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SPIDER-MAN: Senior Editor's Review

A True Believer from way back assesses the web-spinner's feature film debut

By Arnold T. Blumberg     May 11, 2002


The end of the road for the Green Goblin...or was it? AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #122.
© Marvel Characters Inc.
It was never going to get an "A" from me. I'm way too close to it. I have too much emotional investment in the character from my childhood to be completely won over by anything they could have put on screen, not with the compromises that would inevitably be a part of any production. At best, I would walk out believing the film did a very good job capturing the basic elements of the story, the intrinsic morality of the character, and the wild way-out action that epitomized the comics at their best. But an "A?" No movie could live up to all those expectations.

Tobey Maguire stars as the lead in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN

So when I walked out of the preview for SPIDER-MAN, having seen my number one hero finally presented bigger than life on the silver screen for the first time ever, I couldn't in all honesty say that it was an "A" picture. A "B+?" Perhaps. But if I was somehow less than completely satisfied by the experience, where did I find fault? Perhaps we should begin by looking at everything they got right.

Let's start with the biggest controversy to hit the production in its early days - the organic webbing. After seeing it played out in the film, I can't imagine it being any other way. It was so logical, so intrinsic to the process of Peter discovering what he has become, that it works perfectly. It even seems to further justify his quickly-learned skill of web-swinging through the city. Since the web is something he projects from himself, maybe that makes it easier to judge distance, trust its resilience while in motion, and swing without fear; the webs are merely a temporary extension of his own being. The movie even goes one step further by having Spidey whoop and holler while swinging - this guy is enjoying himself.

Willem Dafoe stars as the Green Goblin in SPIDER-MAN

Likewise, the controversial Goblin suit, which I too railed against originally, also makes sense here. Loathe am I to confirm for movie studios that when they "rethink" a comic for the "real world," they're always justified, but in this case, they did a damn good job. I can't imagine how they would have explained Osborn donning a latex mask and a set of purple shorts, but the military encounter suit designed with tribal battle gear in mind works beautifully, adds to Norman's deep-seated dementia, and even allows us to see his real eyes in several key scenes.

As for Norman himself, and Dafoe's suitably slimy portrayal of same, while the surrogate father/son relationship between Norman and Peter never quite existed in the comics as it does in the film, it also rings remarkably true to who these people are. It builds resonance into the struggle between the Spider and the Goblin, and it sets up the potential future enmity between friends Harry and Peter (as does Harry's loss of MJ to Pete) as well. Hmm...I'm actually surprising myself with how much I'm growing to appreciate this movie.

While Dafoe is everything a villain should be - at times livid with rage, lecherous, and even more than a little pathetic - Dunst does what she can with a relatively flat role. As the object of everyone's desire, she doesn't inhabit Mary Jane as much as she should, but fulfills the needs of the plot well enough. The real kudos, however, must go to Tobey Maguire, who makes himself so instantly warm and likeable in the role of Peter Parker that you can't imagine anyone else playing the part. He has perhaps the most expressive eyes of any actor in his generation, and he projects such pure emotion, whether it be love, anger, befuddlement or intense loneliness, that you can't help but empathize with him and share in his triumphs and tragedies.

Let's see, what else did I like? Well, with the recent disturbing trend in sanitizing films until even the dastardly villains are no longer allowed to kill, I was afraid this Green Goblin would not be the full-blown murderous lunatic he should be, a foe truly worthy of Spider-Man's contempt. But oh, what a bastard he is - vaporizing a half dozen people in one fell swoop, threatening children, dropping Gwen...I'm sorry, Mary Jane...off a bridge without a second thought. Now there's a super-villain. And what's even more refreshing, while Spider-Man's story has always been about a higher morality - his decision not to sink to the level of the criminal element, his concern about going too far and causing the death of those he fights - this Spidey also isn't afraid to beat the living crap out of those who deserve it. When he tracks down the burglar...carjacker...who killed Uncle Ben, his rage is written all over his face. He doesn't show an ounce of remorse, and I don't blame him one bit. And in the final showdown with the Goblin, neither combatant, hero or villain, (pardon me) pulls any punches. These guys tear each other to pieces, just as they should.

Kirsten Dunst stars as Mary Jane Watson in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN

While the fight scenes definitely showcase director Raimi's unique sense of movement (something EVIL DEAD fans knew a long time ago), I have to hand it to him for striking a solid balance between the frenetic pacing of the action sequences and the quieter tone of the character moments. At first, I felt the movie was paced a bit oddly, but that's only because it actually slows down often enough to let us get to know Peter and those around him when it counts. It's a brave blockbuster that knows when to stop and examine motivations and relationships, and those themes are at the core of this otherwise dynamic adventure movie.

What else felt right, or brought a nostalgic warmth to this old Spider-phile's heart? Seeing J. Jonah Jameson getting the old webbing in the mouth, and the same for the Goblin's webbed eyes; the cop who tries to arrest Spidey at the building fire but lets him go to save a child; the moment when Peter finds just the right hand configuration to shoot webbing; the whole 'Uncle Ben carjacker' sequence in the warehouse; the Ditko-esque "Man on the Street" reactions following Spidey's big city debut; the 'casual' Spider/Goblin conversation on the roof; the fight on the bridge; the final showdown. This list could be longer - there's just so much right about the movie. It makes it that much harder to pinpoint why I can't give it an "A."

So with all these things that were done well, what was wrong? Well, the music is a major disappointment. Danny Elfman long ago gave up on creating anything new and simply retreads the same percussive score again and again, and this time he failed to even provide Spider-Man with a coherent hummable theme (who can forget the BATMAN melody, for example), instead opting for a nondescript score that at least suited the operatic tone of the film if not elevating it to classic status.

The cover that dared readers to guess the tragic truth. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121.

This next point isn't necessarily something wrong with the film per se, but it did strike me as very odd. Why is there so much blessing and direct reference to God in this movie? Say what you want about the secularization of American culture, but if the norm is not to have every single character on screen offering thanks to the Lord or bestowing divine blessings on one another, then why does SPIDER-MAN give almost every single major character, and a few incidental ones, a moment (or two) to say "God bless you, Peter/Spider-Man" or "Thank God for you, Peter/Spider-Man" in no uncertain terms? It was so obvious and recurrent that it practically became uncomfortable, and no, I'm not talking about the Thanksgiving scene either.

Now that the Religious Right has me pegged as a heathen, let's deal with the real question here: In the end, was it true to the comic? Well, if you mean was the plot the same exact story, beat for beat, as AMAZING FANTASY #15 and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121-122 (which this script clearly cobbled together, among others), of course not. But did it capture the spirit of Spider-Man - his basic goodness, his sense of duty, and the aura of pathos that forever engulfs him? Then I'd have to say yes, absolutely. That was definitely Spider-Man on that silver screen. Not the one I grew up with, granted, but he shared the same heart.

Ultimately, my Spider-Man movie will never be made; the time is long since past. Perhaps that's a good thing - no Spider-Man film shot 10 or 15 years ago could have captured the sheer exhilaration of Spidey swinging through the canyons of Manhattan in quite the same way that Raimi's SPIDER-MAN does thanks to the miracle of CGI technology. And perhaps it really doesn't matter in the end. The children of today have their Spider-Man, as I had mine. All I know is that when this movie ended and the credits rolled, I felt I had met someone very much like the Peter Parker I remembered. Not the real one, no, but a distant cousin. And he made me smile and laugh and cheer. That's about as much as I could hope for.

This is my gift. This is my curse. Who am I? I'm a Spider-Man fan.

Seeya in the funny papers, bunky.

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