Published at: April 15, 2002, 4:37 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Damn, someone should make a comic book out of this movie!!
The highest compliment I can extend to Sam Raimi, who deserves massive kudos for succeeding where many, many other filmmakers have failed, is that he has crafted a film here that is completely honest to its comic book roots while also fully embracing the unique kicks that cinema can offer.
Better than X-MEN. Better than any of the BATMAN films. More successful as a whole, even, than the first SUPERMAN. This is not just a great adaptation of a comic book property. It is a enjoyably successful reinvention of a character in a new medium that will kick off a franchise that will be around for years and years to come.
Which isn't to say that it's perfect or beyond reproach. It's not. There are things that I hope Raimi and company do differently next time out. But the point is that there will be a next time out, and deservedly so. SPIDER-MAN swings, and is a perfect kick-off for what could well be a great movie summer.
As I drove out to pick my girlfriend up for the film tonight, I had on the John Williams CD for SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. It's that great 2-disc set that was released last year. I hear that music, and it sends me back to the Christmas I first saw that film, when I was crazy for that soundtrack album, tying a towel around my neck, and running around my house, diving over furniture with arms extended, that incredible theme making me feel like it was me who could fly, me who could leap tall buildings in that single bound, me who was faster than a locomotive. SUPERMAN was state-of-the-art when it came out, but even then, I never really believed the effects. STAR WARS and the behind the scenes magazines a year earlier had already taught me about blue screens, and the backgrounds on SUPERMAN weren't perfect by any means. Didn't matter. The film was magic because Richard Donner understood the enduring appeal of Superman and his iconography. Christopher Reeve didn't just look like Superman and Clark Kent; he defined them. It's impossible to think of Superman now without thinking of him in the suit, him in his prime, young and truly beautiful.
Our screening was held at The Grove, a new theater complex in Hollywood, part of the Fairfax and 3rd complex which used to be best known for The Farmer's Market. It's the first time I've made my way over to The Grove, and on the outside, it's spectacular. The theater lobby, the rest of the mall itself... it's one of these incredibly well designed and landscaped mini-Disneys, more amusement park than shopping mall, with the biggest goddamn Barnes and Noble I've ever seen flanking the theater on one side. My only complaint is that the auditoriums themselves are just like every other generic stadium seating megaplex that's been built in the last five years. When these "destination theaters" like The Grove and The Arclight and The Bridge start charging $9 or $12 or $14 for an admission, then they owe us more than just a nice lobby or frozen coffee at the concession stand. They owe us a state-of-the-art exhibition, seating that is a genuine comfort, and enough qualified staff to actually take care of issues like proper projection and noisy patrons.
This was one of the big junket screenings, and I saw plenty of other familiar media in the theater as we found our seats. Leonard Maltin had his spot staked out early. Steve Kmetko, dressed down in shorts and a t-shirt, was behind Dakota (I AM SAM's daughter) Fanning in line at the concession stand. Many of the junketeers had big bags full of SPIDER-MAN swag, and I caught glimpses of giant action figures and web-shooter packages and glow-in-the-dark pens. For the record, I wasn't given a single item, so don't start ranting at me about it in Talk Backs. It's only by the good graces of Laura Ziskin that I was even invited to see the film, since Sony didn't make any effort to invite me. I don't care. I'm not a fan of the junket scene. I'm like you... I just wanted to see the film.
I wasn't alone, either. The crowd was buzzing before the movie. It's the most palpable excitement I've felt in a press screening crowd since 1999, when I saw THE PHANTOM MENACE in Westwood. There was an excitement, a certain level of expectation. When the lights finally went down and that Columbia logo appeared, the room went silent. People were ready and willing to take the ride.
Let me commend Marvel Films on their new logo which opens the movie. It's awesome, a comic fan's dream, a reminder of where all of this began as well as a promise of where it might be heading, all in 15 seconds of film. With X-MEN, BLADE, and now SPIDER-MAN all working as film properties, and with THE FANTASTIC FOUR, DAREDEVIL, THE HULK, X-MEN 2, and the inevitable spider-sequel all right around the corner, Marvel is sitting in the catbird's seat for the first time in its history, filmwise, while it's fallen champion DC that's stumbling around drunk with a thumb up its corporate ass, unable to get a BATMAN or SUPERMAN film off the ground to save their lives.
From the opening frame, one word can be used to describe SPIDER-MAN: confident. This is a film that knows exactly what it is doing, that has a mission, and that accomplishes it with precision strokes. This film was designed to introduce us to Peter Parker and Spider-Man and to explain why he is who he is, and how he became that way. Every other SPIDER-MAN film (and there will be many, god willing) from here on out can assume your knowledge of the events in this movie, and can build from that knowledge. This is indeed an origin movie, but it's not "just another" origin movie. This is the new template, in my opinion, the gold standard.
