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Reviews

Spider-Man (2002)

Todd R. Ramlow

Spider-Man doesn't get caught up in its own snazzy special effects.


Spider-Man

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Cliff Robertson, Macy Gray
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-05-03

After the WTC Twin Towers fell, Spider-Man's producers and creators found themselves in something of a pickle. It seems that during one of Spider-Man's (Tobey Maguire) many battles with his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin (played as fiendishly schizophrenic by Willem Dafoe), we were to be shown a web Spidey had spun between the Twin Towers to snare the villain, and which accidentally catches a passing helicopter instead. Not only was the image a key element in the film's final movement, it had also already been released to theaters in a teaser trailer and was featured in the mass print marketing that was set to commence.

Wisely, execs decided to nix the trailer, rethink their ad campaign, and re-edit the film's last reel. So the web trick gets repeated in a less "controversial" location and the showdown between Spidey and the Goblin centers on their battle royale on and around the Queensborough Bridge. Elsewhere in the film, familiar NYC landmarks abound -- the Flatiron and Empire State Buildings, for example. Additionally, as something of a tribute to New Yorkers, a scene was added during the battle in which spectators gathered on the bridge throw rocks and garbage at the Goblin. One citizen tells the green meanie: "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!"

That filmmakers were so concerned over how their treatment of Marvel's all-American, boy-next-door superhero and his relationship to his (and our) beloved NYC would play for a post-9/11 audience speaks to the way in which comics have historically responded to, reflected, and helped produce the tenor of their times. This relationship between comics and real world is further complicated by standard superhero mythology that demands the hero always save the day, which, in this case came up against an event from which seemingly no one could protect us. Marvel itself recognized this conundrum with its in-house reaction to the events, Marvel Comics: Heroes, which depicts Spider-Man swinging past the WTC ruins as distraught New Yorkers cry, "Where were you?"

The Spider-Man comics have never shied away from tackling timely issues. Perhaps most famously the series was the first within the comic industry to take on drug abuse and addiction. In 1971, in The Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1: 96-98), Peter Parker's best friend Harry Osborn (here played by James Franco) becomes addicted to pills and has a seriously bad trip on LSD. This occasions some pious moralizing on the part of Parker, but nonetheless Marvel took a chance on representing what was becoming at the time a real problem for U.S. culture, and did so long before G. H. W. Bush's "war on drugs." The series even went so far as to try to demystify the racial and economic politics of drugs and drug abuse in the U.S. by having wealthy white Harry as the abuser, and peripheral characters remind readers that drugs "aren't just a ghetto hang-up! They hit the rich same as the poor." Heavy stuff for the "funnies."

Sam Raimi's Spider-Man leaves this sub-plot out, even though it is a major part of the original source material. This is the famous Gwen Stacy story-arc from 1971-73, in which the Green Goblin kills Peter Parker's first true love, the blond, blue-eyed Gwen. It's a significant moment in Spider-Man lore, and die-hard fans and comics aficionados will undoubtedly be disappointed by its excision from the film. But, as Raimi says, for all her importance to such fans, Stacy is a less familiar character to casual or even non-comics readers, while "Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) had more longevity and more weight in the comic books."

This omission isn't the only change Spider-Man makes to the original material. The film essentially condenses about 10 years of comics publication. S-M takes the origin story from Spidey's debut in 1962's Amazing Fantasy 15 and weaves it into the above-mentioned Gwen Stacy story from the early '70s. The film also re-introduces Mary Jane Watson as Peter's childhood neighbor, when in the comics, he doesn't meet her until years later, when he enrolls at Empire State University.

Along with restructuring Petey's love life, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp update some smaller details. Here, for instance, Parker becomes Spider-Man after being bit by a genetically altered spider, rather than a radioactive one. And the explanation for the Green Goblin's costume and genesis is a particularly clever critique of military spending and federally funded "scientific" research.

But these are superficial changes; unlike other film superhero treatments -- like the Superman franchise and Joel Schumacher's last two Batman movies -- Spider-Man is remarkably faithful to its source. One of the most engaging aspects of the Spider-Man comics is their focus on an ordinary teenager who develops extraordinary powers while dealing with normal teen angst and growing up in an increasingly complicated world. The film takes on Peter Parker's difficulties with high school unpopularity and well as absent parents and extended familial relations. This last part is given added urgency and poignancy in Peter's relationship to his best pal's father, Norman Osborn, who becomes something of a surrogate father to the boy and later, the maniacal Green Goblin.

It's a tangled story to be sure, and the best thing about Spider-Man is that the film takes its time telling it. Spider-Man doesn't get caught up in its own snazzy special effects, although there are plenty of those throughout and they are impressive indeed. Through Maguire's performance, we get a real sense of P.P./S-M's coming to terms with his newly acquired powers and responsibilities, and his conflicted loyalty to his best friend Harry and love for MJ, whom Harry is dating, sporadically, for most of the movie. Spider-Man even lavishes a good amount of screen-time on Peter's boss at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson (played most excellently by J. K. Simmons, the Neo-Nazi prison rapist of HBO's Oz). Here he's an aggressive, miserly blow-hard who will manipulate any story to sell a few more papers, just as he always has been.

The only real disappointments are the film's treatment of gender and race, but as a nearly incessant whiteness and not so progressive gender politics have plagued the comics industry for much of its history, perhaps it's no surprise they get replayed here. The central character of color in the film is Macy Gray, who plays Macy Gray performing at the "World Unity Festival" in Times Square. And MJ is sadly flat, primarily dancing around the edges of the story in order to be saved by Spidey. Kirsten Dunst has acknowledged the limitations of her character in interviews, and admitted that most of her acting consists of repeated screaming.

This is unfortunate. Marvel's Spider-Man series was one of the first comics to incorporate characters of color into its fantasy world, both as central and peripheral characters, so it is a bit of a let down (at least for me) that race is so underrepresented in the film. And Mary Jane Parker, nee Watson, in the comics is quite independent and financially supports Peter after they are married, so that he can continue to "serve" the people of New York.

Nevertheless, and as the story goes, with his introduction in 1962 Spider-Man changed not only the comic industry but the way readers related to superheroes and the place of comics in American culture more generally. Historian Bradford Wright asserts, in Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, that after his debut Spider-Man quickly became the "quintessential Marvel superhero." Unlike other costumed icons, Spider-Man was a "real" teen with "real" teenage problems who was directly located in the "real" world of New York City. In tackling current events and social ills that other comics, much less other media, were hesitant to broach (like the Viet Nam war and drugs) Spider-Man changed the way young people interacted with popular culture and made sense of the world around them. In 1965, Esquire reported that in a nation-wide poll, college students ranked Spider-Man among their favorite revolutionary icons, alongside figures like Che Guevara.

The exceptions I have noted notwithstanding, Raimi's Spider-Man is clearly indebted to and appreciates the comics history of this "revolutionary" superhero, and the film could quite possibly (and hopefully) introduce a new generation of readers to this "Amazing" icon. I have always thought that Spider-Man was the coolest of all the masked avengers. Forget Superman, too sanctimonious. Forget Batman, too rich and right-wing. But a nerdy, book-worm teenager as superhero, who continues to protect the innocent despite the fact that the public often despises him, or at the very least, considers him a threat to public safety, here was something different, something "real." As a kid, I always wanted to be Spider-Man. I still do.

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