old comic
book so neatly that you can almost taste the cartoonish
flavor. Behind every story of a super-hero, however, lies
a routine account of events leading up to twists, and this
movie is no exception. Tobey Maguire assumes the role of
Peter Parker, a naive but smart young lad who bases practically
every action around his obsession with the fetching young
Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), a girl with a bad home life whom
he has a crush on. His shy but sincere persona, however,
is also ammunition for his immature peers at school, who
don't hesitate in poking fun at his outcast-like presence
whenever they have the chance.
During a science field trip to study genetically altered
arachnids, however, Peter is bitten by an fugitive spider.
There's instant alarm, but nothing significant seems out
of the ordinary... until his physical appearance begins
to beef up, and his senses go from solid to superhuman.
Evolving even has he is able to mutter syllables, the confused
Parker boy makes further realization of his capabilities.
He can climb walls. He can spin webs. He can even leap from
one building to the next almost as if there's no gravity
holding him down. Of course, experience is need to master
such skills, and that's the movie's main thrust: for him
to come to terms with something out of the ordinary in true
coming-of-age fashion (and strangely enough, part of the
appeal of Peter Parker right from the beginning has been
that he always seems more human than most of his super-hero
counterparts, as if he's that optimistic kid we all know
who promises to never change no matter how successful he
turns out to be in life).
The initiative that our young hero is given comes in the
form of Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a powerful businessman
who volunteers, quite ignorantly, to be the guinea pig of
a performance enhancer his company has been working on.
The result, needless to say, isn't exactly successful; in
fact, it actually turns Osborn, incidentally the father
of Peter's best friend, into a stark-raving lunatic who
assumes the alter ego of Green Goblin, a menacing figure
who terrorizes the good-natured public of New York without
mercy. Parker's transformation and his eventual dedication
to protect innocent people (which stems from the abrupt
and tragic death of his uncle) instantly makes him the Goblin's
Dafoe has seldom been recognized for his strong screen
talents in the past (only recently with "Shadow of
the Vampire" did that change), and in "Spider-Man"
his presence is wickedly appealing, complex and genius,
almost far beyond the reaches of the original comic book
stories his character appeared in. Maguire, meanwhile, is
a surprisingly appropriate cast as the main focus of the
movie; his filtered energy and boyish charm are ideal traits
for a person like this to carry, and his presence is even
more charismatic than it has been in the past ("The
Cider House Rules," anyone?). Of the major players
of the film, only Dunst's performance as Mary Jane is the
letdown; she comes off as too distant and unfocused to truly
feel like a damsel in distress, and though there are times
when she and Maguire's chemistry can be very engaging, it's
all far in between.
The movie's visual approach could easily service a review
by itself, but that's not a necessity; in the grand scheme
of things, Raimi's crew of artists have replicated the world
of the Marvel comic so meticulously, it's possible that
die-hard fans of the series could identify what scenes were
inspired from what frames in the books. Don't assume, however,
that what you're seeing is supposed to look genuine; the
images are styled with a flair that is as flashy as it is
obvious. But the concept's silliness doesn't undermine the
illusion at all, if you know what I mean; the perception
of Spider-Man in any reality has always been cartoonish,
and this movie maintains that feel because it works.
This may not be the kind of movie that will reinvigorate
a formulaic genre (heck, the formula still works), but it
does follow nicely in the footsteps of "X-Men,"
the last major film to be adapted from a Marvel Comic. That
picture, of course, is greater in scope and conviction,
but it also required more foreknowledge than perhaps moviegoers
were willing to take in with them. Given that scenario,
"Spider-Man" embodies the true and unmatched spirit
of its source-material: light-weight but engrossing entertainment
that never tries to overstate its position or authenticity.