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Sunday 5 May 2002


directed by Sam Raimi
written by David Koepp
based on the comics series created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, and James Franco

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

I so wanted to love Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. The ads looked so good. And indeed, the film does look good, very good. But is it a good film? No. Still, is it fun or exciting? Partly. But I suspect that aside from long-time Spider-Man fans happy to see their hero look so good swinging in live action — better than they could have ever dreamed — not many people will appreciate this poorly written film.

For the most part, the filmmakers did an inspired job translating the Spider-Man mythos from comics to screen. They tweaked the right things to make the story work, at least in theory. It could have worked, had the script not been so abysmal.

The story adapted here gathers elements from the first dozen years or so of The Amazing Spider-Man: from the origin in Amazing Fantasy #15 to the aftermath of Spider-Man's final confrontation with his arch-enemy, the Green Goblin, the insane father of his best friend. Changes include dropping a number of Peter Parker's love interests, including Gwen Stacy, whom the Goblin murders in the comics.

In the familiar original, science-geek teenager Peter Parker was an orphan living with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. In an accident, he is bitten by a radioactive spider, gains strange spider-like powers, invents webfluid and webshooters to supplement his powers, and tries to make money as a costumed performer called Spider-Man. In a moment of vain egotism, he lets a burglar run by him. Soon after, his Uncle Ben is murdered. In a vengeful rage, Peter dons his Spider-Man costume and goes after the killer, who turns out to be the burglar he let escape. He then realizes that "with great power there must also come — great responsibility!" (All this happened in an 11-page story!)

The other elements used in the film — Spider-Man-hating publisher J. Jonah Jameson and his staff at The Daily Bugle, the Green Goblin, Mary-Jane Watson, Peter graduating high school and going to college, the Osborn family and their mental problems, the Goblin's discovery of Spider-Man's true identity — were slowly introduced over the next decade. Things had to be juggled a bit to make a coherent film.

For one thing, Peter is a few years older at the beginning of the film, on the verge of graduation instead of still having a few years to go. This move simplifies the chronology, much to the film's benefit. Another inspired change was to replace the radioactive spider with a genetically engineered one. These days "genetic engineering" occupies the same place in the popular imagination — the scientific buzzword widely feared and misunderstood — as did "radioactivity" in the early 1960s. This updates the concept in a way that keeps the original meaning. Uncle Ben's murder is handled in a much more convincing manner than in the comics. Another smart change is that Peter gains the ability to shoot webs from his wrists instead of having to miraculously invent some high-tech webfluid and webshooters in his bedroom. Purists might groan, but I felt this made more sense and had more dramatic and visual impact. The arc of the romance between Mary-Jane and Peter is condensed (integrating elements from the Gwen Stacy and Liz Allan arcs); much of the love story works, except for one major element that kills the film at the end (I'll return to this point later). And one very welcome change concerns Aunt May: in the comics she is an intolerable nag, while here she is genuinely warm and caring, making the audience sympathize much more with Peter's fondness for her (here gratefully toned down from the neurotic devotion portrayed in the comics).

However, despite all this tweaking, the combination of the origin story with Spider-Man's epic conflict with the Green Goblin feels awkward. The second half of the film — concerning the Goblin and Peter's move away from home — should have been a film all its own, the characters given more room to breathe, the relationships more space to develop. As it stands, the film rushes to establish so many characters and hit so many story points that the drama of the story is undermined by this slavish insistence on incorporating too many elements of the mythos.

The film is most successful when Tobey Maguire is on screen as Spider-Man. The costume looks surprisingly good, and Spider-Man is inhumanly and breathtakingly agile. One of the characteristics that Raimi emphasized — one often ignored even in the comics — is that Spider-Man is strange. His perceptions, his body language, his powers... they're all a hybrid of spider and human. In that respect, the film captures a truly bizarre mood. In addition, when Parker is Spider-Man, he loves it. He thrills when he swings between skyscrapers, jumps from building to building, and makes his body do spectacular stunts no other human ever could — and we thrill along with him. He is brave and selfless, craves adventures, and gets a palpable high out of saving people. A tragedy — his uncle's murder — inspires him, and, while he may mope a bit as Parker, once he puts on that suit, he loves every minute of it. Sadly, one of the best webslinging scenes (one inspired by the credit sequence of the 1967-70 Spider-Man animated show) is tacked on at the end of the film instead of being incorporated into the story — yet one more instance of clumsy writing.

