(Sam Raimi, USA, 2002)


It’s easy to list what is good about this big-budget film of Spider-Man. It is genuinely, viscerally exciting, outdoing Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001) in its sweeping sense of scale, and its ability to place the viewer right in the place of the superhero as he hurtles at hair-raising speeds around the imposing architecture of New York.


Somewhat unexpectedly, it is a touching film. The unrequited love of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) for the troubled girl next door, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), maintains its angst right to the end – and presumably into a couple of sequels already in production. The scene where Mary Jane pashes her masked fantasy man as he hangs upside down is the best screen kiss in many a year.


It is also a very funny film, from the “where did he disappear to?” gags to the homely stuff with Peter’s Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) to the bonus joke for anyone raised on the TV Spider-Man who manages to stay right to the end of the credits. And Maguire is a beautiful piece of casting, managing skilfully to hold together the film’s sometimes precarious balance of comedy, pathos and action thrills.


It is always a tricky business to inaugurate a story series which already has thousands of plot developments attached to it in other media. Director Sam Raimi and writer David Koepp have to feign innocence, wipe the slate clean, and return to the origins of the character. So we see the all-important spider bite that begins Peter’s bodily transformations, and follow the gradual discovery and mastery of his newfound powers.


Once that is out of the way, the film needs to wheel through many moves quickly. Spider-Man is hailed as a hero by the people, he is smeared by the press, then he must win back the people. And there must be an entire narrative describing Spider-Man’s clash with a super-villain – in this instance, the Green Goblin, who is more normally Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe).


Raimi’s career has had a strange and troubled path. Like Brian De Palma, Tim Burton and the Coen brothers, he started at fever pitch making cartoonish films devoted to effects in every sense – special effects, dramatic effects, cinematic effects. He allied himself with a cinema of pop culture quotation and pure spectacle that had little truck with three dimensional characterisation or dogged plot logic.


For me and surely many other Raimi fans, films such as the comedy-horror series The Evil Dead (1982) and the little seen, truly surreal Crimewave (1985) mark the height of his originality as a director.


Alas, the spectacularity of ‘70s and ‘80s cinema eventually hit an impasse not of its own making. Hollywood in the '90s decreed that mainstream movies had to be character-driven, and many fine filmmakers floundered in the face of this disconcertingly conventional demand.


Only the Coens have managed to work consistently in a completely stylised, artificial vein. Burton cannily modified his cartoonish concerns in Ed Wood (1994). De Palma uneasily modulated his former, operatic style into projects like Casualties of War (1989) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). But Raimi’s career entered the unhappiest stretch of all, in A Simple Plan (1998), For Love of the Game (1999) and The Gift (2000).


None of these films are entirely bad in their own terms. They are just not Raimi films. His cinematic pyrotechnics almost disappeared as he took a low-key approach that emphasised the work of actors and the overall shape of the story. Gone were the outrageous set pieces, the excessive touches, the delirious moments of intensity. No more cameras hurtling along the ground or uncontrollable zoom-lens work. No more jokes about bad lip sync or luridly clashing colour schemes. He had become, depressingly, a classical director.


Spider-Man offers Raimi the perfect recovery, a chance to get back to what he pioneered in Darkman (1990). Of course, Raimi now knows that he can longer get away with a cut-and-paste of pop clichés, or a hyper-ironic, gleefully infantile sense of humour. He has to convince himself that the legend of Spider-Man is more than just a handy launchpad for crazy effects of every sort. He has to believe in it as a modern myth, a repository of feeling and meaning.


He half succeeds. Stan Lee and his Marvel Comics collaborators down the decades have given Raimi some big themes to bounce off – a divided self, the agony of anonymity, the ethics of justice. It is almost possible to hear the line, “with great power comes great responsibility” and not smile – after all, it does sound uncomfortably close to “truth, justice and the American way” on the old Superman TV show.


Fortunately, the tale also has something to hook Raimi’s eternally adolescent sensibility – namely, the fact that Peter Parker’s woes constitute a fairly typical teen movie. Peter is one of those teens who must hide his true self behind a (literal) mask, like a pimply Cyrano de Bergerac. His protestations of love to Mary Jane must always be coy and indirect, spoken in the guise of “Spider-Man’s friend”.

Raimi warms to the idea that Peter is kin to the heroes of those ‘50s teen-horror pics with titles like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). The physical manifestations Peter struggles to control are amusingly (sometimes disgustingly) like the various bodily emissions in an American Pie-style comedy.

That’s the low brow; what about the high brow? Where is the darkness, the tragic sense that is the hallmark of Stan Lee at his zenith? Lee long nurtured several collaborations with Alain Resnais (I remember reading about them in Marvel Comics when I was ten years old), particularly a project called The Monster Maker that is unlikely to happen in either of their lifetimes.


James Monaco described it as “a grand and exuberant compendium of all the clichés of the B movie – science fiction, sentimental romance, horror, revenge and cataclysm. They serve a need in their audiences, and Resnais and Lee are out to experiment with them to find out why”. (1)


In Lee’s vision, a fine sense of camp is allied with serious intentions. His superheroes are (in Monaco’s words) “gifted grotesques” who “suffer neurotically” as they are gawked at, sometimes with suspicion and hostility, by the ordinary citizens they help protect.


Raimi treads warily in these waters. On the whole, he avoids the film noir expressionism already adopted (and exhausted) by Tim Burton’s two Batman movies. There is one theme he does his best to honour – the somewhat laboured comparison between Uncle Ben as the good father figure and Norman as the bad father figure. But the film misses its chance for ambiguity and pathos in never making the emotional connection between Peter and Norman a credible possibility.


Most of the fun of Spider-Man is in the riffs that Raimi plays around the edges of the comic book’s well-known elements. There are, for instance, gags to deflate Peter’s invincible might. Amid all the exhilarating swings and lunges and precision catches performed by our hero in mid-air, it is good to be reminded that Peter’s first leap was a shocker, and that a berserk superhero out of control in crowded city streets can cause quite a bit of damage.


Dafoe is a wonderful actor who excels in parts that require him to suppress most of his natural performing resources, such as facial expression. As Green Goblin, like Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Dafoe works mainly with vocal projection, as he often does on stage in the experimental context of The Wooster Group – and what a rich, compelling voice it is. Raimi even gives Dafoe some old-fashioned but effective scenes where Norman confronts his devilish other self in a mirror.


What Spider-Man lacks in depth it more than makes up for in surface. Raimi has found his way back to the realm of the live-action cartoon, and he makes the most of his golden opportunity. Let’s hope that the next film in the series pushes further into the possibilities already explored inside and out by Stan Lee.

: Spider-Man 2

Raimi: Army of Darkness, The Quick and the Dead


MORE superheroes: Elektra, Daredevil, Catwoman, Hellboy, Batman Begins, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin

© Adrian Martin June 2002


1. See James Monaco, Alain Resnais (London: Oxford University Press, 1979). back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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