USA 2002 : Sam Raimi : 124 mins

Back in Stan Lee’s 60s comic-books, it was a radioactive arachnid which bit geeky science student Peter Parker and transformed him into geeky superhero Spider-Man. Forty years on, the spider in question is, topically enough, genetically modified, a blend of three existing species, in a film which itself is a fairly straight hybrid of three main sources: Cronenberg’s The Fly, and the Superman and Batman franchises, with Peter becoming a costumed crimefighter on the streets of Manhattan, holding down a mufti day-job on a city tabloid, negotiating a tricky double-life quasi-romance with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and crossing swords with a flamboyantly OTT super-villain, the Green Goblin – a.k.a. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe).

Like Batman, Spider-Man is a mainstream mega-hit from a director previously known for weirder material – Raimi’s arrival into the big leagues accompanied, like Tim Burton’s, by a rousing Danny Elfman score. But while Burton, for all his faults, has never been less than 100% true to his own vision, Raimi’s progress has often seemed more erratic and compromised: it’s hard to imagine Burton getting involved with a Kevin Costner baseball picture like Raimi’s now-forgotten For the Love of the Game (2000). And when his temperament fails to click with that of his chosen material, the results can be as absurd as his overcooked psychic-melodrama The Gift (2001).

But with Spider-Man Raimi is, thankfully, on much more comfortable ground – the film has a zap and energy which shames its main box-office “rival”, the lumberingly incoherent Attack of the Clones, and which will surprise anyone familiar with Raimi’s Darkman from 1990. In a just world, anyone able to prove they paid money to sit through that misfire would get a Spider-Man ticket for free. The crucial difference is the script by David Koepp, who’s on a real roll after Panic Room. Raimi doesn’t do anything wildly ambitious with his camera – it’s all a matter of simple shots and lots of cuts – though there is one neatly-judged where we spy over Dafoe’s shoulder into a mirror as Osborn conducts a lengthy conversation with his Goblin alter-ego.

Instead, he lets the actors get on with making the most of the screenplay – a wise approach, given the top-to-bottom excellence of the casting, and the script’s unexpected depths. In a film that often feels slightly blanded out for a youthful audience, it’s amusing to spot the masturbatory subtext undertones in the sequence when Parker’s Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) enquires why he’s spending so much time locked in his room: “What’s going on in there?” she asks, only to be told “I’m exercising” by Peter, gazing guiltily at the jets of milky goo with which he’s plastered his walls and ceiling.

Some of the later sections, however, seem to have gone through the rewrite mill once or twice too often. The motivations of most of the major characters are a little muddy once the plot proper kicks in, with Dunst stuck in the most underwritten role: Mary Jane dreams of being an actress, for instance, but the film doesn’t seem very interested in developing this particular plot strand at all. Then again, this career ambition is a very unusual one to find in this kind of movie – it’s only usually in showbiz movies that successful actresses like Dunst get to play unsuccessful would-be performers. On reflection, however, Spider-Man is at least as much about showbiz as super-heroism

At first, Parker sees his talents more as a money-making opportunity than as a means of upholding law and order – in the comic-book, he had his eye on a possible TV series, but here he aims to score some quick bucks in the lurid heroes-n-villains world of wrestling (hence the costume) after spotting a newspaper ad that specifies “colorful characters a must”. It’s in the ring that he’s given his new name (in the film’s wittiest scene) by a Michael Buffer-ish MC, played by Raimi veteran Bruce Campbell in the first of the picture’s two outstanding (if underused) cameo performances. The second is J K Simmons’ cigar-chomping turn as J Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, who christens the ‘Green Goblin’ to boost circulation on the basis that “these weirdos all gotta have a name.” And while the movie never stints on the genre’s requisite boom-thwak action set-pieces, they’re invariably deployed at the service of some post-modern deconstructions of the roles of super-hero and super-villain (specifically, their dependence on a fickle public) that make the film an ideal future double-bill with M Night Shyamalan’s much more sombre excursion into comic-book theory, Unbreakable.

But there’s also perhaps yet another level at work – the film ends Parker rhetorically asking and answering “Who am I? I’m Spider-Man.” In the trailers, Maguire says the line as an exhilarated boast. But in the movie, Parker, now aware of that his ‘job’ isn’t all beer and skittles, has a jarringly unexpected tone of almost depressive resignation. And surely isn’t this also Maguire’s own ambivalence – the realisation, on the part of a talented, acclaimed young actor, of just how difficult escaping from Spider-Man’s web is going to be?

10th June 2002
(seen 6th June, UGC Liverpool (Wavertree))

by Neil Young
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