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The 'Spider-Man' movie is...super!

Friday, May 03, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Even for a superhero -- someone who by definition is not like the rest of us -- Spider-Man was different. When the web-slinger debuted in Issue 15 of "Amazing Fantasy" in 1962, Superman and Batman ruled the world of comic books. These stalwart champions were much less interesting than their enemies and seldom worried about much more than someone discovering their secret identities.

'X-Men' tops the list of the best superhero movies

Spidey, on the other hand, was just like us -- a nerdy teen-ager trying to navigate the physical and emotional minefields of adolescence. We might envy his super powers but he came to understand they were a double-edged sword.

In other words, he was the first character-driven comic-book superhero. Now he's the focus of a big-screen movie that is true to both the letter and the spirit of its source material.

"Spider-Man" is that wonderful rarity, a summer blockbuster special-effects action movie with fully developed characters whose hopes and fears, triumphs and tragedies, motives and actions not only ring true but are also likely to resonate with anyone who remembers the awkward insecurities of growing up.

The movie's first scene finds clumsy young Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) suffering torment and humiliation at the hands of his classmates. It hurts all the more because it occurs in front of Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the red-headed beauty for whom he has secretly pined since age 6. But she's going out with bully Eugene "Flash" Thompson (Mt. Lebanon native Joe Manganiello), who is big and strong and drives a fancy car.


RATING: PG-13 for stylized violence and action

PLAYERS: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe


WEB SITE: www.spe.sony/spiderman


Should you take
the kids?

It depends on the child, but "Spider-Man" is probably best for 9- or 10-year-olds and up. Younger children may be frightened by the cartoonish violence or put off by the nearly two-hour length, although youngsters at a preview were remarkably attentive throughout.

VIOLENCE: Peter Parker is bullied by other students, but most of the stylized violence happens after he becomes Spider-Man and Willem Dafoe's businessman develops his evil alter ego, Green Goblin. Trying to earn money, Spider-Man takes on a wrestler named Bonesaw, as the crowd chants "Kill, kill, kill." Someone is shot by a carjacker. The Green Goblin wreaks havoc during a festival, firing explosives and killing a couple of his enemies. Other people are put into perilous situations -- balconies that break away, fires, a cable car dangling over a river -- requiring Spidey's help.


SEX: None. The raciest this gets: Two characters kiss.

-- Barbara Vancheri


After Peter gets bitten by a genetically altered spider during a science-class field trip, his body changes in ways that both delight and frighten him.

Literally overnight, he becomes muscular and extremely strong.

He is able to climb sheer walls with his bare hands. He can shoot spider webbing from his wrists with which he can catch objects, suspend himself or swing himself across town from building to building.

But, as his surrogate father, Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), tells him, "With great power comes great responsibility." Peter's failure to use his spider power at a critical moment leads to a tragic death that hits close to home and impels the young man to use his newfound gifts to help others and to vanquish criminals.

Yet even this comes at a cost. A super villain dubbed the Green Goblin -- like Spidey, he is also genetically altered -- baits our hero by going after the people he loves. And even though Spider-Man saves Mary Jane's life at least three times in the movie, Peter still can't find the gumption to tell her how he feels about her. Worse, his roommate, Harry Osborn (James Franco), has started going out with her.

Worse yet, Harry's father, Norman (Willem Dafoe), who seems to treat Peter more like a son than he does Harry, is the Green Goblin -- sort of. An experiment gone awry has given the industrialist a split personality. We actually see Norman begging with his alter ego in the mirror while the Goblin, laughing maniacally, plots the destruction of his enemies. The effect is to humanize a villain who would otherwise seem as insanely horrible as Jack Nicholson's Joker in the first Batman movie.

While the movie contains an appropriate amount of humor, the fact that the Green Goblin wreaks his havoc in Manhattan, killing people as he blows up portions of buildings, lends a grimmer, more realistic cast to the film, especially in the wake of Sept. 11. The violence of his climactic battle with Spider-Man is surprisingly intense.

But so is the film's emotional undertow. The characters are buffeted by turbulence within their families -- Peter is an orphan, Harry feels unloved, even Mary Jane is verbally abused by her father. When Norman realizes that Peter is Spider-Man, it triggers yet another interior fault line.

Obviously, screenwriter David Koepp ("Panic Room") digs deep, proving that a high-concept movie doesn't have to have a low-concept screenplay.

Director Sam Raimi, who started out making comic-book horror films, has graduated into more nuanced explorations of character, yet he hasn't lost the knack for re-creating the visual aesthetic of the genre.

"Spider-Man" contains thrilling action scenes utilizing special effects that never overwhelm the narrative or characters. The exception is when we see Spider-Man swinging through the concrete canyons of Manhattan for the first time. The effects are executed so roughly that we are barely able to focus on his figure. I also thought the Goblin's metallic costume looked out of place in an otherwise textured movie.

But I like the way Raimi layers visual elements in the background of several scenes -- the spider powers spreading inside Peter, his attempts to design the Spider-Man costume. The technique lets us glimpse things that would be too cumbersome to explain or gives us an idea of Peter's thought processes. They also serve as tidy bridges over short passages of time between one scene and the next.

The cast couldn't be much more perfect. Maguire, who has coasted through some movies by allowing us to project the character onto his expressionless face, really has to act here, running the gamut of teen-age angst and forcing himself to swallow the inevitable disappointments. Dunst makes Mary Jane more substantial than the character as written.

Dafoe, whose face looks like it was stretched between a pair of deep creases, is just weird enough to be the Green Goblin and just normal enough to be Norman Osborn. Franco is just troubled and brooding enough to be his son. Robertson as Uncle Ben and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May are the human equivalent of comfort food.

And J.K. Simmons as cigar-chewing Daily Bugle boss J. Jonah Jameson has just become my new favorite movie newspaper editor -- a crass, cynical sensation monger and he doesn't care who knows it. Like virtually everything else in "Spider-Man," he's a tribute and a credit to the prototype.

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