Saturday, December 24, 2011

Movie Review "Spider-Man" by David Pretty

Hey, All You Web-Heads!

Despite the wall-crawler's universal appeal, Batman beat him to the Silver Screen by thirteen years and Superman did it by twenty-four.  Although the film was dragged through the knothole of development hell, it popped out the other side right into the arms of some talented, high-profile fans who really wanted to make a good movie.  Mercifully we're left with a final product that I firmly believe doesn't require rebootery.

Here's the trailer:

 The movie contains a healthy dose of comic book lore.  Geeky and abused science nerd Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire) secretly yearns for girl-next-door hottie Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).  While on a  
field trip together, Parker gets chomped by a radioactive super-spider which soon gives him incredible powers.

He uses his newfound abilities to prevent M.J.'s nasty slip n' fall, inadvertently beats up abusive douchebag Flash Thompson and spends his evenings scuttling up walls, aiming his ejaculatory webbing and jumping from rooftop to rooftop.  His resulting odd behavior generates some friction with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), prompting Ben to bust out his classic "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" line.

Of course, a large part of Spidey's origin story deals with Peter coming to grips with this unearthly nugget of wisdom.  Peter assumes the identity of "The Human Spider" in order to win cash by surviving a wrestling match against "Bonesaw" McGraw (the late, great Randy Savage).  Mercifully he's re-christened "The Amazing Spider-Man" by none other then Bruce Campbell in a brilliantly mounted sequence.

After winning the match, Peter gets short-changed by the promoter but gets the last laugh when he lets a thief escape with the winnings.  Unfortunately, the same gunman ends up shooting Uncle Ben during a car-jacking attempt and then tries to flee from the police.  He manages to get away from the cops but can't elude our newly minted, arachnid-flavored super-hero.

Meanwhile Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), wealthy industrialist dad of Pete's best bud Harry (James Franco), begins to conduct strength-enhancing experiments on himself after the military threatens to cut off his funding.  At face value the test works, but it also turns him crazier then a shit-house rat.  Eventually Osborne dons a green battle-suit, hops aboard a deadly attack glider and becomes the Green Goblin.  Needless to say, Spidey and the Goblin become immediate rivals and the balance of the film documents their city-wide power struggle.

As reverential as his approach is, Sam Raimi also manages to tweaks a few things.  Initially I despised his choice to make Spidey's webs an organic part of his radioactive mutation instead of having Peter invent some web-shooters.  But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.  After all, wouldn't the dude need a ten gallon drum of the stuff strapped to his back just to get across town?

The "natural production of webbing" angle also gives Raimi more ammunition to underscore a few cheeky observations about puberty and body control. When Peter wakes up the next morning after his spider-bite illness Aunt May calls up the stairs to ask "Feeling better this morning? Any change?"  After discarding his glasses and marveling over his newly-ripped physique, Peter appears to check himself out below the belt before replying: "Change? Yep. BIG change."
I also love the scene where Aunt May knocks on her nephew's door and asks: "What's going on in there?" while Peter is inadvertently breaking shit during web training.  Since his room now looks like Shelob's lair from Lord of the Rings,  Peter just opens the door a crack and tells her "I'm excercising. I'm not dressed Aunt May."  After she proclaims "Well... you're acting so strangely Peter..." all he can do is reply "Ok... thanks.", shut the door and then get back to bidness.

With all the lively visual cues, it's pretty easy to tell that Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi is behind the camera.  When Willem Dafoe as Norman Osbourne talks to his reflection in the mirror, we know that Raimi is using one of his most beloved movie gags.  Peter costume design montage recalls shades of Ash preparing to confront the Deadites.  The Goblin's pumpkin bomb breaks into a slew of deadly whirling blades and the camera dutifully follows along.  And the extreme wide-angle, hyper-zoom close ups during the film's vicious and brutal finale are culled straight from movies like The Quick and the Dead and Darkman.     

The fight sequences really take advantage of Spidey's agility and make for some really dynamic action beats.  The creative method by which he dispatches a pack of bank robbers at the start of the film is particularly inventive.  My only issue is that Peter seems to go from being a tentative and clumsy noob to bouncing around as if he's already mastered his powers.  I would have preferred that Raimi and company had left some room for his improvement.

