[7 June 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
We’re watching Tobey think on screen. He’s got so much going on.
—Sam Raimi, Filmmakers’ commentary track, Spider-Man
“Hello, my name is Sam Raimi, director of the motion picture Spider-Man, which you’ve paid too much money to see.” Raimi’s declaration will likely endear him to those who’ve purchased Columbia’s new three-disc DVD set for Spider-Man: Deluxe Edition. At the same time, it sets up his movie’s approximate politics concerning class, difference, and differently-abledness. That his, Raimi’s Spidey is a working class kid, unsure of himself and startled by the superpowers bestowed on him by a spider bite.
Raimi’s commentary track on Disc One, with co-producer Grant Curtis, is spliced in with a second track, by Kirsten Dunst and producer Laura Ziskin. Both tracks are scanty, with long pauses, recalling occasional production details and experiences (“Sam,” says Ziskin, “was very fixed on what the spider would look like, that would bite Peter.” “That’s right,” agrees Dunst, or again, “Look really closely at the wallpaper,” instructs Ziskin, “It’s little spiderwebs,” at which point Dunst can only say, “Oh… Mmm. You can’t really tell”).
A completely other commentary track (neither new to this Deluxe edition) features visual effects designer John Dykstra, visual effects supervisor for SPI Imageworks, Scott Stokdyk, and director of animation Anthony LaMolinara. Their comments are more voluble, concerning processes of construction (sharing models and ideas, the role of “contemporary science” in their thinking), as well as the design of Peter’s evolving “Spider Sense” and the special-effecting of the romance between MJ (Dunst) and Peter/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire). Such integration of visuals and narrative are typical of Raimi’s often very inventive work (the Evil Dead movies, Dark Man). That the pieces don’t always fall together might be understood as a function of ambition and “mainstreaming” imperatives.
Spider-Man is both ahead of and behind its time, celebrating a “classic” hero beloved by millions and goosing him into not-quite-worked-out computer-generated extremes (as rumor has it, the upcoming sequel has ironed out some of these technical issues). This Spidey exists in a universe where the lines between digital and fleshly bodies remain well marked, and for all the good will everyone is bringing to the “viewing experience,” it’s hard not to note the distinctions between “real” and “not real.”
Of course, Spider-Man has never been “real,” and that’s his glorious good luck on Marvel pages: you can’t see his face or even catch a mouth moving beneath that webby mask, and so you identify with the concept, the pain of alienation and frustration that comes with “great power.” You might also identify with the will to show up any and every bully, the evil cretins of the world, cleanly defined. And when such comic-bookish delineations begin to blur, Spider-Man’s wrestling with moral questions makes him more sympathetic, not less.
On screen, though, Spider-Man necessarily becomes more literal, less imaginative. This isn’t to say that he’s not made for the movies, or that rabid comic fan Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp aren’t solid choices to get him there. But the technology is still lagging behind him. So thoroughly acrobatic and spectacular that he simply can’t manage the leaping and swinging between NYC buildings that his creators have conjured for him without serious digital aid, in this 2002 movie, he looks a little too “animated” when he sets to such leaping. When these two-dimensional moments collide with the so-called “human” moments (those where the tender-faced and brilliantly subtle Maguire excels, after all), the film looks a little weak.
That said, Spider-Man efficiently runs through the superhero’s Origin Story (in which high school student Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically juiced-up spider during a field trip to a lab) and his subsequent transformation and self-discovery. Indeed, the high school scenes are the film’s most delightfuluring high school. Peter’s emerging sense of mission and direction are manifested first in his surprise at his radically changing body. Imagine sprouting from pasty loser to super-agile hardbody overnight. Peter’s a decent kid, loyal to his aunt and uncle (Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson), but before the bite, wholly unable to defend himself. Uncle Ben is assigned the task of bestowing on Peter the wisdom he must grow into: “These are the years,” he says, earnestly, “when a man changes into the man he’s going to become the rest of his life. Just be careful who you change into.”
The Deluxe DVD set might be understood to offer a similar caution to filmmakers, as it looks forward so zealously to the sequel (which everyone expects to win the season’s blockbuster title, hugely). The second disc is the same second disc that came with the last DVD version, including four featurettes, HBO’s “Making of Spider-Man, an E! Entertainment special called “Spider Mania,” lackluster profiles of Raimi and composer Danny Elfman, as well as some rather repetitive extras (a documentary on the character’s history, “Spider-Man: The Mythology Of The 21st Century,” an outtakes reel, screen tests for Tobey Maguire and J. K. Simmons, a photo gallery and easter eggs. The only new material (that is, not on an earlier DVD) is on the third disc, and predictably includes promotional material for the sequel, as well as some design featurettes about particular scenes, sets, or concepts, for instances, “Spider Wrangler,” “Wrestling Match, “World Unity Festival,” and, more generally, costumes.
