Written by movies  |  05. May 2002

by Ben Kenigsberg I'm not a comic-book reader, but I do know that mainstream comic books can get away with being more hyperbolic than mainstream art in any other medium. The colors are bright, the emotions are exaggerated, the characters are often (though not always) one-dimensional. Anyone who attempts to adapt a comic book into a film has to walk the fine line between the gaudy and the cheesy. If a film looks too much like a comic book, as Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever demonstrated, the editing is jarring. That's why director Sam Raimi was such a brilliant choice for Spider-Man. Raimi isn't afraid of going over the line, having spent his early career making trashy horror flicks like The Evil Dead. But he also showed gifts for creating atmosphere and complex characterizations in A Simple Plan. Apply that blend to Spider-Man, and the resulting popcorn movie, while not a masterpiece, is a thrilling spectacle that teeters on the brink of satire, allowing us to laugh even when we're worried that Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) won't be able to save the innocent people dangling below the Queensboro Bridge in a tram car. I know I'm going to regret asking for it, but I want a sequel. Now. Much of the brilliance of Spider-Man lies in its casting. Rather than resorting to stock actors, Raimi cast Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson as Spider-Man's aunt and uncle. The two veterans give the film a solid emotional core. There's even a scene, perhaps in homage to a similar one in The Ice Storm, in which Robertson gives Maguire the birds and the bees talk. But even better than Harris and Robertson is Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, a/k/a Norman Osborn. Dafoe is one of the finest actors around; he's the perfect blend of sleaze and charm, and his snarl may be the best I've ever seen. Why'd it take so long for someone to cast him as a supervillain? Then again, he did receive an Oscar nomination for playing Max Schreck -- a character even creepier than the Green Goblin -- in Shadow of the Vampire. (As a sidenote, it's interesting that Spider-Man contains a character named Norman who has a split personality. Early on, during Peter's metamorphosis, we're shown a superimposed image of a skull, also a la Psycho.) My friend Dave thinks it's blasphemy that Mary Jane, the love of Spider-Man's life, is being played by Kirsten Dunst and not a natural redhead. My feeling is that, dyed redhead or naturally blonde, there's never a good reason not to look at Kirsten Dunst. Dunst does a solid job of playing a thankless role that requires her to be the receiving end of an abusive father-daughter relationship, to be the losing end of a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, and to into a dark alley unaccompanied so that Spider-Man can save her. And then, of course, there's the chancey casting of Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, a/k/a Peter Parker. It never ceases to amaze me that an actor as subdued as Maguire -- that's not meant as an insult -- could shoot to stardom after his work in The Cider House Rules and Pleasantville, but since he's there, he might as well be the one to play Spider-Man. Most actors who try to play the underdog simply aren't believable. The nerdiness that Maguire gives the character becomes incredibly poignant as the movie presses on; we understand Peter's failure to profess his love to Mary Jane and his willingness to stand by while his friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) dates her. But enough about the plot. The film's also got a great look. At first, it appears to be set in present-day Manhattan, replete with location shooting. But then there's a strange, exhilarating sequence set in what looks like a cross between Times Square and a Hollywood backlot. J.K. Simmons plays the publisher of a tabloid that is obviously, obviously the New York Post, yet his dialogue sounds as if it were written by Ben Hecht. It's the perfect mix of setting -- not too phony, but not so realistic that it loses the comic book feel. It's clear that Raimi wanted to satisfy the comic's loyal fans; the film opens with a montage of pages from the original comic books. There are several scenes in which the camera swoops through the city's canyons, giving us a rush and a great feel for what it's like to actually be Spider-Man. Despite the two-hour running time, I never tired of seeing Spider-Man swing from building to building. The film also has a sly sense of humor. For instance, when Norman arrives late for Thanksgiving Dinner after burning down a building, he says, not surprisingly, "Sorry. Work was murder." The funniest sequence in the movie is a montage showing New Yorkers freaking out about Spider-Man. One says, "I think he's human. He could be a man. He could be a woman." The Danny Elfman score persistently reminds us of Tim Burton's Batman, to which Spider-Man begs comparison. But Spider-Man is a lighter, more entertaining film than Burton's chilling 1989 adaptation. Even if David Koepp's screenplay doesn't venture into dark alleys the way that Mary Jane does, Spider-Man is as enjoyable as any comic-book film I've seen.

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