The costumes are also a mixed bag.  Thank god Raimi had the sense to keep our friendly, neighborhood wall-crawler garbed in the classic colors.  Having said that I would really like to know why the web pattern is raised on the costume.  I'm sure it was done to prevent the outfit from looking like your average spandex  Halloween jobbie.  The design for the eyes in the mask also seems a bit angular and wonky, but these gripes are small potatoes compared to the Goblin design.

Honestly, what the fuck were they thinking?!   The Green Goblin costume makes Defoe look like a reject from Ultraman.  Frankly I'm stunned that the veteran actor willingly let himself be encased in this hideous green ski-do suit and confining full-face helmet.  This is especially baffling after you stumble across rejected designs like this:

We'll probably never know why this concept was jettisoned but it does show what's possible for future Goblin film appearances.

The cast is generally solid.  Tobey Maguire has the nerdy/awkward thing down cold, but I never really envisioned Peter being quite this "sad sack".  I always thought of him as sharp, insightful, moody, sarcastic and tormented by others only because they don't understand his fascination for science.  Maguire does a boffo job creating sympathy for the character and taking Peter on a convincing arc.  But I really lost count of how many times our hero looked flummoxed, dull-witted and/or half-conscious.

The other thing about putting A-list celebrities under a mask is their inevitable kick back against having their pretty faces covered.  As a result, there are tons of scenes where Maguire has his mask in hand or it gets conveniently blown off.  Remember in the comics when Peter would hide his face like the Phantom of the friggin' Opera if his mask ever got removed in public?  Not anymore, folks.  This would eventually become a running joke throughout the other two films of the trilogy.

Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson was just an odd choice.  Although I think she's talented and there's genuine chemistry between her and Maguire, she just isn't the "Marilyn Munroe as a Ginger" knockout that was originally envisioned by Stan Lee and John Romita.  I really wish that Sam Raimi had gone with the Gwen Stacy character first and then introduced Mary Jane in a later film as a rival.  

I partially blame Raimi and cinematographer Don Burgess for shooting Dunst so awkwardly.  Despite her nuanced performance, her close up reaction shots never seem to be captured in a very flattering manner.  Often she looks like she's on the verge of crying or having an epic allergy attack.  As a viewer I kept reaching for the Puff's Plus whenever she was trapped within the confines of a particularly awkward close-up.

For the Green Goblin/Harry Osborne role, both Sam Raimi and Willem Dafoe seem to be fine with maintaining a certain level of cartoonish flair, a la Jack Nicholson's in Batman and Gene Hackman in Superman.  It actually plays out alright here, since Spider-Man has always been a lighter comic book character and really doesn't need to be constantly swaddled in the highly-vaunted fan-boy cloak of "darkness".

Dafoe has a blast, coming up with a plethora of priceless facial expressions to help sell the Jekyll/Hyde nature of Osbourne and the Goblin.  His reaction to having his hand slapped away by Aunt May during Thanksgiving dinner is priceless and so is his ultra-pervy leering at Mary Jane.  It's just a shame that half the time his entire face is concealed behind that ridiculous helmet, especially while he's trash-talking Spidey in the burning tenement or during the colorful World Unity Festival sequence.     

The supporting cast does more then just support.  James Franco finds subtlety and pathos in the thankless role of Harry Osborne.  Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris both succeed in making Uncle Ben and Aunt May three-dimensional characters during their economic screen time.  But J.K. Simmons seems to have been built to spec for the role of J. Jonah Jameson.  The already-hilarious dialogue is augmented by Simmons' surly, point-of-fact delivery, giving viewers ample reason to hope for his expanded role in the sequel.

If Bryan Singer's X-Men movies opened up the floodgates for modern superhero flicks, then Sam Raimi's Spider-Man cemented the genre's mass appeal.  I'm reserving a fair bit of hope for the Marc Webb re-boot, which I believe will really take advantage of the realistic Chris Nolan/Dark Knight approach currently in vogue.               
But even if the re-boot is wildly successful, I still don't believe Raimi's film will be eclipsed.  Spider-Man is chock-a-block with retro appeal and gets a helluva lot more right then it gets wrong.

Tilt: up.

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