There's a reason for that, too. They haven't bogged the film down with tons of extraneous characters. There's just one villain. There's not some false attempt to pump this up into something it's not. For what is allegedly a $110 million film, it's suprisingly intimate. We meet all the characters right up front: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Norman (Willem Dafoe) and Harry (James Franco) Osborn, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). We meet them as we go. This is characterization on the run; we learn about them as the extraordinary events of the film unfold. There's not a ton of padding where we watch them do things unrelated to the story of the film. Every scene is part of the puzzle, important, doing several things at once, and by the time Peter is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, we know this kid. We know how he works. We know who his friends are, and how he's treated by those around him.
And Peter Parker is us.
It's always been the thing that distinguished him as a character, that made him so important and so iconic so quickly for fans. More than a psychotic billionaire with a rubber fetish, more than an indestructible alien being from a dead world, more than a raging monster with a limited vocabulary, Peter Parker has always been us, our surrogate in comic form. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (both of who are credited in the opening titles, to my great delight) tapped something elemental when they created this character and his life.
David Koepp has sole credit on the film's screenplay, but it's been through other hands, including Scott Rosenberg and Alvin Sargent. Whatever alchemy was worked on the script ultimately paid off. There are no lapses of sanity here a la Storm's pithy bon mot about Toad and lightning, nothing that's going to make you wince or lunge for the scan function on the DVD remote during repeat viewings. For the most part, there's an easy, natural quality to the dialogue, and exposition is handled with a light, even nimble touch. In many ways, this is the polar opposite of Koepp's PANIC ROOM script. That was a high concept film where the concept totally overwhelmed even the bare bones attempts at characterization, which is what the film really needed to do well if we were supposed to care about what we were watching. SPIDER-MAN, on the other hand, could probably coast on the visceral kick of seeing Spidey in live-action, but it pushes itself and delivers genuinely memorable characters with a sense of life to them as a result.
There's no question: the casting helps. Tobey Maguire is the foundation upon which this film's success is built. He grounds each moment here, and it's hard not to flash on other work he's done in the film's early moments. There's a little bit of PLEASANTVILLE, a slight touch of THE ICE STORM. There's a reason Tobey plays those roles. He always seems slightly uncomfortable in his own skin, awkward. This is the story of Peter Parker becoming comfortable in his skin, the journey as he becomes the man he's going to be, and that's true for Tobey as well here. Physically, he's incredibly convincing. There's a great moment, pictured below, when he comes downstairs after his first shaky night post-spider bite. He's feeling so good, so pumped, that he runs up a wall, more like Gene Kelly than like a superhero. It's a playful little bit of work, and that's how Tobey is all the way through. If there's room for him to add a little something extra, he seems to be able to do so just right each time. Playing the lead in this film proves he is charismatic enough to not only carry a big film, but to also make it look easy. In many ways, he strikes me as a young Tom Hanks. There's that same kind of instant identifiability, that same open, approachable quality. Tobey's been fortunate and smart in his career so far. He doesn't have a whole bunch of MAN WITH ONE RED SHOEs and MONEY PITs to live down. He's worthy of being taken seriously right now.
A superhero is only as interesting as his supervillain allows him to be, obviously, and this is the place where SPIDER-MAN hits its biggest home run. Willem Dafoe has been one of my favorite character actors since the first time I saw William Friedkin's exceptional and overlooked TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., where he gave a haunting, phantasmal freakshow of a performance as the creepiest counterfeiter in film history. Directors have hit equal amounts of paydirt casting him with type (WILD AT HEART; SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE) and against (CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER; PLATOON). In my opinion, he's the single most believable film Christ so far, transcendent as he wrestled with his human and divine natures in Scorsese's searing LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. In his hands, the struggle between Norman Osborn and The Green Goblin, two sides of one man's personality, one set free to do what the other can't, is just as important as the struggle over duality in Scorsese's film, and Dafoe deserves credit for refusing to indulge even a slight bit of camp here. I've always thought Nicholson's Joker was overrated, hammy, and uninteresting. Of all the possible interpretations of the character, the choices he made seemed obvious, boring, all in service of Jack being Jack. Dafoe manages to make me believe in The Green Goblin, a character I always thought was too ridiculous to make the translation to the bigscreen.
