Monday, July 17, 2017

Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002)

As the web turns 

Sam Raimi's latest superhero production is possibly the perfection of a genre comic-book writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko first developed when he created The Fantastic Four in 1961: the superhero soap. With this title the idea was refined--the hero hadn’t been extraordinary since birth ;wasn’t highly trained or educated (unlike Reed or Bruce Banner); wasn’t even a member of a team or group. Simply a geek bitten by an irradiated spider plain Peter Parker--a science whiz true but still too dumb to keep his hand out of the display case (okay the spider escaped from his cage but the point still stands).

That was Parker's unique appeal--that he could be anyone that he was anyone only with serious pest-control issues. And part of the genius of the concept is that super-powers don't make Peter's life any easier; if anything they make his life more complicated in some ways worse.

(A side note: saying "Stan Lee invented the superhero soap" is grossly inexact. Lee as The New Orleans Times-Picayune critic Phil Nugent puts it provided the basic idea, which the artist--often Jack Kirby--would plot out and draw, after which Lee would fill in the dialogue balloons and captions. Lee did help create many of the characters he claimed he created but the artists (again often Jack Kirby though fellow artist Steve Ditko did this and one other important Lee character Dr. Strange) were at least major collaborators, a fact Lee doesn't mention as often as he should. Across many a front cover or first page would stretch a banner announcing "STAN LEE'S THE AMAZING" or "STAN LEE'S THE INCREDIBLE" the artist's name either relegated to the tiny print below or nowhere in sight. In at least one case Lee's claims were out-and-out false--he had only helped revive Captain America, a character Kirby created in World War 2 with editor Joe Simon. Kirby incidentally spent the last ten years of his life trying to reclaim the rights to the thousands of pages of artwork he drew for Marvel Comics; his quest remained unfulfilled when he died in 1995…)

Anyway. The strongest thing about Raimi's adaptation (from a script by David Koepp) is that it never forgets the character's soap origins; plays them up, in fact--the film might properly be called The Peter Parker Story with token action thrown in. The focus is on Peter's love life or rather lack of it--the film begins with Peter (Tobey Maguire) in voiceover narration, telling us: "this is about a girl...." And so it is--about Peter's unrequited love for Mary Jane "MJ" Watson (Kirsten Dunst, looking hot in red hair and tight pants). When Peter is bitten first thing he thinks to do with his powers is join a wrestling match and use the prize money to buy a car cool enough to impress her; later he sneakily courts her even when she's dating best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco). Peter loves MJ who loves Harry who loves his father Norman (Willem Dafoe) who's really a psychopath hates Parker in full costume. Classic soap plotline, only one of the characters likes to lob explosive grenades at crowded balconies and the other slings gummy webbing across the city skyline.

One of the film's strengths is its casting which (to use Lee’s style of rhetoric) is Practically Perfect from grizzled J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, Peter's newspaper boss who hates the webslinger (but isn't above using his pictures to sell papers) to an intense James Franco as Harry Osborn to an anguished Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn complete with jagged psychopath laugh. Nice touch of using Raimi regular Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead movies) as a wrestling match announcer--we don't get to see the guy as often as we would like, and Raimi even grants Campbell the honor of christening Peter with a proper super-hero name.

Some people have complained about Kirsten Dunst as MJ; she's too young and too um underdeveloped they say to play the sexy redhead of the comic books. You have to remember though that MJ met Peter when he was older; here they’re both barely out of high school. Dunst is a wonderful younger MJ what with her huge eyes (a match set with Maguire's) and beguiling smile; she’s also an intriguing mix of (largely suggested) sexual preciosity and insecure innocence. You can believe that this MJ just starting out her career as foxy chick would give Peter a second look--she’s unsure enough about herself and her worth as a person to consider him (the school nerd after all) seriously.

Tobey Maguire is of course the heart and soul. He has this special something--radiance warmth charm whatever you want to call it--as an actor: you're always pulling for him to come out all right and part of the tension of any film he's in is that he seems so open and vulnerable you're afraid he won't. Maguire is the last person in the world one might cast as a super-hero which makes him perfect choice to play this particular super-hero--an everyman with the weight of the world suddenly dropped on his barely adequate shoulders.

Raimi is smart to keep his camera trained on Maguire's fragile-chick face; it's when the face is covered--as when in costume--that the tension leaks out of the film a little. This may be why Raimi keeps the action--carelessly made yet intensely inventive pieces of special-effects filmmaking (Raimi hasn’t forgotten his Evil Dead roots)--relatively short, and why, in the final confrontation with Norman the director has Parker’s mask partly torn off. This may also be why Parker has so few lines of dialogue when masked; his voice has little presence without his face and the rare times when he does speak (usually flirting with MJ) the quips go splat on the pavement.

Raimi and Koepp also do some fiddling around with the legend coming up with a few interesting choices. Turning the classic radioactive spider into a genetics experiment escapee makes sense--we have to keep our metaphorical anxieties topical--but the webbing that shoots out of Peter’s arms I see more as a trade-off. They’re one with the genetic transformation and make a fine series of puberty jokes--my favorite being when Peter has to keep his uncle from entering his bedroom and seeing the results of his glandular experiments dripping from the bedroom walls. But the webshooters Peter created in the original comic were his unique contribution to crime-fighting technology--and I assumed the reason he was made a science whiz in the first place (in the movie it made more sense for him to be a photographer). Also spiders don’t shoot webbing out of their arms or legs but from their behinds; somewhat disappointed Raimi and company didn’t have the guts to be more realistic.

But I’m dealing with trivialities; the audience will want to know about more important issues--like will Peter beat Norman? Will J. Jonah Jameson succeed in his defamation campaing? Will MJ realize that Parker loves her? Or will Harry win her back? Don't expect to find ready answers to any of these questions come movie's end; if the filmmakers have anything to do with it we're going to have a long long franchise ahead of us. The movie isn’t a great comic-book film--Raimi doesn’t have the kind of dark, grand vision Tim Burton had for his Batman movies, nor the wayward lyricism of Robert Altman's super hero production. But his film works fine as a superior version of your average daytime soap albeit one with a few pages pulled out (when Norman tells Peter  “I was like a father to you” for example you want to ask “when?”)--which is par for the course; even the best soaps showed evidence of sloppy writing. You just had to wait for the next installment to fill in the holes. 

First published in Businessworld

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