Cinema Signal:

The technique behind the superheros

. "Spider-man"

Though not perfect, "Spider-man" is the most satisfying movie from a cartoon that anyone could hope for. The filmmakers are unusually successful at capturing the distinctive tone, style and character details of the long-running Marvel Comics series, even while making a terrifically exciting movie that nonfans can thoroughly enjoy without knowing anything about the source material.

Those who are familiar with the strip will be looking for how an unassuming, bookish lad got the genetic supercharge that turned him into a superhero, the details of his powers and, most vital to the success of the strip, the essentially modest character within the suit. They are not likely to be disappointed.

Yes, there are a few changes, such as the source of that web material which here flows from him organically rather than processed material he has to replenish, as in the strip. That has always been useful as a potential threat in times of crisis, like when the material runs out and the bad guys get away.

But that gets us a little ahead of ourselves in this retelling. We meet the young, painfully shy Peter Parker as a high school student with a crush on his neighbor, the gorgeous all-American girl, Mary Jane (M.J.) Watson (Kirsten Dunst). She exhibits a decided sympathy toward Parker even while girlfriending one of the school's popular idiot hunks. We wonder about her taste in men from the git go, but this girl is going to evolve.

While on a field trip to a scientific museum Parker, Watson and the rest of the class are briefed on the experiment with spiders currently under way. Watson points out to their guide that one of the spiders is missing from the display. It turns out to be a lab-created species, and it's not missing because it's under study, as the guide presumes -- it escaped and is crawling on the ceiling. True to the historical genesis of Spider-man, it picks Parker for a bit of a chew.

Soon after, Parker is in the throes of a metamorphosis, vomiting, weak, not feeling good. He makes his apologies to Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and aunt May (Rosemary Harris) with whom he lives, and barely makes it up to his room where the strange sickness runs its course. When it's over, he's a new man, stronger than ever.

He doesn't know how strong yet and, in a sequence of self-discovery that establishes what will become the legend, Parker learns his new powers and how to utilize them. He finds that some kind of web material emanates from his wrist, for example, but only after repeated trials and errors does he find the backhand snapping action that allows him to control it. He then joyously practices his ability to move and jump beyond human limitations; he finds the barbs hidden under the surface of his skin that allow him to scale walls and cling to ceilings and, eventually, all the other super skills he possesses as a result of that spider bite. Gravity? No problem.

He revels in it all even as he perfects his acrobatic powers and decides to enter himself in a wrestling competition to earn money. This leads him to come up with the notion of a costume, which evolves into the one created by the master behind the character, cartoonist Stan Lee. In a stroke of showman conciseness, the wrestling announcer is the one who finds the perfect name, and for the first time announces the arrival of "Spider-man".

In a series of story twists that should be considered brilliant, deriving from the original source material, Parker is made to realize the consequences of the decisions we make and realizes that he must use his powers for the good of mankind. The idea of power involving responsibilty is introduced by Uncle Ben, but it's this series of scenes that convey it through meaningful action and makes it all the more convincing for him and for us.

But, of course, stopping robberies and rapes is only part of the bargain. He will come before other evil menaces with powers that challenge his own and the first of these on the scene is the bomb-tossing Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) who is the product of a differently intended scientific application.

There are two really strong aspects of this story and the way in which it unfolds. First, there is nothing hurried about the development of the hero and his self-discoveries. It's a step-by-step series of recognitions, naturally conveyed by a modest everyman -- much more exegesis than you get from any other superhero character. Second, it keeps us ever in mind of what makes the mythos of Spider-man so enduring, which is the way in which Parker, when he's not web-swinging, is an average Joe with common problems. He shops for groceries, runs out of money, falls in love and gets tongue tied in the presence of his beloved. A superhero with vulnerabilities.

A third great strength of this movie is how much concept is expressed through action rather than through dialogue. This is possible because of how well thought out the original strip story is, but congrats go to the filmmakers for conveying it in this medium so well. This is close to movie making eloquence.

Another right-on depiction is that of J. Jonah Jameson, the boisterous, controlling newspaper editor that is at once Parker's benefactor and boss and Spider-man's worst critic. This relationship, as well as the cops' confusion over whether Spider-man is a good guy or bad, is perfectly true to the source material.

Director Sam Raimi ("The Gift", "Darkman", "A Simple Plan") develops his hero with clarity, consistency and taste, aided by a battery of CGI special effects wizards that allow for all the eye-popping moves and acrobatics one associates with this superhero and his villainous nemeses. The visual association with the images from the comic strip is seamlessly achieved and rightly colorful.

How well the power of such imagery is put to effective use is all the more amazing in that it doesn't overshadow the characters. The driving force of this as a movie -- as it is a comic strip -- is in the sharply defined people and their interactions. There's so much here to get your entertainment fix on that it defies you not to be engaged from start to finish.

So why would we get picky? Well this is a review, and the idea is to exercise the critical factor. As much as we loved the movie for all the reasons mentioned, the biggest problem is the acting limitations of 20-year old Kirsten Dunst and it's too important a role to go unremarked. Some will undoubtedly see her slow, unfocused delivery as sultriness; some will undoubtedly advance the argument that her emotional superficiality plays into the role. Some will say these things, but we don't. She's got the looks; she plays the part; she lacks the depth. She did no better in this year's "The Cat's Meow" as Marion Davies. But, however, she doesn't sink this ship.

Only one reason why is Tobey Maguire. After seeing him in this role it's hard to imagine any other actor who can better convey the essential modesty mixed with melancholy of the civilian Peter Parker. We've never thought of him in a physical sense, but he and the visual artists make this no matter of concern as he deftly plays Spidey, in all his gravity defying exploits.

Modesty, when supercharged, can be dramatically lethal.

Domestic gross: $403,700,000. Foreign gross: $405,900,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The soundtrack album


Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
Rating: 4

I actually agree on the most parts, but what really sickens me is the perverse nationalism that ends the movie.. Spider-man and the american flag swaying in fullscreen.. That alone takes down the movie at least a notch or two.. urgh..

                                                      ~~ Mattias 

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