Saturday, July 23, 2011

Return Of The Blockbusters, Without The Quirky Brilliance: Spider-Man

The Good: Moments of acting, Moments of story, Moments of character
The Bad: Special effects, Much of the acting and character, Way the plot is underdeveloped
The Basics: When bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker develops into Spider-man and combats a mentally-ill scientist who is blowing up everything. Sigh.

I consider the moment Tim Burton's Batman made its debut in theaters to be the moment that superhero movies crossed over into the mega-blockbuster range. Batman, even more than the Superman movies of the late '70s offered viewers something different and a superhero viewing experience they seemed willing to see repeatedly. Indeed, I once worked at a camp with a person who had watched Batman on video almost every day for a year and had thus gone through two VHS tapes. Admittedly, he was a loser, but the point here is that with Batman, the market exploded for big-budget, mega-grossing super hero movies. The summer blockbuster season has become hinged on them.

With Spider-man, we have an origin story and whatever problems the movie has are not necessarily in the story itself, but rather how it is presented.

Peter Parker, high school student and budding photographer, is bitten by a radioactive spider which mutates him into a young man with some fairly extraordinary abilities. Among them, he finds himself able to scale surfaces (like brick walls) which would normally be impossible for humans, he can move faster and is stronger and he develops what can only be assumed is a glandular disorder that allows him to shoot webs from his wrists. Paralleling his mutation story, industrialist Norman Osborn, head of Oscorp, is infected by a nerve gas that causes him to develop an alternate persona of his own, the Green Goblin. So, as Peter Parker develops Spider-man, he finds himself in conflict with the Green Goblin, who is the father of his best friend.

It is a pretty standard superhero origin story. We need to know who the characters are, how they develop and equally important, why. Peter Parker is heavily influenced by his uncle, Ben Parker, who encourages him toward fighting for good. And, for the most part, that works (it becomes a problem in Spider-man 2) here. And we may even be able to excuse the obviousness of Norman Osborn's transformation; he essentially becomes plagued with a mental illness, so we can understand how a businessman becomes a heartless killer and begins doing unprofitable things (whenever a brilliant scientist and/or businessman betrays their character so completely, we need a real decent explanation).

I'm not one to complain about ambition, I like ambitious films. It's tough to do an ambitious superhero story that does justice to all the necessary plotlines. It's doubly tough to make an origin story that focuses both on the origin of the hero and the origin of the villain. To return to the Batman example, part of what worked so well is that the story mortgaged much of the superhero origin story for the villain origin story; Batman is more about the life and death of the Joker than how Bruce Wayne became Batman. Tim Burton and company included just enough of the Wayne to Batman origin to serve the character needs and to further the Joker plotline. Spider-man, by comparison is either too ambitious - too many plotlines - or not ambitious enough (not long enough to properly develop the various threads). So, Peter Parker is dealing with his transformation, his love for Mary Jane Watson, the conflict that raises with his best friend Harry Osborn, his family problems, and a new job as a newspaper photographer. This is not to say that the threads don't interweave, but they often feel like they are not fully served.

This problem is exacerbated by the Green Goblin origin story. Perhaps only Unbreakable (reviewed here!) has attempted to do a superhero origin story without creating a supervillain, but back in the day, that's how most of the stories began. The first issues of Superman, Superman is rescuing cats from trees for the neighbors, not turning back time by spinning the world backwards. So, like Batman, Spider-man (the movie) might have been better served by being sparse on some fronts and focusing on the origin story it truly wanted to tell.

One of the immediate plotlines I would have cut would have been the Mary Jane Watson storyline. It seems every superhero movie needs a romantic subplot (I've been watching a lot of them lately and all the Marvel Comics movies have it), but here it feels somewhat forced. Peter Parker lives in one of the biggest cities on Earth. There are a LOT of women there. He's fixated on Mary Jane Watson. Fine. Why? That's not explored so much and Watson's character never comes through in a way to encourage his single-minded devotion. Moreover, with her dating his best friend, one might assume given the mores of our time and place, Peter Parker would take several big steps backward. Even if they were to break up, once the best friend has dated someone, she's pretty much off-limits. But, apparently that's not the case for someone who has pledged himself to Good. Maybe vigilantism excuses the violations of the lesser social mores.

Similarly, at the Daily Bugle, where Peter Parker becomes employed, the character of J. Jonah Jameson is just plain annoying. I can see how the character might work in the pages of the comic book, bellowing out orders all the time, but in film it fizzles. Jameson becomes an argument against that old-fashioned management style of sitting in the office yelling at the workers. He just does not work.

And the shame of it is, that the cast is not bad. Outside Kirsten Dunst, who just seems to be here as an accessory (read: eye candy), this is a talented cast. James Franco takes what is essentially a bit role as Best Friend and Son of Villain and makes it his own. Franco is eminently watchable and he rules the few scenes he is in in the movie. It's easy to see how his talents have continued to get him decent roles (watch City By The Sea!).

Willem Dafoe gives a great performance as Norman Osborn. In the process of the transformation, Dafoe does a good job of portraying the torment that comes from the voices in his head. Unfortunately, the moment the Green Goblin begins to dominate, all the acting in the world from Dafoe does not matter (see comments on special effects below). So this becomes an instance of a talented actor trapped in a role that does not make effective use of this abilities.

And then there is Tobey Maguire. He's dull. I'm sorry, I know that's not chic to say. Maguire is playing a shy character who longs for something different and he never convinces me that he's not an actor playing the role when he's Peter Parker. And, to be fair to the actor, part of the problem is in the presentation. The film opens with Parker doing a monologue that sets up for immediate disappointment. Parker basically sets up for excitement and the extraordinary, but the movie takes way too long to get there. That is, he starts the movie by claiming his story is not for the faint of heart. His story can take people with any heart condition; he's a generally normal guy who gets super powers. Norman Osborn's story is not for the faint of heart; he's rushing toward the top of the world when he is stricken with a malaise. The point here is that Maguire is not given much to work with and what he is given, he doesn't sell convincingly.

But even more than Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Spider-man relies on special effects and the use of computer generated characters for much of the action. While The Phantom Menace used CGI to the extreme with the character of Jar Jar Binks, an annoying supplemental character, Spider-man's battles use CG imagery extensively and the effect is overall quite poor. The battles are stylized and look, well, computer generated.

And yes, I'll be the one to raise the annoying nitpicky point; the difference between the film Spider-man and the comic book(s) is that the conceits are revealed for their weaknesses on the big screen. Spider-man shoots webs from his wrists. Neat concept that works in comic books. On film, this just becomes ridiculous; Spider-man ultimately shoots out what has to be at least twice Peter Parker's mass in webs throughout the movie (probably that much in the climactic scenes alone). The effect on screen is ultimately silly.

Spider-man is trumpeted as a triumphant movie, but it falls short on enough levels that I cannot recommend it. It tries for too much (or, again, not enough) and ends up feeling unsatisfying.

For other movies based upon the Marvel comic books, please check out my reviews of:
Captain America: The First Avenger
X-Men: First Class
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Blade: Trinity


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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