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The fantasy of the other self


After 40 years of comic books, generations of readers, and as much publicity as the hypemeisters, assisted by their kind friends in the media, can generate, and even after a long, unexplained, but politely ignored delay, Spider-Man simply cannot fail. It doesn’t really matter whether the picture is particularly good in any way, only that it appear; the built-in audience, the loud advertising, the press puffery virtually guarantee its success.

The first blockbuster of the summer season (which in Hollywood comes earlier every year), the movie, like the endless Star Wars saga, the numerous voyages of the starship Enterprise, the several flights of Batman and Superman, is already less a work of cinema than a popular culture phenomenon, complete with action figures, cover stories in the slick magazines, learned commentary by TV talking heads, and of course two sequels in the works.

The motion picture, as well it should, accurately reflects its genesis in the comic books, employing not only the familiar characters, plots, situations, conflicts, and so on, but also the bright colors, exaggerated action, and odd angles of the original. More important, the movie strongly emphasizes the great source of the title character’s appeal (in fact, the appeal of most of the whole costumed superhero/masked avenger crowd): the careful cultivation of adolescent fantasy. The folks at Marvel Comics, under the leadership of Stan Lee, have always trumpeted what they consider the originality, sensitivity, and relevance of their subjects and themes, which, however, usually consist of the familiar eroticized violence of most arts aimed directly at young males, with a character who sublimates the rage of hormones into thrilling acts of valor and daring.

Tobey Maguire is Peter Parker, the classic, lonely high school nerd who lives in what the newspapers tend to call a modest home in Queens with his kindly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). Peter takes pictures for the school paper, excels at science, and yearns after Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the girl next door.

On a field trip to a laboratory at Columbia University, Peter is bitten by a genetically altered super-spider. The bite endows him with superhuman strength and agility, an arachnoid ability to cling to any surface, a kind of extrasensory perception, and the power to shoot webbing from his wrists. Fulfilling the dreams of any rejected swain, he beats up the school bully, who also happens to be Mary Jane’s boyfriend (though somehow that does not cause her to forsake the lout) and sets out to make some money from his new powers.

When a robber kills his uncle, however, in the great comic book tradition Peter resolves to employ those powers to fight crime, defending the citizens of New York against an array of felons and attracting the attention of the media. But again in the tradition of the form, common or garden variety criminals are insufficient antagonists for a superhero; Spider-Man needs what the comics call an archenemy, a villain commensurate with his stature and abilities.

Appropriately, a Mad Scientist rises to the occasion: a researcher named Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) whose strength enhancing formula drives him insane. Osborn dons his own costume --- these guys always go for the fancy tailoring --- and, calling himself the Green Goblin, wreaks havoc all over Manhattan, challenging Spider-Man to a showdown and cackling maniacally all the while.

The movie’s structure follows a pattern suited to the personalities and actions of the two major characters, shifting between their normal lives and those secret identities beloved of comic book artists since Superman zoomed into action back in the 1930s. Peter Parker’s two personalities and behaviors consciously appeal to all those young and not-so-young people who dwell at times within a fantasy world, dreaming, perhaps even knowing that they are really someone else, someone capable of great deeds, successful, handsome, admired, loved. Norman Osborn, on the other hand, suggests the dark side of such duality, the split personality, the disturbed character and his Doppelgänger who traveled the dark, divided paths of literature long before anyone drew a comic book.

Spider-Man works best, predictably, in several sequences that follow the graphic adventures of the comic with some literalness, showing the superhero swinging exhilaratingly through the caverns of Manhattan, crawling up the sides of skyscrapers, exulting in the sheer joy of physical accomplishment, or perching pensively on one of the gargoyles of the Chrysler Building. Although something clearly went wrong with the film’s editing (which may account for the overdue release), its special effects should please all those filmgoers who demand the state of the art in electronic and optical magic, computer graphics, digital imagery, and the usual chases, explosions, and spectacular stunt work.

On the other hand, the flat, repetitive simplicity of the characters, with a concomitant exaggeration of emotions, and the many surprisingly dull and talky moments suggest some of the qualities of the comics themselves, where the stylized art of the panels freezes the action into a stasis that the movie occasionally achieves by accident.

Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J. K. Simmons, Gerry Becker, Bill Nunn, Jack Betts, Stanley Anderson, Ron Perkins; based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; directed by Sam Raimi. Cinemark Imax; Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5, Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.<

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