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Spider-Man (2002)

by on 2011/01/04

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I find Sam Raimi somewhat hit or miss.  I can’t say he would have leapt to mind as my first choice for the direction of Spider-Man.  Still, as we see from the results — however uneven they may be — he provides his audience with a reasonably solid foundation upon which to build a property.

Amidst a flurry of jargon referencing nanotechnology, radiation, genetic engineering, hover boards, human performance enhancing drugs, an armoured exoskeleton, and the most powerful electron microscope on the eastern seaboard…

I’m sorry, where was I?

Oh yes.  Peter Parker (Pleasantville’s Tobey Maguire) is bitten by one of fifteen unusual spiders.  He assumes its spider-like characteristics of agility, speed, and strength, as well as the ability to produce webbing, and sense danger at any opportunity suiting the plot’s purpose.  However, this all-of-a-sudden Spider-Man quickly learns his powers alone are not enough to undo tragedy, win true love, or earn respect.

Concurrently a friend’s father, Norman Osborn, suffers his own scientific mishap, and takes on a new personality dubbed the “Green Goblin” by the press.  His character combines the conflicted duality of the Hulk with the scientific resources of Iron Man.

Yet despite their combined abilities and resources, nobody seems capable of designing a satisfying costume.  Mimicking the comic’s classic “Spidey” look, the filmmakers have covered a red leotard with thick black cabling and glossy white eyes reminiscent of the ill-advised chest shield in Superman Returns.  For his part, “Gobby” suffers much the same fate, with an unimpressive armour topped by a downright embarrassing helmet.

Unfortunately the visual effects don’t do much to compensate for the outfits.  I’d always retained a sense they felt fake, and a recent re-screening confirmed my memory.  The virtual actors simply don’t move in a natural feeling way.  Yes, these situations are meant to be supernatural, and also I expect the effects teams were privy to “realistic” math models, but I wasn’t convinced back then, and I’m less convinced now.

Renderings themselves are occasionally downright goofy.  Flashes of a plasticky skull, models lit differently than their contexts, and a bomb blast leaving skeletons behind, like a sudden commandeering of the movie by a Harryhausen stop motion poltergeist.  Ironically, other things seem too perfect, smooth, and fluid, moving without apparent acceleration, deceleration, or even much regard for the basic laws of physics.  All the quick cuts in the world don’t hide their obvious artifice.

These tricks, and others, all succeeded in Raimi’s own The Quick and the Dead (1995).  Not so much here, where the dramatic zooms, fast motion, and whip-pans feel like the built-in presets of a consumer level editing console.  These gimmicks don’t make the tale feel fun, they make it feel made-fun-of.

The costume creation montage, the novelty transitions and wipes, an absolutely idiotic insert shot of the Goblin saying “Oh!” at one point . . . you won’t miss them.  I understand the theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.  It’s downright frustrating.

I say “frustrating” not “infuriating” because of inconsistency:  there is just enough excellence in Spider-Man to suggest how it might have done more.  As in X-Men, while the more esoteric abilities could have been a mess, they weren’t.

The so-called “spider-sense” — though exploited erratically — is a good application of The Matrix’s bullet time effect.  The magnification of fern-like barbs, protruding through Peter’s skin is interesting (assuming they pass through his costume too).  Finally, the chase, serving as a tutorial in web-swinging, is as instructional as it is exhilarating, for the audience as much as our hero.

Well then, given these frustrations, born of various contradictions, how could I have had fun with Spider-Man?  In brief, everything else: the story, its script, the locations, the cast, their performances, and the stunts.  I could not have imagined much better.  Everything was set to a standard so high, so solid, and so quintessential no post-production trickery could destroy it.

Am I suggesting Sam Raimi was the true enemy of this effort?  No.  I’m a great fan of some work he has done.  What I am suggesting is that I prefer his less ostentatious films, or those pieces which don’t blend straight and strange.  I enjoy one or the other, though rarely both.

If I had to rank Spider-Man in the Raimiographical line up, it would place above Army of Darkness, but below The Quick and the Dead.  Not without flaws, it remains a good start, and indicative of better things that could — and would — come in future.

* * * *

Rated PG for violence

121 minutes

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