Rave : 2002 : Movie Review

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Let me make one thing very clear. I like Sam Raimi. I rather enjoyed Hercules and A Simple Plan, and I've worn out one video copy of Army of Darkness (hopefully the DVD will last a little longer). Yet when I heard that he had gotten the job as director of the Spider-Man movie over the likes of James Cameron, I was a little concerned. Sure, he excels at campy, cheesy action-adventures (always better than his more serious work), but this was Spider-Man! This was an institution of comics culture, even of Western culture in general! Especially in his first venture onto the big screen, everything should be perfect. The bad rubber masks and chainsaw arms of Army would never suffice.

Over the past three years many of us have waited to see what Raimi would do with the powers he'd been granted. I associated him with every good or bad decision made by the entire creative team. The Green Goblin as the villain. Tobey Maguire as the hero. The mirrored eyes. The organic web-shooters. As various component parts were released to eager fans, I watched and waited to see what the balance would be between the comic book and cartoon megastar and the potentialities of twenty-first century movie-making technology. The public has never been very forgiving of movies that miss the right balance (witness Batman and Robin, Spawn, or Judge Dredd).

After a long wait and more tension than I'm comfortable admitting to in mature society (you won't judge me, will you, esteemed reader?), my fears have finally been relieved. From its opening with a barrage of irrecognisable comic panels and a Marvel logo, the film stayed very true to its comic roots. Naturally, it's a self-contained story, but if you're familiar with the comics you will recognise a lot of the content of this movie (but don't expect me to tell you which issues to splice together for a plot synopsis), and you will find plenty of inside gags and cameos to keep you laughing even when no one else is. Peter's suit-time is as colourful and overblown as the comic, complete with aerial fisticuffs and Spidey and Gobby dropping walls on each other.

The casting of the movie has been an ongoing controversy, as that of any major adaptation is doomed to be. Happily, the characterisation of all Spidey's main characters is spot-on. Tobey Maguire, one of the most talented and bland young actors in years, plays up the contrast between the terminally boring Peter Parker and the confident webbed wonder; and Willem Dafoe shines as both the tormented Norman Osborn and the maniacal Green Goblin. Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, and Cliff Robertson turn their potentially stock roles into living human beings, capturing nuances of their characters that long-time followers will recognise from the books. And in a small but memorable role, J. K. Simmons gives a headline-worthy performance as the cigar-chomping ulcer-waiting-to-happen that runs the Daily Bugle, with his long-suffering city editor by his side. The only character that fails to capitalise on the background of his character is Flash Thompson, who features merely as an almost nameless angry jock.

Like so many other comic book adaptations, such as X-Men and, most notably, Tim Burton's Batman films, Spider-Man succumbs to the temptation to become more dark and melancholy than the comic for the sake of emphasis. Fact is, it's hard to write a comic-based comedy and still be taken seriously. Fact is also, Spider-Man's origin is not a happy one. Even so, the wise-cracking friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler is almost entirely lost in the divided and confused young man that finds himself endowed with great power and responsibility. The film is not as light-hearted as the various cartoon series have been, and though Gobby's pumpkin bombs vapourise their victims rather than blowing them to bits, the final battle between Peter and Norman is plenty violent--comic-level show-downs with real-life cuts and bruises. At times it's almost as if Spider-Man overcompensates for its origins.

For the most part, the look of the movie brilliantly mixes visual reality with the the fantasy of the comic. It is not without good reason that the special effects have featured as the main selling point in the media blitz that has heralded the release of this film. I love the Spider-Man costume, mirrored eyes and all (hey, I know I've got to make some concessions). However, I hate the Goblin suit. I always have. The emotionless leer of the plastic green mask does justice neither to the Green Goblin's character, one of Spidey's most fearfully animated foes, or to the talent of Willem Dafoe. Dafoe's powers of facial expression are in fine form in an inspired example of comic-book psychology, as Osborn's benign persona and his demented alter argue for control of their mutual body: just imagine if that sort of vitality could be expressed through the mask. Osborn is a far more complicated character than some impassive Darth Vader, and the powers that be missed their opportunity to conveying that tension by hiding him behind a static facade.

Mild grievances aside, there is still plenty in this movie to delight both die-hard Spider-boosters and complete newcomers. I don't mean to dwell on the negative, and, appropriately, there is a lot of fun throughout the movie. Although it is geared to appeal to loyal fans at least as much as to the fanboys and fanboys-to-be, Spider-Man is a comic movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. My faith in Sam Raimi has been maintained.

Four webs.