All this business is, in the end, less interesting than the movie, previously available on other DVD incarnations (wide-screen, full-screen, superbit). That is, what’s most compelling is Peter’s story, as he tries to make sense of his new self and the loss of his old life and assumptions. He first sees the effects of power, good and not so good, at school. When his not-quite-under-control web-shooting gets him into trouble with head jock Flash (Joe Manganiello), painfully naïve Peter learns by doing: ducking punches, anticipating thoughts, moving before he knows he’s doing so. When he finally cuts loose with a punch of his own, he sends the larger kid flying across the hallway, and turns, momentarily thrilled at his own ability, to see MJ, currently Flash’s girl, appalled. He’s startled that simple displays of strength are not enough to win her over.
At this point Peter begins to work out his complicated moral agenda, helped and somewhat confused by advice from Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Hmmm. It takes a while before this sinks in fully, but as he’s figuring, Peter takes on the shape of other Raimi heroes, a well-intentioned fellow who can’t always get it right, mucking about in layers of cultural detritus. The old good-and-evil structure doesn’t quite hold.
One of these heroes, Bruce Campbell, makes a succinct appearance as the ringmaster at a local wrestling arena. Deciding that Peter’s idea for a colorful moniker is hopelessly unwieldy (“The Human Spider! That’s the best you got!?”), he renames him on the spot, Spider-Man. Once locked in the Cage with the franchise wrestler, Bone Saw (Randy Savage), the newly self-cognizant Spider-Man bounces off the sides and ceiling, whomping his opponent with intuitive and very speedy precision, quickly earning cash to put toward a car with which to wow the ever-elusive MJ.
Perhaps needless to say, his plan to impress her doesn’t pan out. This time, he’s distracted by having to learn an Important Lesson concerning selective crime fighting. When he lets one smalltimey crook go, the decision comes back to haunt him. And so, Peter duly commits himself to following his uncle’s dictum about great responsibility (the very dictum that most super-powers never follow). On graduation, Peter moves across the river to NYC and takes up crime-fighting earnestly, while also posing as a newspaper photographer who just happens to always be on the scene to catch great shots of Spider-Man in spider-action.
This sort of split is, of course, the bread and butter of comic book heroics—these guys are always struggling with a “dark” side and hoping that, if they only save enough “innocent lives,” they’ll be able to get on with their own lives, dreaming of retiring from such a gig. Peter is a fine struggler, able to parse the problems, but never quite able to see his way through to another side. His very split is the film’s failing: he’s far more dynamic sans mask than when he’s spandexed out.
The personal baggage that weighs on Peter’s split isn’t particularly original. Peter retains ties to his aunt and still puppy-dogs around after MJ, who is a plausible Object of Desire, even if it is exactly her lot to be rescued, again and again. First, she gets trouble from her increasingly resentful new boyfriend Harry (James Franco), who also happens to be Peter’s best friend from high school and roommate in the big city, and then she gets it from Harry’s psycho-dad, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). As head of OsCorp, Norman is fearful that he’ll lose a government contract because his serum isn’t ready for human testing, and so, he gulps it down himself, bugs his eyes out, and promptly goes insane, along with “enhancing” his athletic, battle, and other skills. (Raimi notes, “Willem demanded to do all his own fighting. He felt that the character had to be consistent, and that it would show if he didn’t.”)
Every comic book hero needs a villain who mirrors and taunts him. But Norman/Green Goblin is nowhere near an emotional match for Peter/Spider-Man. First off, he’s stuck with wearing serious headgear (an unmoving, hideously ghoulish mask, somewhat modeled after “tribal artifacts” that adorn his mansion walls), and second, he rides about on an airborne skateboard-thingy that everyone calls his “glider.” This device enables Gobby (as Spider-Man refers to him, presumably diminutively) to race and interrupt a “Unity Day” festival, featuring Macy Gray. Post 9-11, the villain’s threat to “domestic security” in the Unity Day fiesta (throngs gathered to celebrate suddenly turned into victims of violent attack)—looms differently than before (when the film was conceived). While this is just the sort of disruption most comic book villains seek to make, Gobby’s efforts are inept and unfocused. When he’s done wreaking havoc, he sets up repeated “meetings” with Spider-Man, where he tries to talk Spider-Man into “joining” his side.
What Gobby doesn’t seem to get is that the whole concept of sides is a problem in a world where everyone has a couple, at least. GG’s efforts to define himself against the “good” become more and more bizarre, partly because the “good” where Spidey lives is so indeterminate. But GG has his own issues, lurching off into split-selfdom (in his case, too much identity results in complete loss of identity, such that, by film’s end, he only wants to keep his own nefariousness a secret from his son, who in turn is keeping secrets from Peter, who keeps secrets from MJ, and so on). The villain’s “evil” insanity is translated to a few scenes where he awkwardly laughs at himself in an echoey fashion, or else talks to himself in mirrors.
Such drivel underlines the difficulty of literalizing and perhaps more to the point, mobilizing, comic book characters and dilemmas. In crazy-angled, colorful panels, these exchanges between GG and Norman might look less goony than they do in a movie, where some semblance of physics must be maintained. Then again, it’s exactly the mundane physics of the famous upside down kiss, with the blood rushing to Spider-Man’s head and streams of real water running into his nose, that make the scene exhilarating.