Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, Stanley Anderson. Screenplay: David Koepp (based on the comic books and characters by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko).

Photo © 2002 Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
Here are some nice things to say about Spider-Man. First, it is much better than I initially expected, partially because the special effects are not nearly so bad as the choppy, ill-matted trailer led one to believe. Second, though for me Tobey Maguire's high point on celluloid remains the spaced-out writer-savant he played in Wonder Boys, he is a much better action hero and matinée idol here than I would ever have imagined, given his perpetually heavy-lidded countenance and cottonmouthed vocal deliveries. Third, Willem Dafoe is as fulsomely histrionic as ever in the "role" of the Green Goblin, and I continue to ponder how this grotesque and grandiloquent self-caricature maintains such an enviable acting career—but most of his scenes are played behind a mask, and there's a strong aroma wafting through his other scenes that we are not, even for a moment, being requested to take seriously Mr. Dafoe's maniacal exertions. Fourth, like the most winning films of its kind—Tim Burton's underenjoyed Mars Attacks! becomes, after repeated viewings, a privileged example—Spider-Man not only refuses any embarrassment about being derived from a hand-drawn medium but patently relishes the compositional conceits (pronounced foregrounds and backgrounds, static points of view, impossibly bright primary colors) that are the trademarks of the American comic book.

I saved my favorite aspect of Spider-Man for last, not just because it's the best, but because it's the one most likely to make me sound nutty. But it seemed clear to me and to at least some of the crowd I sat with that Sam Raimi—who was sinking rapidly into the Quicksand of Self-Seriousness in A Simple Plan and The Gift—has recovered his prankish wit and has made here, in broad daylight, the commercial cinema's most blatant imaginable ode to, shall we say, the exuberant adolescent joys of male emission. I am delighted not because of any particular glee for the theme (this ain't that kind of website!) but because of the dazzling combination of candor and obliqueness with which Raimi has built the metaphoric structure of his film. Peter Parker wakes up one day and discovers, after an appreciative peer down his undies, that he has the power to spurt sticky white stuff right out of his body. He first learns to manage this trick successfully while standing before a billboard of a supermodel, but soon he is practicing all the time in his bedroom, prompting his guardian aunt to holler up, "What are you doing up there?" Guardian Uncle's response? "Hormones." This isn't a sick joke so much as an inspired and pervasive choice of simile, delivering the goods in superhero wish-fulfillment—it really is fun to watch Spider-Man hurling himself with abandon through the alleys and thoroughfares of the Big Apple—while also laying bare the autoerotic basis that has always subtended the ritual worship of comic-books and their preternaturally endowed heroes. Raimi has made a fun movie of Spider-Man, indifferently plotted but smartly paced, that simultaneously offers some pert, apropos metaphors to the kind of fun we are having.

Oh, but then it all takes a tumble. It doesn't help that the Green Goblin is around a lot more often in the film's second half, and it helps much less that the plot evolves further and further away from all of the social and generational idioms—high-school cliquishness, nerdy self-consciousness, the vicious competitions of young adulthood—that give the story and the character of Spider-Man its most special resonances. Suddenly it's just good vs. evil, on an incredibly literal level. A film that once proudly showcased an ingenious POV sequence of how laughably sluggish the rest of the world seems to a human arachnid concludes, by contrast, with nearly fifteen minutes of run-of-the-mill fistfights, graphic bludgeonings and perforations, "I'm gonna git you!" dialogue, and other physical and artistic barbarities exchanged between our antagonists. Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson, having the gumption to even appear in a youth-targeted blockbuster, are dispatched into death (or at least critical injury) with a fervor reminiscent of Italian for Beginners. Kirsten Dunst, initially having ten times more fun than the entire cast of The Cat's Meow combined, must eventually tolerate a scene where a gang of would-be rapists bully her into an alleyway. This juncture is crass enough in a summer blockbuster, but not nearly as bad as the scene's conclusion, where her best strategy for expressing gratitude to the annihilator of her sexual attackers is to try her best to make out with him, right then and there. Oy.

Meanwhile, New York City starts to look more and more 2-D as weightless F/X sequences utterly take over the movie, making it only a matter of time before we climax in that favorite staple of digital matte artists, the Darkest Rain-Soaked Night. And Spider-Man has exactly the lensman it doesn't need, Forrest Gump's Don Burgess, whose mantra when in doubt is, "You can never have enough detail-effacing, bright, white lights." The concluding portions of Spider-Man essentially obey exactly those rote, undistinguised action-movie clichés that the opening hour so cleverly semi-spoofs. But say this, too, for Spider-Man: even at its worst (which isn't really all that bad), it's much better than About a Boy, the infantile and condescending Hugh Grant vehicle that I walked out on in order to catch the Peter Parker opus. Without offending or boring anyone, Spider-Man is just a smart entertainment that finally gives up on smarts, at the high price of renouncing a lot of its entertainment. It's the kind of movie for which words of tepid praise are invented. As my father would say, of all the movies I have ever seen, Spider-Man is one. Grade: C+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Sound: Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell, and Ed Novick
Best Visual Effects: John Dykstra, Scott Stokdyk, Anthony LaMolinara, and John Frazier

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