director: Sam Raimi
starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco
running time: 111 mins
“Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.”Uncle Ben
Spiderman is bright, looks great, and is thoroughly enjoyable. While it lasts. The trouble is that its fast pace and excitement fades all too quickly afterwards, and it’s lack of depth becomes painfully apparent.
The first half of the film is basically a straight retelling of Spiderman’s origins as in the comic. A geeky, unpopular science whiz Peter Parker [Tobey Maguire] is bitten by a genetically modified super-spider, granting him incredible strenth and dexterity as well as the ability to scale walls and shoot webbing from his wrists (a slight, but acceptable, deviation from the source material). Meanwhile his best friend’s father, millionaire Norman Osborne [Willem Dafoe], decides to test his new performance enhancing drugs on himself after the threat of losing his military financing. This results in creeping insanity and the creation of an evil alter-ego, The Green Goblin, who threatens the safety of New York, and those Peter cares about.
Things start off remarkably well, largely due to Maguire’s acting. He seems far more at home as the bullied, bumbling high school nerd, secretly in love with his neighbour Mary Jane Watson [Kirsten Dunst]. Dunst, whose poor role is essentially eye candy with much screaming, actually manages to make something of her character, with a sparkling and sympathetic performance of what little she is given. The audience truly feels for her, seeing her popularity as a way to escape her troubled home life.
Willem Dafoe offers a brilliantly charismatic performance as the villainous Green Goblin, looking the part both in and out of costume (which looks rather like an old Power Rangers prop). He really shines in a split personality argument with himself which few others could have delivered with any credibility. Other smaller roles are equally well played, notably J.K. Simmons as the editor of The Daily Bugle, the paper for which Parker is a photographer.
So with so much fine acting, where could things go wrong? Well, Sam Raimi’s usual creativity is not evident here, pushed aside by commercial concerns. The unremarkable rock soundtrack is clearly more focused on CD-sales than really embellishing the film (Macy Gray’s cameo appearance was utterly unnecessary). Raimi has also directed comicbook adaptations before, of course, Darkman in 1990. While this lacked the big-budget glamour of Spiderman, an interesting an intelligent script made it far more engaging.
The dialogue here is nothing short of awful, even for a comic book movie, often resulting in Maguire sounding slightly embarassed as he intones some of Spiderman’s worst lines. Only when Raimi’s tongue-in-cheek humour is evident does it become bearable, such as The Green Goblin cackling, “We’ll meet again Spiderman”, in an intentionally corny departure. There are similarly amusing moments such as the fast inbterview-sequence where New Yorkers offer their views on the mysterious new superhero, and the Superman homage where we see a running Peter Parker tear open his shirt to reveal a costume logo underneath. After the characters have been competently set up, the plot swiftly degenerates into a hero versus villain bash, with an unforgivably routine ending. A cringeworthy “September 11th” inspired scene shows New Yorkers aiding Spiderman, before he finally confronts The Green Goblin in a horribly bland punch-up. Equally, the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane that began as alluring eventually becomes irritating rather than sad as is intended.
The film is really sold on the special effects and action sequences. Now, while there are many well-shot and nicely choreographed fights, there are also a number of equally unimpressive moments, especially the closing sequence. The computer generated sequences of Spiderman web-slinging and swinging through the streets are utterly breathtaking (describing it as “aerial choreography” in behind-the-scenes programmes is no exaggeration), but at other moments the graphics are well under par, spoiling the overall effect. The final shots of Spiderman of him swinging through the city to a flagpole, show just how much the film relies on this as a selling point, however, and also lends the feeling that no one really knew how to wrap things up.
While the more recent Daredevil will undoubtedly be accused of ripping off Spiderman, it cannot be denied that this is really a cheap day-glo immitation of Tim Burton’s stylish Batman, right down to the giant balloon sequence. And the fact is that although it was shot over a decade earlier, it remains far superior. Spiderman is a highly entertaining romp while it lasts, but wears off very quickly leaving a disappointingly tacky aftertaste.