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Thursday, May 2, 2002

The spider house rules

Movie: Spider-Man

Posted on Thu, May 2, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 4.00

If the massively hyped "Spider-Man" is still spoken of a decade or so from now, it won't be remembered as a staggering work of artistic vision, but as the logical culmination of the entire comic-book-movie canon. From the opening notes of Danny Elfman's musical soundtrack, which is virtually indistinguishable from his "Batman" score, we can almost feel director Sam Raimi rifling through the genre's past, appropriating what worked and (most of the time) discarding what didn't.

In an episodic, stinger-laden story whose structure is likewise cribbed from "Batman", high-school loser Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is bitten by a genetically altered spider while on a class field trip. Literally overnight, the accident gifts him with an impressive array of super powers and a buff physique that enable him to get even with the school bully (Joe Manganiello). By stressing the effortless liberation of Peter's metamorphosis, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp demonstrate a deep understanding of their target audience. The film's first act is practically a dramatization of the Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads that ran in the comics for years on end.

The onset of wall-crawling maturity creates some friction between the orphaned Peter and his de facto male role model, his kindly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). Their relationship feels tender and correct, though more than slightly reminiscent of the interplay between the young Clark Kent and his pa in "Superman". Peter's newfound formidability also puts him within smooching distance of his lifelong crush, Mary Jane Watson (the ever delightful Kirsten Dunst). The movie plays on this plot line so heavily that it almost edges out the alleged central conflict between Peter -- who by now goes by the nom de swing Spider-Man -- and the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), a high-tech villain who is secretly the father of Peter's closest friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco). The Goblin's arrival helps to teach the young web-slinger that perpetual danger and tragedy, not glory, will define his future.

Whizzing in and out of scenes on his motorized air glider, the Goblin is here and gone almost before we can get a good look at him. His transience is symptomatic of the film's action sequences, which are cut fast and furious to obscure the dividing line between CGI and live action. Go in expecting panoramic, lovingly paced tableaus of SFX wizardry and you'll be disappointed, but the movie's real achievements are in the area of tone, anyway. The history of men-in-tights cinema is littered with films that couldn't choose between dead seriousness or winking self-parody: Remember "The Phantom"? Or "The Shadow"? Raimi is determined to avoid that quagmire. Whenever the corn threatens to grow too high, he and Koepp redirect their hero into another refreshingly weighty moral dilemma. Being Spider-Man has real consequences, a fact the film remembers even in the thick of its mutant fisticuffs. The pulp-operatic angst that made the original Spider-Man series the standard-bearer of the Marvel Comics revolution is in copious supply.

This may not be the best four-color adventure ever lensed, but it's the most affectionate and faithful to its source. Ninety-pound weaklings everywhere can count it as a personal victory.


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