Reviewed By DrChumley
Posted 05/28/02 14:47:54

"Best comic to movie translation of all time!"
5 stars (Awesome)

I remember exactly when my hatred of the summer blockbuster began. It was the summer of 1995. I had just stumbled out of a movie theatre showing the Costner debacle, Water World. I made a vow that any movie branded a summer blockbuster would never again find itself in my good graces. The following years deepened my resolve. 1996 brought the horrendous Twister. Successive years brought Speed 2, Deep Impact, The Phantom Menace: Each one pushed me further and further over the edge. I grew to despise these movies with a hatred unknown to mankind: pathetic plots, mediocre acting, and enough hollow special effects to choke a horse. This summer didn’t start off much better. When I found out that a W.W.F. star had landed a leading role in a summer movie, I knew the apocalypse was finally upon us and Attack Of The Clones only pushed me closer to taking out a restraining order against summer films.

I had seen the trailers for Spider-man. I knew that this was going to be a special effects extravaganza–a prerequisite to releasing a film in the summer. I also knew it was based on the Marvel comic by the same name. What I didn't know was how good this movie was going to be.

The plot of Spider-man is pretty standard comic book fare. Orphaned and living with his aunt and uncle (Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson), nerdy high school student Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is the loser of his school. Secretly in love with his beautiful next-door neighbor and classmate, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Peter gets mocked, pushed around, and mistreated constantly by his classmates. During a field trip to a local research lab, Peter gets bitten by a genetically modified spider. The next morning, he wakes up with bulging muscles and some incredible new powers. Peter struggles with learning how to use his new powers and, eventually, to what end he will use them. Without giving away the plot, a tragedy occurs which pushes Peter into a life of fighting crime. He spends the rest of the film fighting evil in the form of his new arch-nemesis, The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe.)

Though the simple plot is one most people are already familiar with, the movie works extremely well. Director Sam Raimi (The Shining, The Flintstones) understands the challenges of translating a comic to the big screen and handles the task magnificently. Raimi creates an atmosphere that is at once fantastic and grounded in reality. What's more, he doesn't let the sotyr of characters get swallowed up in the effects. The result is a film that allows us to believe and care about the characters despite the impossibility of such a situation actually occurring.

Writer David Koepp recovers nicely from his laughable screenplay in Jodie Foster vehicle Panic Room to create a story and dialogue that fit the mood of the film perfectly. Koepp doesn’t attempt to create civilian dialogue by neutering the stylized, melodramatic dialogue of the original comic. Instead, he infuses the Marvel pows, and bangs with honest human emotion.

But what makes this film really shine are the performances of its actors. Raimi achieved near-perfect casting with Maguire and Dunst. Both actors have proven themselves as rising stars with substantial acting chops. Maguire’s soft-spoken geeky coolness is perfect for this role. He is particularly delightful in the film’s most memorable scenes–some particularly funny moments discovering then trying to control his new powers. (Watch for a hilarious scene where he’s trying to figure out how to fire his web slingers.) Dunst’s vivacious, yet innocent, sexiness is a perfect match for her character. It’s easy to see why Parker was in love with her. Together with Raimi’s leadership, Maguire and Dunst are able to wrap their characters around Koepp’s stylized lines, giving us performances we can believe and enjoy (are you listening George Lucas and Hayden Christiansen?)

Spider-man’s intense score was provided by fantasy film composer extraorinare, Danny Elfman. With Men In Black, Batman, Dick Tracy, Beetlejuice, and the Nightmare Before Christmas under his belt, Elfman was the perfect choice to add a new dimension to the fantasy of the film. Employing his trademark random rhythms and cacophonous yet soaring sounds, Elman pulls us directly into Spidey’s world.

And what about the dreaded summer-blockbuster-required effects? Well, to be honest, they're incredible. But what's even more impressive is they aren’t gratuitous (Again, George Lucas, I’m talking to you.) While digital Maguire’s high-flying acrobatics occur several times through the film, they are always for a reason and rarely distracting.

With all it’s successes, however, Spider-man does have a few shortcomings. Willem Dafoe was particularly unconvincing as the evil villain. He seems unable to grasp the stylization established by Koepp and Raimi. Additionally, the cinematography of Don Burgess is very uneven. At times, Burgess’ shots would be rich and vivid with saturation, at others they would be washed out and grainy–often to the point of distraction. There was no rhyme or reason to the switches between the two, occurring occasionally in the middle of a scene, which makes me think it was more accident of light metering and post-production color correction than artistic choice.

Still, in comparison, Spider-man’s minor missteps are greatly dwarfed by it’s successes. This is one of those few big summer films that deserves the mountains of money it has made. With a great story, great effects, and great acting, it’s exciting, touching, and just plain fun–everything a summer blockbuster should be. Hopefully, this movie franchise will grow up to be everything that the whole Batman series wasn’t.

Is it worth going? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. When Hollywood sees that the public will fork out massive amounts of money for “blockbusters” only when they’ve got some substance, they’ll stop wasting celluloid on abortions like The Mummy II and the Scorpion King.

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