Nevertheless, the film is visually exciting and stunning, with the possible exception of the Green Goblin's mask, which looks ridiculous and clumsy. In fact, although we are told how Norman Osborn acquires the Goblin's body armour, the genesis of the mask is a plot hole — one of too many plot holes.

The worst part of the writing, though, is the embarrassingly amateurish dialogue, including a totally unnecessary and trite voiceover narration by Tobey Maguire. Characters talk in long-winded, cliché monologues while others just stand around politely waiting for them to finish. What a waste of a superior cast. Tobey Maguire is magnificently energetic as Spider-Man and complexly tender as Peter Parker. Kirsten Dunst is impossible not to fall in love with as the gutsy and struggling Mary-Jane Watson. Willem Dafoe is brilliantly cast as the maniacal and schizophrenic Norman Osborn / Green Goblin. James Franco does an impressive job portraying the complex tensions troubling Osborn's son Harry, an insecure young man who is Peter's best friend and whose desire to impress his maniacal father taints his personality. And J.K. Simmons is a perfect J. Jonah Jameson.

Sadly, all of them — along with the rest of cast — must plough through some of the worst dialogue I've heard in a film. It's to their credit that they make their characters come alive despite the groaners they're forced to recite. And I suspect that, unless you're already familiar enough with these characters from the comics to be impressed at how well these actors capture them, it will be difficult to see beyond the awful dialogue and appreciate these performances at all.

A case in point is the scene between Mary-Jane and Peter at the end of the film — the scene that, for me, put the nail in the coffin. In the next paragraph, I'll blow this scene. So if you don't want the ending spoiled, stop reading here.

This is what happens, and how it happens: after Norman Osborn's funeral, Mary-Jane joins Peter at his Uncle Ben's grave. In an impossibly long speech, she tells him that she has finally realized that she loves him. She starts crying, and they share a long, hungry kiss (that part worked). Then Peter — who, we have been told over and over again, has been in love with her since he was six years old, who has been doing everything to get closer to her, to show her how much he cares for her — blows her off in an even longer, more improbably pontificating speech. Let's see now: the girl you have had a lifelong crush on bares her heart to you, kisses you passionately... And what do you do? You blow her off, even though she has never spurned you and as always been kind to you? Even though nothing and no-one stands between you? Aside from the fact that this scene makes no sense whatsoever, it betrays the heart of the film, which is the love between Peter and Mary-Jane (in case we're too stupid to get it, the Peter Parker voiceover even tells us that the film is a story about a girl). Peter's reaction to Mary-Jane can't even be excused away by saying it was trying to be true to the comics; because, although Peter's romantic relationships have always been complicated and riddled with obstacles in the comics, he has always had a love life. Very soon after becoming Spider-Man, he gained enough confidence to go after the girls he loved, and often even had to juggle between several women in his life. Unlike other superheroes, he was never celibate. From early on, he was girl-loving teenager and young man who needed, sought, and cultivated romantic relationships. An unattached Peter would never blow away a girl he loved. Not in the comics and not as he is portrayed in this film. Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker yearns for Mary-Jane too much to let his chance with her slip by — especially after she told him she loved him in such a vulnerable fashion. I think that we're supposed to understand that being Spider-Man prevents Peter from being romantically involved, but that's a stupid cliché that is in no way substantiated by the story.

Up to that point, I was able to forgive the bad writing and let the film's better aspects win me over. However, that last scene so exemplified everything that was wrong with the script and dialogue that I left the theatre feeling cheated.

Spider-Man looks so good. Its cast is perfect. It's so frustrating that such great design work and acting talent is so shamefully wasted. There's already a sequel in the works. Despite the awful script, the Spider-Man mythos is very well conceptualized for the big screen, so there's hope for the future of this franchise. But David Koepp, the screenwriter responsible for butchering this film, should never be let anywhere near this series again.

Claude Lalumière was a bookseller for 12 years. He is now a writer, critic, editor, and translator. "Bestial Acts", the first story in his Lost Pages cycle, has just been published in Interzone #178, April 2002. His website features news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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