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Movies: Spider-Man

Well, after, like, 15 years of anticipation I finally saw Spider-Man. And I give it a resounding "ehhhhh ...." (Note: I'm gonna drop a few minor spoilers in this review.)

It was pretty good, let me be clear about that. But I didn't really think that Spidey successfully made the transition from comic books to the big screen, and I think this is due to the nature of the character rather than any lack of skill on the part of director Sam Raimi. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that Raimi has made the best possible movie about Spider-Man. It's just that it's now apparent (to me, at least) that the web-slinger is particularly ill-suited for the silver screen.

The characters that seem to do the best in live actions movies fall on the extremes of the superhero spectrum: exceptional humans with no superpowers (Batman, Zorro) and full-on demi-gods (Superman). To portray the former on screen, you just need to round up a bunch of accomplished stunt men; to do that latter, you can rely on digital special effects since you don't need to make the character look realistic. But Spider-Man's abilities fall right in the middle: he isn't just really agile, he's really really agile; he's not just fast, he's amazingly fast. This is doubtlessly the toughest kind of superhuman to put on film, because you have to make him look both "super" and "human". Unfortunately, to my eyes the Spider-man in the flick either looked like one or the other, but rarely both: when brawling he looked human but not especially super; when swinging through downtown Manhattan he looked super but not even remotely human. Only the scenes where he was scaling walls managed to successful combine the two halves of the character.

Furthermore (and now I really am going to give away some plot points, so stop reading now if you haven't seen it), the tone of the movie was darker than I would have preferred. The Spider-Man of the comic books was aware of the responsibility he shouldered -- both because of his power and because of his negligence that resulted in his Uncle's death -- but this never stopped him from wisecracking his way through every fight and dating any girl who would give Peter a second glance. But the Peter Parker of this film approximates Bruce Wayne -- a psychologically tortured soul who's a loner by choice rather than because of social ineptness. And the movie is remarkably violent. Early in the film a crook falls out of a window while Peter makes no move to save him, something that would have never happened in the comic book; Instead, Peter would have saved the thug even while secretly wishing for his demise. You may see this as a fanboy nitpick, but it's actually a considerable shift in tone from the source material.

I did like the movie (although if there was no sequel I wouldn't be disappointed), and overall I give Spider-Man a hesitant recommendation. That said, if you're a fan of the comic books you must see the film, if for no other reason that to witness J.K. Simmons's absolutely uncanny portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson. Truly the high point of the film, for me.

Posted on May 06, 2002 to Movies