I can't resist the temptation to make the dumb
joke of calling Sam Raimi's Spider-Man the arachnid
undoubtedly some other reviewer has already tried that gag out. In fact, this
spider saga has almost as much in common with David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly as
it does with either the comic strip created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko that the
movie is based on, or Raimi's earlier hit. Like the Cronenberg, this is a
transformation story, but where The Fly emphasized the perils of tampering with
Mother Nature's handiwork, Spider-Man mainly focuses on the benefits of cross
Quite a few famous comic strips and comic books
appeal primarily to a young male audience, and some of the most famous comic
heroes--Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel all come to mind--tap into
adolescent fantasies of power, but Spider-Man, adapted to the screen by David
Koepp, places such a fantasy squarely at
the center of its narrative. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a stereotypic
teenage nerd victimized by classmates bigger and more aggressive than he, who is
being raised by his uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and aunt May (Rosemary Harris) in a resolutely lower middle class
neighborhood outside of New York city.
During a school field trip to a science
museum, Peter is bitten by a new breed of spider that has escaped from an
exhibit. Overnight, the venom endows the young man with a buff physique, and some rather
formidable motor skills. But Peter only gradually comprehends that he has also
developed the typical traits of a spider, including the ability to scale walls
without difficulty, and to project suspiciously spermatic-looking strands of
spider web out of his hands in every direction. After his uncle is killed by a
car jacker, Peter becomes a masked avenger rescuing the helpless in distress.
The narcissistic and phallic implications of
Spider-Man's scenario are so numbingly evident as to need little commentary.
They start with the protagonist's given name, whose erotic connotations are
underlined by a significant downward glance the morning he awakens to his new
incarnation, indicating that not only Peter's muscles have increased in size.
Even the most successful, most popular high school jock might be willing to
undergo Peter's fate if it meant proportionately multiplying his endowments on
such a grandiose scale.
In a certain way, Spider-Man is Franz Kafka's
Metamorphosis turned upside down, as if Gregor Samsa had been able to flee the
room where his family keeps him imprisoned and turned into the Lone Ranger. But
Peter remains an outsider, even after his transformation lifts him out of the
contemptible ranks of the nerds. In spite of his good deeds, the public regards
him with suspicion, and an obstreperous press tycoon, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K.
Simmons), launches a campaign against him. However, the film does not exploit
the masochistic streak which is so evident in the original source.
Here both the comic strip and the film faithfully
observe the convention that decrees transformation demands a price. Every
transformation is a Faustian bargain, and the devil must be paid his due. Peter
acquires his powers through no fault of his own, and he exercises them
responsibly, piously following the injunction of his dead uncle. Yet these
powers remain permanently tainted, and the movie demonstrates elsewhere that the
fears Spider-Man arouses among the ignorant populace are by no means so
unjustified as they might seem.
Students of romanticism will have no difficulty
recognizing the theme of the double at work here. But Spider-Man doubles its doppelgänger. The father of Peter's best friend, a powerful tycoon and inventor
named Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) tries out a concoction he has developed on
himself and turns into an equally formidable Übermensch, the villainous Green
Goblin. Spider-Man's prime antagonist and rival for public attention, Osborn soon starts acting like the main
character in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, unable to control
his violent oscillations from one identity to the other.
On the face of it, the conflict between the two
would seem to be based upon the opposition of white/black magic, with Osborn as
the embodiment of an irresponsible abuse of power. But does not Osborn's fatal
destiny rather serve as a mirror to reflect the darker side of Peter's
transformation? Spider-Man is less the double of Peter Parker than the
"good" image of the Green Goblin, itself the realization of Osborn's
instinctual fantasies and the shadow that haunts Spider-Man as he seeks to set
the world aright. But what right empowers him to carry out this heroic mission?
