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Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does . . whatever


Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Sam Raimi
Running time: 130 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 11

If old TV programs from the '60s and '70s were Hollywood's fave formula for synergy in the '90s -- "The Flintstones," "The Fugitive," "Lost in Space," etc. -- then the new decade looks to be dominated by comic books.

News photo
News photo
Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker (top), and his crime-fighting alter ego, Spider-Man; Spidey does battle with the Green Goblin (below).
News photo

True, there have been superhero films in the past: The comic-book world's two towering trademarks, "Batman" and "Superman," both made big splashes, but their sequels have been more hit-and-miss. Then there were some true embarrassments, flops like "Judge Dredd" and "Conan the Barbarian," to caution even the most profligate studios.

But with the recent advances in digitally rendered SFX making even the most impossible effects possible (at a price), the allure of superhero antics has become irresistible. Aside from the mind-bending superpowered action sequences provided by the material, the comic books also provide Hollywood's favorite fix: brand recognition, built-in audiences and plenty of merchandising opportunities.

The worldwide release this month of the $140 million "Spider-Man" marks the beginning of the deluge. Coming up within the next 18 months or so are "X-Men 2," "Superman 5," "Ironman," "Daredevil," "Wonder Woman," "Batman: Year One," "Silver Surfer," "The Fantastic Four," and -- wince -- Ang Lee directing "The Incredible Hulk." (Now we know why "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's" title in Japan was "Green Destiny.") By this point we'll all be so sick of superheroes that even the latest Adam Sandler comedy will start to look good. I'm doubly sure of this if "Spider-Man" is any indication of what's to come.

Believe me now or believe me later, but "Spider-Man" is yet another terrific 2 1/2-minute trailer with a totally blah two hours wrapped around it. A whiz-bang director (Sam Raimi), a talented cast (Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Willem Dafoe) and some vertiginous web-slinging through the concrete canyons of Manhattan can't even make a dent in the leaden turd of a script by David Koepp ("Mission Impossible," "Snake Eyes").

Here's a sad fact: Comic books, so often derided as hopelessly lowbrow and juvenile, actually offer storytelling that is about 10 times more inventive and risk-taking than your average Hollywood blockbuster. Indeed, the big secret with comic books is that they're actually soap operas for boys, with ongoing personal crises woven into the biff-bang action. Readers get as hooked on Peter Parker/Spider-Man's love life (as convoluted as Ally McBeal's) as they do on guessing the identity of the arch-villain, the Green Goblin.

Koepp's screenplay takes the comic's most epic tale, which built up suspense and momentum over months, and puts it in the straitjacket of a generic Hollywood three-act. The villain's identity is given away immediately, his demise as certain as the hit single that will play over the closing credits. Every twist and turn is neatly ironed out, in favor of a painfully obvious "story arc." Scripts like this are suffocating.

The film's first hour covers the origin of Spider-Man: Dweeby high-school student Peter Parker (Maguire) is your prototypical science nerd. Socially inept, bullied and secretly pining for the girl next door, Mary Jane (Dunst), Parker's world changes overnight when he's bitten by a genetically modified spider. Waking up the next morning, his vision has improved, his strength has increased proportionally and he can "shoot" webs out of holes in his wrists. (Luckily, he didn't sprout four extra appendages or fangs -- then we'd need David Cronenberg to direct.)

The original genius of Marvel Comics in fashioning this character is readily apparent, a perfect marriage of material and market. Unlike the indomitable Ubermensch of DC comics -- square-jawed gods like Superman or Batman -- Peter Parker, like all Marvel heroes (see "X-Men"), was a misfit, an outsider. In short, a mirror of the otaku who keep buying comics well past their adolescence. "If she could only see the real me!" laments Parker, a line that no doubt resonates with the target demographic.

The movie goes even further in its revenge-of-the-nerd fantasies. Not only does Parker get to flatten the high-school jock who picked on him, he magically develops awesome pecs and -- as Spider-Man -- gets the girl, too. The question remains, however: What's the hook for the non-nerd viewer, if any? If you're old enough to be reading a newspaper instead of playing with action figures, the answer is probably: none. For kids, though, this will be a must-see.

Raimi's direction -- so assured and flip in live-action cartoons like "Evil Dead 2" or "Darkman" -- fails him here. "Spider-Man" needs to be played either more seriously or more over-the-top. As is, it kind of muddles along in-between, closest in spirit to Raimi's weakest film, "The Quick and the Dead," with every line, every character, every set, pure, unfiltered cliche. If this is postmodern irony, it's below the threshold of perception.

The secondhand, phony feel of almost every moment (Mary Jane is literally the girl next door, Peter's elderly aunt sits in her living room doing her knitting, a damsel in distress dangles off a fraying cable) doesn't sit well with the film's overall earnestness, which hammers home its moral lesson with wearying sincerity. "With great power comes great responsibility," as the film's tag-line puts it, a nod to post-Sept. 11 America.

Indeed, Parker's career as a crime-fighter begins after he had a chance to stop a fleeing criminal and chose not to (a typical New Yorker, some would say), only to find later that his beloved uncle was gunned down by the very same crook. Dark stuff, but it comes off as trite and lacking any emotional pull.

Seemingly coming from another (better) movie altogether is J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle, the fictional NYC tabloid where Peter Parker works as a photographer. Chomping a cigar and barely stopping to catch his breath as he berates his employees, Simmons turns in a wonderfully cartoonish performance, fully illustrating the difference between cliche and caricature.

Surprisingly, Willem Dafoe never really gets let off the leash in his role as the Green Goblin. The best he gets is a weak line like when he arrives at a dinner party and says, "Sorry I'm late. Work was murder." Ho-ho. Kirsten Dunst, so adept at comedy in "Drop Dead Gorgeous," so mysteriously alluring in "The Virgin Suicides," is not allowed to be either here: She's simply a "love interest," to be rescued in a rain-drenched T-shirt from a gang of rapists. And Tobey Maguire? His perpetually bemused grin and nerdy voice are perfect, but they're about all his character's made of.

We all know, though, that it's the promise of some outrageous special effects that will draw viewers. Surprisingly, the film's great come-on -- of Spidey crawling up the sides of buildings and swinging over the boulevards like an urban Tarzan -- doesn't get half as much play as it should. Two scenes astound: Spider-Man's pursuit of a fleeing car as he careens over the traffic on long strands of web, and a wonderful bit where the Green Goblin swoops down over Times Square, like the Wicked Witch of the West, smoke emerging from his glider.

The Raimi style does manage to glimmer through when the Goblin drops a small glowing bomb on his business rivals; it fries them in a Wile E. Coyote flash, as they all turn to incandescent skeletons and dissolve into dust. More fun, silly moments like this would have helped, but all too much of the action time is more of the same-old men-in-tights whaling on each other, just another high-tech WWF poundathon.

And "Spider-Man" is yet another depressing example of Hollywood's current balance of power, where ever more creativity and daring is demanded of the stunt crew and CG animators, while ever less is imposed on the writers. Is it asking too much for a Hollywood movie to be as well-written as a comic book? Lord help us if the answer from here on is "no."

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