Comic book movies are red-hot these days. Thanks to the success of Blade in 1998 and the first X-Men movie in 2000, Hollywood has been relying more and more on superheroes to bring in the greenbacks. As a result, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider and even old stalwarts like Batman and Superman have all been called into duty.
And then, there’s Spider-Man. Spider-Man 3, which just opened this past weekend, is reportedly the most expensive movie in Hollywood history. How expensive? Try half a billion dollars (which includes the production and advertising budgets). So far, it’s doing unsurprisingly well. It’s already accumulated just over 150 million in one weekend in North America and 230 million overseas (it opened in nine foreign countries before its New York premiere on April 30th). It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if it made a billion dollars during its entire international theatrical run.
That being said, I’m in the minority when it comes to the Spider-Man franchise. I’ve been deeply disappointed with the first two films in the series. (I hope to see the third release when it becomes available on DVD later this year.) For me, the casting of Tobey Maguire in the pivotal title role has been the main reason why these films haven’t connected with me. I just can’t accept him as either Peter Parker or Spider-Man.
Perhaps it’s best to dust off, so to speak, my original assessment of the first Spider-Man movie in order to further explain my reservations. Released 5 years ago this month, I screened the film with my parents and a friend from my mom’s church on May 15, 2002 at the SilverCity Cinemas over in Ancaster. My mom and dad were in for a real shock during this rare evening out together.
First, there was the admission price. My parents wanted to treat my mom’s friend since she drove us to the cinema that night. They wanted to buy her ticket as a token of their appreciation. Little did any of us know that the evening rate for adults was $13.50. So, multiply that figure by 4 and it cost 54 smackers for four people to see a 2-hour movie. Needless to say, my parents haven’t expressed any desire to see anything else at SilverCity or in any other theatre, for that matter. (When the sequel came out in 2004, my dad decided to wait to see it on DVD. He’s looking forward to seeing number 3 at home, as well.)
Then, there was the volume. My family loves watching movies at home but they value their hearing. There were times during the Spider-Man screening where even I thought the sound system was cranked too high. (In fact, it’s one of the reasons I’ve stopped going to the cinema altogether. Louder isn’t better, guys.)
Finally, before the film even began, there were several commercials and, if my memory is good, 10 film trailers. That whole package had to total at least 20 minutes, possibly 25. Call me crazy but that’s overkill. All of us just wanted to see the movie. (Is it any wonder why fewer people go to the movies these days?)
As for my review, despite a slight change in the intro and another small edit near the end, this is essentially the same critique that has been kept out of sight until now. While the screenwriting did improve in Spider-Man 2 (which I screened on DVD), again, I was disappointed with the final result. If only the title character was played by someone more convincing than Tobey Maguire.
A Review By Dennis Earl
In the comic book world, Spider-Man always came across as a brooding, tortured teenager, a self-loather with only a glimmer of hope for his future. He seemed so unsure of himself. He was more of an unloved human than a self-assured superhero. Much of that brooding arose from the experiences of his other self, the geeky, science fanatic, and orphan, Peter Parker. A recluse who loses himself in his own theories and interests, he is not even close to being the most popular kid in school where he’s often mocked and beaten. With few friends and a gorgeous next door neighbour who always seems just out of his reach, it’s no wonder he’s always down on himself and his special powers. "It is my gift, it is my curse," he would say.
It’s no wonder that Mr. Excitement Tobey Maguire was cast in that role for the long-delayed, much anticipated Spider-Man feature film. Maguire often plays Peter Parker type characters. (He’s actually holding a comic book at the beginning and end of The Ice Storm.)
If you know even a hint about Spider-Man’s origin, whether you read the original story, the numerous reprints, or even watched the 60s cartoon version, then much of this film will be familiar to you. It certainly is a good looking film with moments of genuine excitement. What’s missing is a good human story with characters you like, characters you hate and some genuine surprises.
