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My Spider Sense is Tingling!

01/06/2002. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy Spiderman in the USA - or Buy Spiderman in the UK

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Mark R. Leeper finds that Sam Raimi does a comic superhero story that is more character-driven than fight driven. Toby McGuire plays Peter Parker, the boy bitten by a spider and finds himself with special spider powers. The film is fairly faithful to the comic book and at the same time is fast-moving and fun.

I have not read a lot of comic books since I was in Junior High.


At that time Spider-Man was still a new comic, but I read several issues and have read a few since. To be honest it was neither sufficiently weird, nor sufficiently science-fictional to hold my interest at that time.

I did like that the characters portrayed were a little better developed than the DC superheroes. I have, however, read enough Spider-Man and X-Men comic books to know that the new film SPIDER-MAN seems closer to the original comic books than the recent X-MEN did.

But that is not the only reason I think this is the better of the two films. For my taste the characters of X-MEN did not seem as well-developed and to a much greater extent that film was fight-driven and while SPIDER-MAN is more character-driven. Peter Parker is something of a cliche, much like the title character of CARRIE, but at least we get a better idea of who he is than we did with the characters of most comic book based films.

Peter Parker (played by Tobey Maguire) is his school's science nebbish. He can tell you anything about science, but he cannot work up the courage to talk to his attractive next-door-neighbor and classmate, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). An orphan, he is lives a frustrating life in a minor key in a lower-middle class neighborhood of New York.

Then Peter is bitten by a spider that was altered by DNA research. (Originally in the comic it was altered by atomic radiation, but writer Stan Lee seems to use whatever science that is current, mysterious, and topical.) Parker is very sick for a few hours, but when he recovers he gets considerably better than just well.

He finds he has the power to shoot webs from his wrists. (Why would he develop this at his wrists? I suppose it would be a very different film if he had inherited spinnerets in the same anatomical location where a spider has them.)

Now, after hundreds of years when presumably nobody in New York City had super-powers, the same day that Peter Parker becomes spiderized by sheer coincidence someone else gets super-powers also. (What are the chances?) It is Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), the father of Peter's best friend (another twist of fate!) who becomes a super-powered schizophrenic.

Osborn is much like Jekyll and Hyde, but instead of Hyde he turns into lurid Green Goblin. Actually, his most amazing power seems to be to keep his balance on a sort of high-speed anti-gravity speeder. But while the film does have fight scenes between him and Spider-Man, they do not drag on as they do in some films like the current BLADE II. Instead, the film focuses on how Parker's relationships change as he discovers his powers.

Parker interacts with Ms. Watson as well as his aging aunt and uncle. The latter is played by the venerable Cliff Robertson. (That is an interesting casting choice. Robertson's signature role was Charly Gordon who also finds his relationships changing when he is altered by a scientific experiment.)

Actually, the special effects of SPIDER-MAN may be of a lower average quality than most other blockbuster fantasy films of late. In spite of this being one film where wirework might work well, too often the filmmakers rely on digital effects that do not convince the eye. The images create look three-dimensional but frequently will accelerate in ways that look more like cartoon figures.

Also, the fact is that while SPIDER-MAN may have a nifty suit, the whole concept does not work well for a movie superhero. Spider- Man's powers are that he is strong and fast, he throws sticky webs, and he sticks to things. His sort of rescue is generally limited to throwing a web to stop someone from falling.

But to make a sequence long enough to be interesting on film the person has to fall from a very great height. People fall from very high up indeed in SPIDER-MAN. I will discuss more limitations of the Spider-Man character after the review. And in addition to conceptual limitations, he has another restriction imposed by the writers.

As my wife has observed in films, apparently superheroes are frequently not allowed to kill their opponents directly any more, even in fights to the death. Notice that SPIDER-MAN does not kill his opponents. Instead he frazzles them to the point that they make some stupid blunder and conveniently kill themselves. We see this happen at least twice in this film. The writers apparently do not want to risk losing audience sympathy. In fact, these "frazzle-to-death killings" seem to have become standard in many action films.

Tobey Maguire simply does not look like the Peter Parker of the comic books, but he does a reasonably convincing job. I am a little reluctant to see him in a mass market film since he has been very good in some arthouse films and now he may not return to that sort of film.

Dunst does fine as the attractive friend of Parker. But having recently seen her in THE CAT'S MEOW as an actress who hides her intelligence behind a veneer of perky childishness, I think she is wasted in this simple role. J. K. Simmons is terrific as Parker's nasty boss J. Jonah Jameson. Sam Raimi known for THE EVIL DEAD and DARK MAN directs.

SPIDER-MAN was more fun than I was expecting.

I'd give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

As long as we are on the subject, there are some things I have never known about Spider-Man. The first observation I would have is that there are marked similarities between Spider-Man and the introverted villain in the episode "Spider Boy" of the radio series "The Shadow" (November 11, 1945) I would be curious how much Stan Lee knew of that episode.

In the comic book Spider-Man looks really dramatic swinging among tall buildings, but I have never established how Spider-Man is able to travel very well with his web-swing approach. Necessary (but not sufficient) would be to have buildings at least thirty feet higher than his plane of travel. Actually, depending on the distance between suspension points, it would probably have to be much higher than that.

Even in Manhattan he would be extremely limited in where this means of locomotion could take him. He has to alternate suspension points first on one side of his line of travel, then the other or he would end up flattening himself in the plane of the face of the building. He probably would find that it is very difficult to find a sequence of buildings he could use without finding one recessed too far from his line of travel.

Web-swinging would of necessity be a very limited means of travel. My guess is that a real Spider-Man would simply walk most places he went. That is a lot less spectacular.

Spider-Man's wall climbs would also be impossible. I am not an expert on spiders, but I think that even tarantulas have problems climbing a vertical surface because they are just too heavy. Parker is A LOT heavier than a tarantula.

The film suggested that Parker grows hooks on his hands, but even with fishhook gloves one could never get enough purchase to support a human's weight.

Not only would ha probably not be able to get to where the crime is, it is not at all clear how he knows where the crime is. Apparently Parker usually just happens on crimes being committed. Most of the crimes he seems to stop are in broad daylight and not in high-crime parts of the city. If it were so easy to find crime, police would probably be better at doing their job and stopping it. It seems to me that the comic book refers to so- called "spider sense."

My question is what "spider sense?" Most spiders have a hard time knowing what is going on one or two leg- spans from their body. Web spiders can sense movement further away, but that is really because it causes web vibrations under their bodies. Some hunting spiders, very distant relatives of the spider in the film, have considerably better eyesight, but nothing to match the eyesight of a mammal. If Peter Parker inherited spider senses about all he would need is a tin cup.

All this is not to say that spiders cannot do some pretty impressive things--most of which have probably never been used in the Spider-Man comic. Spiderlings use strands of silk to catch the wind and get carried into the air.

Live spiders have been found floating in this way in the upper levels of the stratosphere and come down miles out to sea. Most of the impressive things Spider-Man can do he does not get from his spider inheritance. Oh, and at this stage of his maturity he seems to be looking for a mate. Male spiders do this also, of course, but many do not survive the mating ritual.

I hope his human side helps him to make a better choice.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2002 Mark R. Leeper

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