Friday, May 3, 2002
In 1978, Hollywood asked audiences if they could believe a man could fly. And thanks to the charismatic Christopher Reeve in Superman, the answer was yes. This year Hollywood asks if you can believe in a web-slinging, wall-crawling super hero. And thanks to Marvel Comics aficionado Sam Raimi, the answer is again yes. Raimi's Spider-Man (opening May 3 throughout San Diego, but make an effort to see it at Pacific Grossmont Stadium 10s BIG screen) captures all the appeal of Stan Lees original comic and may be the mega-hit this talented director so rightly deserves.
The character of Spider-Man celebrates his 40th anniversary this year, and Raimi's film is a fitting, loving tribute. The film begins with Peter Parker asking viewers if they really want to know his life story but warns them that its not for the faint of heart and that its not a happy little tale. Peter (Tobey Maguire), orphaned at a young age, lives with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) in Queens, New York. His next door neighbor is Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), a girl hes secretly been in love with since the first grade. Of course Peters too shy to even speak to her. Labeled terminally uncool by the popular kids, Peter is a bookish loner who suffers frequent abuse and taunting at school.
Then one day he's bit by a genetically altered spider. (In the original comic the spider was hit by a radioactive ray and just as it was dying bit Peter.) Soon after, he finds himself with amazing powers. He doesn't need his glasses anymore; he possesses remarkable strength and agility; he can climb walls and spin webs; and has developed an ESP-like spider sense. At first he plans to use the powers to make money and get back at a world that's been cruel to him. But a tragic twist of fate makes him realize the wisdom in his uncles advice that with great power comes great responsibility. So, after a few missteps, Peter eventually puts his powers to good use and help people in need.
As with Superman, a major factor in the success of Spider-Man lies in the casting of the title role. Fortunately for Raimi and Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire is absolutely perfect. He's a delight and his performance recalls Christopher Reeves performance in Superman. Both actors realize that the key to playing these particular superheroes is to underplay the bigger than life roles, to keep the characters real despite the incredible nature of their situations. Both actors display a self-effacing, aw-shucks kind charm that's genuine and winning. But unlike Superman, Spidey has to suffer through the very human and painful aspects of being a teenager and Maguire captures that well. Its a marvel of a performance and it anchors the film so that audiences can really embrace the story.
Director Raimi also deserves major credit for the films success. He makes this an action film that takes time for emotions, something that may make very young audiences grow occasionally impatient but which makes the film richer and more satisfying for older viewers. Raimi's obvious affection for the comic book and its super hero comes through in the film. He captures Stan Lees particular brand of humor as well as the darker hues of the comic book. More so than DC Comics, Marvel Comics seems to specialize in seriously conflicted characters who carry on a kind of existential inner dialogue about their place in the world and the meaning of what's happening to them. And while DCs millionaire Bruce Wayne (the alter ego for Batman) never wants for money and has social standing, Peters a likeable loser who cant hold down a job (because of all his secret super hero activity) and cant even get the proper appreciation for all his crime fighting. Raimi finds a nice balance between the ordinariness of certain aspects of Peters life and the extraordinary powers he possesses. But as Peter concludes, those powers are both his gift and his curse, a phrase that could also be used to describe another Marvel character currently in movies, Blade.
Raimi also does a superb job capturing the duality in Spidey's nemesis, Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Osborn turns into Green Goblin after an experiment in which he was the test subject goes horribly wrong. Osborn develops super powers but is also driven to insanity and violence. At one point, Raimi has Osborn confront Green Goblin in the mirror and the cleverly cut and shot scene conveys the fact that there are two different people battling inside one body. Personally, I found this little scene a better cinematic depiction of schizophrenia than the whole of the self-inflated A Beautiful Mind (but I'm sure I'm in the minority on that).
Raimi has always been an inventive and imaginative director. Just look at his low budget horror gems The Evil Dead Trilogy. The groundwork for the Spider-Man movie, however, seems to have been laid in Raimi's 1990 Darkman, which starred Liam Neeson as an emotionally conflicted super hero created by the director. But with Spider-Man, everything comes together for Raimi in a big way. He has the money he needs to put his ideas on the screen, a good script by David Koepp and a great cast.
For diehard Raimi fans, there are also a few treats that signal Raimi hasn't forgotten us even though he's working on a high profile, mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster. Raimi serves up tasty cameos by Bruce Campbell (Ash of the Evil Dead films), and by Lucy Lawless and brother Ted Raimi (Xena and Joxer respectively of the Xena TV show Raimi produced). Their presences make this a true Raimi film and provide a nice insider joke for fans.
Spider-Man (rated PG-13 for action violence and mild sexual situations) is a dazzling and delightful comic book fantasy. What's remarkable about this big budget film chock full of eye candy is that the money and effects do not distract from the story. Don't get me wrong, the effects and action are a blast but the real strength of Raimi's Spider-Man is that you enjoy the story of Peter Parker's life and come to truly like and appreciate him. And maybe mainstream audiences will also come to like and appreciate the truly amazing Sam Raimi.