During a field trip, science student Parker gets bitten by a missing lab spider and becomes even more reclusive than normal as he tries to deal with these strange new feelings and ultimately, abilities he has accidentally obtained. His only friend is a rich kid named Harry Osborne (James Franco), whose father happens to be Dr. Norman Osborne, a self-made scientist hoping to convince the military his experimental flying gliders are worth investing in. As the story progresses, it’s clear the movie is more interested in Parker than it is in Dr. Osborne. Willem Dafoe, one of my favourite actors, is badly miscast here in a part that feels underwritten and perhaps, it was wise to limit his scenes. Dr. Osborne is given an ultimatum by the military. He better have his prototypes ready or the military is taking their business elsewhere.
Fearing failure, he resorts to something drastic but things go horribly wrong. He soon develops a true Jekyll & Hyde split persona. By day, he is the intelligent scientist quickly losing his control over his own corporation. By night, he is the Green Goblin, and here’s another complaint I have about this movie. When you see the Goblin, you get a cross between the Aliens Sigourney Weaver often battles and Mr. Roboto. Every time he appears on that fantastic glider of his, I kept thinking, "Dobbo origato Mr. Roboto."
In every comic book, there’s always a pretty girl to give the superhero some hope. In the comic version of Spider-Man, before Gwen Stacy, there was Mary Jane Watson, the fresh-faced red-head who always seemed to pick guys whose cracked personalites resembled her own verbally abusive father. In the film, once Parker realizes his powers, there’s a cute scene where MJ (played by Kirsten Dunst) slips on something in the cafeteria and Parker simultaneously catches her and her lunch.
Later in the same scene, he accidentally raises the ire of Dunst’s brutish boyfriend, Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello) and that leads to an inevitable confrontation where, for once, Parker is not outmatched.
It’s clear that Dunst and Maguire have chemistry but the majority of their dialogue seems lifted from Days Of Our Lives. I was surprised how manipulative their scenes made me feel and yet, out of nowhere, a quick, sweet moment occurs that you wish would last longer. Take the scene where MJ and Parker are outside talking in their backyards. MJ notices in that moment that he looks taller than he usually does. "I hunch," he responds. "Don’t," she says. Sometimes, fewer words carry more meaning.
Much of the movie builds up to the inevitable and sometimes effective confrontations between the Goblin and Spider-Man. But one wonders how the much younger and technologically deprived web crawler could ever outwit a middle-aged scientist who could easily blow him up at any moment. In the Bond pictures, the villains always talk too much before Bond wastes them. In this one, the Goblin constantly toys with him, setting him up only to never completely destroy him. There’s a reason for this. The Goblin tries to convince Spider-Man midway through the film that they could team up and cause all kinds of havoc. He tells Spider-Man, what’s the use in saving New Yorkers? They will eventually despise you. It doesn’t help that The Daily Bugle, in particular its cranky editor, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) views him as a menace, not a hero, on its front page.
While the majority of the film is a huge disappointment, there is one scene that is terrific. Thinking that all he needs is some extra cash to buy a fancy car to impress MJ, Peter Parker enters a contest where if he lasts 3 minutes with Bonesaw (the always charismatic Randy Macho Man Savage), a seemingly unbeatable wrestler, in a steel cage he wins 3000 bucks. Parker makes a hilariously cheesy costume and tells the announcer he’s the Human Spider. "That sucks," says the announcer and he bills him, unsurprisingly, as The Amazing Spider-Man. Despite being pummeled by a chair and enduring Bonesaw’s awesome strength, Parker dazzles the crowd and settles the match one minute sooner than expected. This leads to familiar scenes from the original comic book origin and the movie soon loses its momentary zip.
Good movies can be made from comic books. Batman, Superman, The Crow and the more recent Blade all inspired engaging, atmospheric films. But they also had characters you found interesting. In Spider-Man, without characters to get close to, you feel even more distant that Peter Parker does in his own city. There’s more to the story than I’ve revealed but the plot seems unnecessary to this film. It’s more interested in fight scenes and overly sappy melodramatic moments than telling a good story. When the inevitable sequel arrives in a couple of years, here’s hoping the screenwriting improves.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, May 8, 2007