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Spider-Man**

I can't resist the temptation to make the dumb joke of calling Sam Raimi's Spider-Man the arachnid Darkman, although 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 species mutation.

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 The 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 Annie, 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 will.

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 this point. 

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 adrenaline flow.

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.

Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database

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