There's a great scene early on, after one of the Goblin's violent attacks, when Norman is alone in his study, only to be taunted by laughter and the voice of the Goblin. He goes looking for the source and ends up confronting a mirror. What could be unintentionally funny becomes chilling as we glimpse the depths of Norman's madness and fury. It becomes clear just how dangerous and broken this man is, and it doesn't take elaborate make-up or special effect. Dafoe and his remarkable face tell us all we need to know. Costume Designer James Acheson has been getting slagged for months now by fanboys over the look of the Green Goblin, but he did something really sort of brilliant with the design of the mask. There are a few key sequences where The Goblin and Spider-Man speak, and The Goblin is able to flip up the eyes of the mask. In close-up, the black of the mouth is also see-through, so we end up seeing Norman's face and the Goblin's at once. He acknowledges with subtle touches that he knows how surreal he appears in the full Goblin suit, but he never turns it into comedy. Instead, it becomes one more reminder of his creeping mental illness. The Goblin is frightening because of how Dafoe plays him. In other words... yes. He manages to sell the suit 100%.
The rest of the supporting cast all turns in able work to various effect. Kirsten Dunst breathes life into the somewhat underwritten role of Mary Jane. I'm glad they toned down the abusive background of the script's early drafts. As it is, we see just enough of her home life to know what she's running from, and hear just enough from her to know what she's running to. We're not supposed to believe she's a brilliant actress who is languishing in undeserved obscurity. This is more real than that. She's a sweet girl who defines herself largely by the men she dates. Trading up from Flash Thompson to Harry Osborn makes sense in a social climbing sort of way. Falling in love with the unattainable fantasy of Spider-Man makes sense in a little girl sort of way. The Green Goblin begins to creep into Norman Osborn more and more over the course of the film, and at a Thanksgiving dinner, he openly accuse her of opportunism, of dating Harry for his money. Harry is in no position to argue with the idea; his only way of expressing himself with her seems to be buying her things. And Norman's words hurt her because, on some level, it's true. It's only at the end of the film that she seems to finally come to a real, mature understanding of her own possible self-worth and the real meaning of her love. When she offers her heart to Peter Parker, it's the first time she's ever taken a chance on something real. That makes his rejection of the offer even more painful for both of them, and it paints the end of the film in a lovely melancholy.
James Franco, who gives good brood, does exactly what he needs to in this film, and the sequel seems set to feature him in a much larger role. There's a pampered softness about him that's perfect for the role. JK Simmons is laugh-out-loud funny as J. Jonah Jameson, and one of my favorite supporting character cameos (there are bunches of them, both in person and in name only) is Miss Brant, his luscious secretary played for one memorable moment by the future mother of my children, Elizabeth Banks. I highly recommend she be the co-star of the next film, and am delighted by the idea of comic continuity actually making that a possibility. Rosemary Harris is everything you could ask from an Aunt May, and I liked the fact that she isn't someone we've seen in a ton of stuff lately. As far as most viewers are concerned, she will just be Aunt May. For younger viewers, I'm sure the same will be true of Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben. His first scene was one of the few that felt really phony in the whole film, but that's the script's fault, not his. He makes up for it with his last major scene with Peter, and anyone complaining that they toned down the arrogance of Peter wasn't paying attention. He verbally lashes out at Ben at one point, and we can see both how much it hurts Robertson, and how bad he is at hiding it. Peter's guilt later is compounded by the fact that he enjoys being a dick when he allows the escape of the robber who ultimately kills Uncle Ben. The line he uses on the wrestling promoter is cold and callous, and he enjoys it. This is the pivotal sequence of events in the film's first third, more important than the spider-bite itself, and Raimi nails it. So does Tobey. When he realizes what he's done, when he comes face to face with the end result of his own failure, he is shattered. And we feel it with him, more than I ever felt it when Bruce Wayne?s parents died, more than I felt it when Glenn Ford crumpled over in the driveway of the Kent farm. He learns the hardest lesson possible about responsibility, and it's played honest, and it's the time that Raimi takes in telling that part of the story which gives the film its very real weight.
And I can't imagine being bored by that first third. Not at all. Yes, there is a massive amount of character work going on, but Raimi never slows down to do it. There are great visual flourishes all over the place. Peter's fever dream after being spider-bitten, his gradual discovery of his powers, the great sequence at the wrestling arena (complete with cheer-worthy Bruce Campbell cameo and a hysterically funny Randy Savage), the effortless way the discovery of his web-shooters leads into the first use of his spider-sense, which is an amazing visualization of something that I never stopped to think about. In the comics, it's easy to draw black squiggly lines around his head. It's shorthand, and we get it. But how do you express the feeling of spider-sense? Raimi does it beautifully, and then the sequence keeps getting better. He never stops to admire his own cleverness. Raimi's working on a level here and on a scale that he's never attempted, and it's like he's giddy, enjoying it as much as we are. That seems to be what happens when you let a real fan of one of these characters steer their adaptation to the screen. If Mark Steven Johnson and Ang Lee can do for DAREDEVIL and THE HULK what Raimi has done here, then we are in for a pretty amazing fourteen months at the theaters.
