Monday, January 11, 2010

"I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel."

I’m unabashedly a fan of Sam Raimi’s work and a fan of superheroes. Put the two together and you get 2002’s Spider-Man, the big screen adaptation of one of Marvel’s flagship heroes.

So a geeky high school kid in a suburb of New York who’s bullied a lot and has a secret crush on his beautiful next door neighbor, gets bitten by a radioactive genetically engineered spider on a senior class field trip, develops super powers and the first thing he decides to do is profit from it and get a sweet convertible. Then his actions indirectly lead to the death of his uncle and he develops an incredible guilt complex, decides to try and make up for it by fighting crime, graduates from school, moves downtown with his best friend, still pines for his love, gets a job photographing himself as Spider-Man for a newspaper and then has to deal with the Green Goblin, a villain that also happens to be his best friend’s dad. Got all that? Good, because there will be a test. And no, he never does get that convertible.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire is our titular Hero, a smart but bullied, insecure kid who gets superpowers by chance. Naturally, once he gets his powers he exults in them and looks for personal gain to get what he wants (fighting Macho Man Randy Savage in a cage match for a convertible in this case), and basically decides “screw the rules, I’ve got super powers.” Then his uncle is killed by a crook that Peter could’ve easily stopped in an earlier scene. Being responsible for the death of one of the very few people in his life that loved him unconditionally shocks Peter out of becoming a selfish asshole, but he kind of takes it a little too far in the other direction, adopting the Spider-Man identity and treating it with the seriousness and dedication of a job (only without the paychecks involved and at the expense of his college classes and actual jobs). His frequent poor decision making skills are, of course, what make him an interesting character, but its also the root of a lot of problems that will come back to bite him in the ass in later films.

Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst plays Peter’s next door neighbor (as kids) and is the crimson haired object of his affection. Popular in high school, she hits hard times after graduation while struggling to make it as an actress, but she’s just a sweet, likable girl throughout. And a redhead. Can’t forget that.

Harry Osborne: James Franco is Peter’s best friend, a rich kid with daddy issues, but a decent enough guy all things considered. Peter moves in with him after High School, but Harry remains unaware of Peter’s (and his father’s) escapades.

Norman Osborne/Green Goblin: Willem Defoe turns in an awesomely badass performance as Harry’s dad. An engineer/scientist/businessman who looks favorably on Peter’s scientific inklings, Norman’s back into a corner by the possible revocation of a military contract that could ruin the company and by the board of directors who want to oust him, he makes the poor decision of injecting himself with a body enhancing serum that gives him enhanced strength, but also drives him into a split personality that slowly drives him mad. Dubbed the “Green Goblin” by the press for the green armor that he wears and the mad cackle he delivers in said costume, he’s got a glider, a bevy of pumpkin-themed explosives and a vindictive streak a mile long. He tries recruiting Spider-Man, but when that goes nowhere, he decides to destroy the hero before he can get in Osborne’s way. A great villain.

Uncle Ben Parker: Cliff Robertson has a small, but vital part as Peter’s doomed uncle/father figure. Warm and human, his death is quite sad, even though you know its coming.

Aunt May Parker: I will admit to not liking Aunt May at all in the comics, but Rosemary Harris does an outstanding job of making the character likable and really well rounded. And not once does she tell Peter to eat his wheatcakes.

J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons is perfect as the muckraking publisher of the Daily Bugle, a newspaper that Peter gets a job with as a freelance photographer (selling them pictures of Spider-Man). Jameson is bigger than life and hams up the screen gloriously, and the Bugle’s support staff are all very solid, with Bill Nunn as the Spidey-friendly Robbie Robertson, Elizabeth Banks as Betty Brant and Ted Raimi as Hoffman, a staffer who pokes his head into Jameson’s office to say some lines, then get shouted at angrily (and it never gets old). Sadly, no Ted Raimi Death Scene.

Sam Raimi has a lot of ground to cover in this movie, and the pacing is nice and tight for 121 minutes. Shots are really well done, color is vibrant (Spidey’s not a particularly gloomy superhero all told) and there are some truly great transitions between scenes. Case in point: When the Green Goblin blows up a test site in his first attack, sheets of paper are blown into the wind and fly past the camera, these then turn into mortarboard hats being throw into the air by graduating high schoolers (among them Harry Osborne). The movie also does montages incredibly well to bridge sections, like when we get scenes of Spidey’s heroics mixed in with reactions from New Yorkers.

Special effects are all still pretty good, though some of the CGI of Spidey swinging around New York is starting to show its age. The Spider-Man costume is fantastically realized, and while the Green Goblin looks nothing like his four color counterpart, Gobby would look…out of place in his original threads on screen.

Spider-Man created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, with the screenplay by David Koepp. The story is an origin, so its got to slog through all that “getting the powers” thing that every origin does, but it does them all quite well, and throwing in the Green Goblin as his first major foe is a great choice. Characters act like they should and dialog is quite good. There is one scene where a bunch of normally surly New Yorkers band together to throw cans and garbage at Gobby, which is kind of cheesy, but keep in mind, this was released in May of 2002, a mere eight months after September 11, so its forgivable in context.

Danny Elfman did the original score for the film, and its quite good, though not up to par with his Batman work. The film also brings in the old school “Spider-Man Theme” (does whatever a spider can) along with some early 2000s acts like Sum41, Macy Gray, Oleander, and so on.

Spider-Man is a solidly entertaining superhero movie that proudly wore its heritage on its sleeve. In some ways, it’s a lot like Donner’s Superman in that it’s a mythologizing take on an iconic character that plays its roots straight (we get a full spandex suit, unlike in X-Men). Totally recommended.

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