SPIDER-MAN

PG-13

-By Ethan Alter


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Although it was made over a decade ago, Sam Raimi's Darkman remains the closest Hollywood has come to capturing the unique spirit of comic books on film. Directed with great style by the then up-and-coming cult moviemaker Raimi, Darkman puts all of the medium's hallmarks on vibrant display. And because the titular hero wasn't based on a pre-existing character, the director was able to indulge his fertile imagination without having to answer to any disgruntled fanboys. Dated special effects (and hairdos) aside, Darkman is like a comic book come to life; every frame could easily have been drawn rather than filmed.

It's no wonder, then, that comic fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief laced with fear when Columbia Pictures tapped Raimi to helm the long-awaited Spider-Man movie. On the one hand, here was a director who obviously understood the medium, but his well-known penchant for irreverence raised concerns over how faithful he would remain to the character. Raimi's decision to cast the slight Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man only magnified fans' suspicions that he was purposely out to ruin one of comicdom's most beloved heroes.

In a well-deserved victory for poetic justice, those precise elements--Maguire's understated presence and Raimi's off-kilter sensibility--are what make Spider-Man both a successful adaptation and an enjoyable film in its own right. The new Spidey may be a bit more judicious with the wisecracks and interior monologues, but he's still the same lively, anxiety-ridden wall-crawler that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced to the world over 30 years ago.

For those who don't already know the character's backstory, Peter Parker (Maguire) is an ordinary high-school nerd who is blessed (or is that cursed?) with superpowers when he's bitten by a genetically enhanced spider. Suddenly, the put-upon teen finds he can leap from building to building in a single bound, stick to walls and shoot webs from his wrists. Peter is initially interested solely in material gain, but when his beloved Uncle Ben is killed, he decides to use his powers to fight crime.

Raimi devotes about 45 minutes to Spider-Man's origin and it's easily the strongest part of the film. The director has a lot of fun following Peter as he adjusts to his newfound abilities. In one of the movie's best scenes, the hero-in-training runs through a number of hand gestures and vocal commands while attempting to sling his webs for the first time. ("Shazam" naturally doesn't work.) The film is peppered with these kinds of visual gags, as well as a number of throwaway references to Spidey lore that will have fans cheering.

As crowd-pleasing as Raimi's direction is, Maguire really deserves the lion's share of the credit for making Spider-Man swing. From the moment he first appears, chasing frantically after his school bus, the actor turns Peter into an endearing and, above all, believable character. Even when he's clad in those colorful tights, the audience always recognizes him as Peter first and Spider-Man second. That's a rarity for comic-book movies, where the mask tends to overwhelm the man.

Spider-Man also sports a stronger supporting cast than the genre normally demands. Kirsten Dunst radiates innocence and sex appeal as Peter's dream girl, Mary Jane Watson; their scenes together are rife with clichs, but the actors have an undeniable chemistry, which transforms the corn into charm. Playing the requisite super-villain, the Green Goblin, Willem Dafoe turns in a deliciously loony performance that only occasionally stumbles into self-parody. Meanwhile, James Franco makes a strong impression in the small but pivotal role of Harry Osborn, Peter's best friend, and J.K. Simmons steals every scene he's in as the hilariously curt newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson.

Surprisingly, the action sequences are where the film falls short, due to an overreliance on computer graphics. As long as Spider-Man is simply swinging through Manhattan, the CGI isn't that distracting, but when he and the Green Goblin have an aerial battle over Times Square, it's harder to ignore. There's no tension in their clashes and no sense of real awe at Spidey's feats; even the climactic scene atop the Queensboro Bridge seems pedestrian. Also missing is Raimi's famously hyperkinetic camerawork, which would have gone a long way towards enlivening the action and the settings. The film is overflowing with the director's attitude, but it lacks his visual flair.

These problems should be redressed in the sequel, which is already in pre-production. After the first film's record-breaking opening weekend, Columbia will hopefully allow Raimi the freedom to put more of his own stamp on Spider-Man 2. The elements are all present--what's needed is a bolder artistic vision.

--Ethan Alter


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