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Scores emotionally, but if only the effects were better...
on August 23, 2003
Watching "Spider-Man," I was reminded of the first time I saw "Batman." I walked away from that movie awed by the visuals, but completely unmoved by the characters (even Jack Nicholson's over-the-top performance was a caricature, not a character). But "Spider-Man" did something very unusual for films in this genre: it made me care for the people in it far more than I cared for its spectacle.
And, in reflection, that's a good thing, since the spectacle here isn't all that spectacular. More about that later - for now, let's just say that "Spider-Man" is perhaps the most emotionally involving comic-book movie ever made.
That is in no small part due to Tobey Maguire, who is absolutely perfect as the all-too-human Peter Parker, a nerdy young man who is bitten by a "super spider" and develops superhuman capabilities. At first, he simply tries to cash in on his newfound powers, as any teenager probably would, but he's reminded tragically that someone who has his capabilities should be using them to better the world, not to rule on "WWF Smackdown."
This is, of course, the essential "backstory" that all comic book characters have, and this one really clicks. Batman is a borderline personality, and Superman is too good for his own good; in "Spider-Man," we have a pretty normal guy who's only abnormal in his capabilities, which makes him darned easy to relate to, and admire.
It's all about motivation when it comes to comic books. Batman is motivated by emotional pain, and Superman is motivated by his too-good-to-be-true nature; it's very difficult to see either character's life playing out much differently than they do. But Peter's destiny is chosen, not by his psychological problems or emotional programming, but by himself. He can be what he wants, and he wants to be a super-hero, but more importantly, he chooses to be a super-hero in a way that doesn't hurt his loved ones.
This means sacrificing things that most young men wouldn't be prepared to do without, most prominently the love of his life, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). At first, Peter's too shy and insecure to do anything but pine away over her, but as his confidence grows, Mary Jane begins to see him in a different life, and eventually falls for him. But Peter chooses not to make himself avaiable to her for a simple reason: he's made all too aware that the only way to defeat Spider-Man is to hurt his loved ones.
The comparisons to other superheroes come up again. Batman is too screwed-up to have a normal relationship, and Superman is physically incapable of one without giving up his powers. But Peter would be perfectly capable of having having a normal love life, and probably would be a heck of a catch for any woman with half a brain, and chooses not to because it would endanger her.
There's real humanity and pathos in that decision, and Maguire's performance really brings that out.
There's also real humanity in the central villain, Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), a corporate magnate who inadvertently releases a lot more than his physical potential when he tests out his company's performance enhancing drug. His personality splits between the marginally likeable Osborne, and the Green Goblin, who's the kind of villain that likes to roll off long, evil laughs and lines like, "he must be instructed in pain and loss." Osborne's son Harry (James Franco) is Parker's best friend, and even after Spider-Man finally defeats him, Osborne's dying wish is that his son never finds out about his secret supervillain side. Of course, Peter, being the honorable guy that he is, honors that dying wish, even when Harry threatens revenge against Spider-Man.
How long has it been since we saw a villain in one of these movies with real humanity? Only Lex Luthor, and perhaps Jim Carrey's Riddler, come close. All the rest, including Nicholson's Joker, are just cartoon characters - fun to watch, but ultimately empty and uninvolving.
This all makes for a good basic drama, built on nice dialogue and fine performances - a rarity in films of this sort, which almost invariably succeed as spectacle and fail miserably as drama. But "Spider-Man" has the opposite problem - it succeeds as drama but fails a spectacle.
The fight sequences play well, but whenever Spider-Man takes to the air, and the CGI effects cross the screen, it plays like a video game - flat, graceless, and obvious. Spider-Man looks no more real or graceful than Sonic the Hedgehog, and the effect is even more pronounced on a television screen. Many recent films, notably the latest Star Wars prequel, have shown that CGI can create animation that has real weight, realism and elegance. I don't know any other reason, save budgetary concerns, that would drive the filmmakers to settle for such obvious, silly effects here.
In the end, the effects don't ruin this film - the basic goodness of the story and the quality of its telling preclude that - but with better visuals, this would have been a total triumph. As it is, I'm sure that the immense success of this film will enable the producers to hire a more competent visual effects shop for the upcoming sequel.
And if that sequel is able to replica the human impact of "Spider-Man," then that movie will truly be something to see.