So at last it’s here. After years of pre-production nightmares and a string of potential directors hired and fired, Spiderman finally reaches the big screen for the first time in a nearly a quarter of a century. At the helm none other than Sam Raimi, the genius behind The Evil Dead, American Gothic, A Simple Plan and, er, Cleopatra 2525. But amidst the hype and the tidal wave of box office returns from the States (at the time of writing it’s already the sixth biggest film in US history) the question remains: is it any good? After all, box office returns have never been a good indication of quality and Spiderman has had more than its fair share of set-backs. All bodes ill but miraculously Raimi has managed to pull it off, despite the inevitable (and deeply tedious) nit-picking of on-line Spider-fans disgruntled at the film’s alteration of the web-slinger’s origins. Like anyone cares and as if 40 odd years of a comic book can be successfully distilled into 2 hours of running time – short of taking a page a frame and leaving everyone with a migraine.
Poor old geeky Peter Parker. He’s been in love with his neighbour and schoolmate Mary Jane for longer than he’d care to mention but she’s dating the local bully. To make matters worse, he gets bitten by a genetically enhanced super spider on a school trip. When he awakes the next day, he seems to have developed some altogether peculiar powers – he can run fast, punch hard, climb walls, oh, and shoot out extra-strong webbing from his wrists. After his uncle is killed by a criminal, he vows to use these skills to fight crime. Meanwhile his best mate’s dad, a research scientist, has done a very silly thing and inhaled ridiculous quantities of nerve gas, which has resulted in him developing another personality, manifesting itself as the Green Goblin. Suddenly Peter has an arch-enemy to deal with, much crime to fight, a job with the local paper and, horror of horrors, his best mate has started dating his beloved MJ.
Raimi’s approach is to tackle the underlying themes of Stan Lee’s comic book hero and is about as accurate a conversion as you could reasonably expect. In the emergent sub-culture of “geek-chic” Tobey Maguire suits the role perfectly – part pubescent nerd, (eventually) part empowered ubermensch, all family boy. Perhaps the drastic budget cuts have actually worked in its favour, for the proceedings are certainly more engaging when they involve the relationships between the characters and Peter Parker’s awakening powers. Stan Lee’s hero reflected the anxieties of adolescence and sexual awakening in an allegorical manner (see him in Mallrats – convincing Brodie that he would have given up the fame, fortune and comicbooks for one more day with the girl of his dreams, this despite Brodie’s obsession with superheroes’ genitalia) and Raimi mercifully retains this thread in his film. At times it also seeks to be a teenage version of Cronenberg’s The Fly (itself, of course, concerned with the fusion of man and bug, of uncontrollable sexual urges and self-doubt). Parker has to balance life with his aunt and uncle, his desire for a girlfriend and the onslaught of teenage angst. Oh, and save the world from the heinous attentions of the Green Goblin.
Raimi tackles his human subjects with a touch that shows his recent work on The Gift and A Simple Plan was not in vain, despite their relatively poor performance at the box office. Kirsten Dunst and Maguire certainly share their on-screen moments with a certain amount of crackle and the domestic sitcom situations involving his aunt provide much needed comedy relief in the post-Buffy mould. Were this purely “mature” Raimi, many punters would feel disgruntled at parting with their six quid. Fortunately though Raimi’s hyper-kinetic camera style and visual inventiveness comes out when the action hots up. Spider-man’s swings through the city streets are truly exhilarating in their execution and mercifully play a greater part than mere eye candy. If the Green Goblin looks a touch ropy every once in while, blame the money men, but there’s enough action to keep the undiscerning from walking. Unfortunately the confrontation with the nemesis feels a bit like an afterthought. It’s a common problem with comic book films (that don’t have the luxury of years of build ups, part-works, back stories and ever expanded “origins”) – by the time you’ve established how a superhero is born you need to show how his/her nemesis evolved leaving little additional exposition time to generate anything other than a cursory (normally blatant) reason for conflict. In many ways it’s inevitable (the X-Men, Batman etc all suffer the same problem), leaves the film open for a lucrative franchise but normally rids any potential sequels of the headline villains (Batman ditched The Joker but X-Men cleverly retained its nemesis). In the case of Batman this opened the sequel up to a far more interesting set of ideas, one can hope for the same here.
Raimi is of course no stranger to the world of comic book cinema. His earlier films The Evil Dead and Crimewave derive from EC Comics and The Three Stooges (themselves little more than live action comics) come to life. However it is to Darkman that Raimi’s skill as a comic book director in the superhero mould really came to the fore. Spiderman lacks Darkman’s sadean streak and some of the more outré camera work. The inner conflict of the protagonist here is not of one on the brink of insanity and pain, but of identifiable “normal” feelings of growing up. In this sense Darkman is a far more operatic film to Spiderman’s soap opera(tic), a matter born out in the former’s effects work that seeks to be intense and expressionist (pixillation, animation, colour palette cycles) rather than internally realistic. Indeed it is Spiderman’s normality that makes it endearing and Darkman’s abnormality that makes it a far more confrontational film.
Film adaptations of comic books invariably upset the loyal core but then film adaptations of literature do that too. In recent years we’ve had to sit through a variety of comic book adaptations of varying quality from the simply excellent (Ghost World, Josie and the Pussycats, Batman Returns) and the highly commendable (X-Men, Mystery Men) to the downright abysmal (Batman). Spiderman at least makes it to highly commendable. It’s not art but it is good solid Hollywood film-making. Now, hands up who can’t wait for Ang Lee’s The Incredible Hulk?