Friday, May 17, 2002
They've done it. They've finally made a really good comic book movie.
To recap the Spiderman story for those who have managed to escape it: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), mild-mannered college student, science whiz and amateur photographer, is bitten one day by a radioactive spider, which imparts to him some of its particular spider abilities: - extraordinary strength, the ability to climb sheer surfaces, and a tingling "spider sense" that alerts him to imminent danger. Upon discovering his superpowers, Peter does what any red-blooded young American man would do. He sets out to become a superhero, designing a flashy uniform and clever gizmos to help him fight crime.
Improves on the legend
The film actually improves on the legend somewhat. The spider which bites Peter is a genetically modified species, not radioactive, and the mingling of the spider's DNA with his own is what gives Peter his amazing powers. (If nothing else, forty years of scientific research has given us much niftier paradigms for our science fiction.) Almost all of Peter's special abilities the scaling of walls, the mysterious spider sense are given vaguely plausible explanations which are neatly demonstrated on screen. His ability to shoot webs from his wrists has been made biological, rather than technological, setting the stage for a very funny scene in which Peter tries to figure out how to shoot the webs on command.
Upon discovering his new skills, Peter again does what any red-blooded young American man would do. He tries to make some money, of course. In a plot device borrowed from the original comic book, Peter signs up for an amateur wrestling match that promises thousands of dollars for a few minutes in the ring. But he is soon disillusioned about making himself rich, while at the same time being taught a cold lesson about crime and punishment. It sounds corny, but it works. David Koepp (who also wrote the disappointing Panic Room earlier this summer) deserves considerable credit for pulling this trick off. I cannot remember another movie that shows such a plausible transition from ordinary Joe to superhero, acknowledging the obvious materialistic impulses that would likely result from superpowers. Spiderman accomplishes this in a way that advances the plot without slowing the movie down.
The acting is mostly passable. Willem Dafoe turns in a fine, if flashy, performance as Norman Osborne, who becomes Spidey's nemesis, the Green Goblin, and J.K. Simmons has the most hilarious role in the movie as J. Jonah Jameson, the cigar-chomping, Spidey-hating tabloid newspaper editor. But most of all, I was pleasantly surprised by Tobey Maguire. In many of his previous roles he's barely seemed adequate as an actor. He's a natural for the slight Peter Parker, but it wasn't clear whether he could pull off the buff, wisecracking Spiderman. He has risen admirably to the challenge. A stiff workout regimen has paid off, and Maguire exhibits just the right blend of self-confidence and timidity to be believable both as the superhero and his alter ego.
Special effects pays off
But never mind all that. Everyone's really going to the movie for the special effects, right? The movie pays off here, too. Spiderman is deeply immersed in CGI, of course, but with every new blockbuster the computer imagery gets more and more lifelike. Several shots had me wondering which parts were real and which were animated. The close observer will still be able to tell most of the time, but it's getting more difficult every day. Moreover, Sam Raimi actually directs most of his action scenes so you can tell, more or less, what's happening. It's a nice change of pace from the Armageddon-inspired visual chaos that is so typical of recent action movies.
The movie drags a bit in a few scenes, especially toward the end, but the rest of the movie is too well-paced and just generally well done for this to be more than a minor flaw. By the end of the film you're not overwhelmed, you're exhilarated, and even ready for more.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito