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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing on big screens everywhere, Spider-Man is the latest comics-into-film endeavor that takes advantage of new technologies to recreate the impossible feats of a superhero. Spider-Man hit the scene in 1962, the creation of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics (rival to DC Comics which brought us Super Man and Batman).  He became an enormously popular character.  Lee co-produced this movie, while Sam Raimi directs it.

One of the reasons for Spidey’s popularity is that his is the story of outcast boyhood and adolescent transformation, the boy version of the ugly duckling story. In the movie, he’s small, nerdy, wears glasses, gets beat up. His only friend is the equally outcast rich kid Harry (played by James Franco), who will become his double in more ways than one.

After a school field trip to a Columbia University lab that is experimenting with mutant spiders, one of which bites him, Peter (played by Tobey Maguire), falls into a venom-induced sleep and awakes to find himself transformed:  he has muscles, he doesn’t need his glasses anymore, and his body has a bunch of strange and delightful new powers. The parable of the transition from boyhood to adolescence as a joyful and empowering moment made me think that boys sure are having a better time of it than girls, for whom this process is typically represented as the end of their happy years. This fact is hinted at when we hear the father of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) yelling at her every day for the way she resembles her mother—“You’re just like her!” he cries.  Riding in cars with boys just doesn’t hold a candle to swinging through the city with the greatest of ease as a daring young man on a flying trapeze. Speaking of which, the special-effects web swinging through Manhattan goes a bit too fast to enjoy, really, though Maguire’s yoga and dance-like movements add a welcome touch of grace to the acrobatics.

Because he’s a romance hero, Spider-Man has surrogate parents (kindly but unlike him), skips sexuality—the white sticky web stuff he learns to aim notwithstanding, his love for M.J. is chaste and true, and he finds out too soon that his responsibility is to save the world, which he learns through a tragically wounding event. From whom must he save the world?  Why, the evil father, of course—the Green Goblin, Willem Dafoe. (All the fathers are evil, which is why Peter doesn’t have a real one). And, like Oedipus, Spider-Man sets a cycle of violence in motion, passed from one generation to the next. It’s really clever, the way this fairy tale for boys breaks it all down.

As for the actors, Kirsten Dunst is kind of a dud as M.J. and Willem Dafoe is, as always, completely over the top. Tobey Maguire for the part of Spider-Man was a stroke of genius; he’s innocent, beautiful, and exuberant, thoroughly convincing as an ordinary boy who becomes, to his own surprise and sometimes delight, a superhuman hero. Unfortunately, the special effects don’t really succeed in offsetting the dragging of the plot, the very best part of which is at the beginning. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2002