Another thing I like a lot about this film is that the Goblin isn't in the middle of some giant master plan to rule the world. He dispatches his enemies early on, and then the rest of the film becomes a personal struggle between him and Spider-Man. As a result, the fights in the film aren't just chaos and carnage. They are actually fairly harrowing, emotional as much as physical. I've got overwhelming acrophobia, and Raimi and his superb cinematographer Don Burgess managed, along with the wizards on John Dykstra's team at Sony Imageworks, to leave me dizzy and unsettled with much of the aerial work. That brings us, of course, to the much-debated issue of the CGI work in the film, and whether or not it looks "real."
No. It does not.
However, it does look real cool.
And, in the end, that's what I care about. I love watching the impossible moves and manipulations that Raimi's put his uncomplaining little CGI stuntmen through. Spider-Man's first real moment of web-swinging in the film is one of my new favorite effects scenes because it was emotionally engaging. I felt the intoxication that Peter must have felt, combined with the fury at the death of his uncle and the exhilaration of his newfound ability. It's a great sequence, and in moment after moment, the animators have found little ways to add convincing life to what we're looking at, little character touches that make it more than just the same basic motion pattern over and over. There's a sense that web-swinging is one of those things that is just barely controlled, like it could go out of control very easily. He uses buildings, flagpoles, balconies, and anything else to get from place to place. New York exists on several different planes for him, and I felt that Raimi successfully realized my own personal life-long dreams of seeing Spidey in action. I got what I went for. Even if everything else had failed (and it doesn't... not by a long shot), I would still feel justified in telling other Spidey fans to check it out for the shot that closes the film, a mind-bogglingly cool burst of energy that will send you out the door with a big goofy smile on your face.
"Wait," you're saying. "You said you had complaints. You distinctly mentioned reproach." I would be remiss if I didn't bring up my one major gripe with the film, and for some fans, it'll be a doozy. Danny Elfman has turned in one of the most pedestrian, forgettable, anonymous pieces of music in his entire career with this picture. Anyone could have written incidental music like this. It's pretty much the same basic sort of march that Elfman always uses for heroic pictures. There's no theme, though. I'm not saying that the theme is bad, either. There's literally no theme. There's nothing in the movie that I could identify as an attempt at a theme. There's nothing memorable about any musical cue, and at no point did I feel like Elfman's presence was doing anything for the film in any way. I'm shocked by how much I disliked his work in this instance. I may not think much of the original 1989 BATMAN, but I thought the score almost made up for the film's deficiencies. It had character. It was inventive. And now, 13 years later, Elfman's just churning out wallpaper that you couldn't hum if you tried. It's a profound disappointment, and I hope he's replaced for the next film. For whatever reason, he simply didn't have anything worth contributing this time out, and on a film this good, that's almost unforgiveable.
I'd like to close by speaking directly to purists. I heard a pair of you talking in the lobby after the film, one of you noisily complaining about Gwen Stacy and continuity and the original Goblin costume and the organic webshooters and you know what? Shut up. I was where you are now at one point. I remember one night in particular, when I was railing down the phone line to Harry, bitching about the organic webshooter thing. And in earlier scripts, I hated the obviousness of the wet dream metaphor and the puberty metaphor and the way it turned Peter into a freak. That's not how it's played onscreen, though. Instead, Raimi gets one of the film's biggest, most sustained laughs out of the webshooters, a real, natural, character-based laugh, where we suddenly find ourselves confronting the absolute mundane reality of suddenly finding spinnerettes in our wrists. We laugh because we realize how seriously we're taking it all, and how much we can put ourselves in Peter Parker's shoes. We laugh because it works, and it feels right. This isn't set in the continuity of the comic books. That's a no-win proposition. This is establishing a new continuity, one that exists in these films. This is the only chapter of that story that's been told so far, so don't start complaining about contradictions. It doesn't contradict itself with any of what we see or hear, and that's what matters. Spider-Man is one of the most visually recognizable fictional characters in the world, right up there with Mickey Mouse and Popeye and Harry Knowles, and for many people, this will be their introduction to the mythos. On that level, the film delivers completely. It does exactly what it is supposed to do. It leaves you wanting more, and it makes you care about what happens next.
And now that I've said all that, I want to see the film again. I want to see that great, gritty, brutal last fight that leaves Peter in the tattered, torn costume. I want to see the scene on top of the bridge. I want to see that last heartbreaking scene between Peter and MJ. I can't wait to see that moment, so unexpectedly moving in light of what happened last September, when a group of New Yorkers stands together, unafraid in the face of the Goblin, one of them calling out, "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!" I want to go back to that New York again and again, and I'm betting you will to. I'll race you for the ticket line right now. Until then...