Not even a thin line separates this adolescent fantasy from vigilante justice
The film is polarized between the sections
featuring Peter Parker and those featuring his Spider-Man alter ego. The former
are ineffably sappy, especially the scenes which depict Peter's infatuation with
Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the girl next door, and his life with Uncle Ben and
Aunt May. But these situations, anchored in traditional conventions governing
the presentation of middle class life on screen, and which Spider-Man to its
credit doesn't try to present as comedy, blatantly clash with other episodes involving
urban crime and similar diversions of metropolitan life in contemporary America.
Comics, which can have an extraordinarily long
life span, often resemble museums, anachronistically keeping alive cultural
artifacts that have long passed into oblivion everywhere else. Little Orphan
when I was reading it as a child in the 1950s, seemed to have undergone
few changes, narrative or stylistic, since the 1930s, if not earlier. My own
impression is that this material, which derives from the strip rather than being
added for the movie, falls into the same category. Yet these passages have the
musty odor of clothes that have been stored in the closet too long,
Spider-Man has a rather protracted exposition
serving to establish these facts, and I was beginning to mentally yawn a bit,
when it finally got into gear. Peter, who has started to explore the
possibilities of his half-arachnid state of being, wants to impress Mary Jane
with a fancy set of wheels and decides to enter a wrestling contest to win
enough money to buy a car. Since the event requires a costume, Peter completes
his transformation by designing an outfit and makes his public debut in his new
identity, although it is the ring announcer who dubs him Spider-Man against his
The match, pitting Spider Man against a sadistic
behemoth named Bonesaw McGraw (Randy Poffo) far more dangerous than any high school bully,
takes place in a gloomy arena populated by a howling mob hot on the scent of
blood that brought back memories of the terrifying Flesh Fair in Steven
Spielberg's A.I. Spider-Man comes to life for the first time in this scene, one
of the high points of the entire motion picture, and it is clear that Raimi
responds to the dramatic potential of the action in a way he has not done up to
Comic books would seem a logical source of
inspiration for movies, given the visual common denominator of the two. But Tim Burton's
Batman still remains the only movie I
have seen that approximately recreates on celluloid the spirit of a famous
comic. So much of the charm of comics lies in their ephemeral nature, yet
the Medusa's gaze of the film medium petrifies their images without capturing
the spirit--which flies off as if it were the soul escaping from the dead body
in ancient Greek religious belief.
Although he makes an acceptable Spider-Man, Tobey
Maguire is excessively bland as Peter Parker, even given the role he's playing.
Kirsten Dunst is very pretty, but her part as Mary Jane offers her little more
than a chance to display her charms. However, Willem Dafoe, a gifted actor with
a genuinely peculiar physiognomy, gives the most convincing performance as a
villain that I have seen for many years. If only he had played the lead in
Hollow Man instead of the fatuous Kevin Bacon! I wouldn't go so far as to say
that Spider-Man is worth seeing for Dafoe's performance, but without him the
film would be much less interesting.
Still, in a movie like Spider-Man, production
values count for as much as performances, and I would give it very high marks in this regard.
The movie has been ably photographed by Don Burgess, who did an outstanding job
shooting Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away and What Lies Beneath. The editing is by
Arthur Coburn and Bob Murawski, the production design by Neil Spisak, and
costume design by James Atcheson. Just to top things off, Danny Elfman has
contributed one of his edgy, throbbing scores to pump up the audience's
According to an article by Richard Natale in the
Los Angeles Times Calendar ("It's a Bountiful Summer" 7/1/02),
Spider-Man is now the "fifth highest grossing movie of all time and about
to become the third highest grossing movie in first release...." It would
be possible to see in Spider-Man's huge success just another symptom of the
pervasive teenage-ization of mass culture in this country. The film is so relentlessly fast-paced that it
never has a chance to stop and reflect on itself. On the other hand, in
comparison with horrors like Vanilla Sky or Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of
the Rings, Raimi's hit looks relatively inoffensive. Spider-Man is silly and rather shallow, but
competently made and reasonably entertaining--which is almost the best that can
be said of most of the current releases.
data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database