Try as I might, I can’t find it in me to get very excited about a movie like Spider-Man. What it does, it does reasonably well; this was probably the best Spider-Man movie that could be made (which leaves the inevitable sequels with their work cut out for them). Fans of the comic will be satisfied; newcomers will likely strap themselves in and enjoy the summer-movie ride. Yet Spider-Man may be a harbinger of a new (and, of late, ceaselessly hyped) trend in big-budget escapism: four-color weightlessness, decades-old superheroes presented squarely and without much irony or personal vision. The lights are on in Spider-Man, but nobody’s home; the movie is amiably impersonal, painless yet fundamentally forgettable.

When Stan Lee devised Spider-Man for Marvel Comics forty years ago, he took pains to give him — or, more accurately, the hero’s everyday persona Peter Parker — the mundane problems and insecurities that never seemed to plague the neo-gods over at Marvel’s competitor DC Comics (Superman, Batman, etc.). Peter is a bookish nerd given remarkable powers — agility, strength, wall-climbing — by a run-in with an irradiated spider. The movie sticks pretty close to this premise (though the spider has been decontaminated and made a genetic mutant); Tobey Maguire plays Peter as a slumping dork, smitten with the charms of schoolmate and next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), until the spider intervenes and Peter starts cresting on the high of his new empowerment.

The early scenes of Peter discovering and testing his abilities (with a funny, fan-pleasing moment when he tries to figure out how to make his wrists shoot webs) are enjoyable, like any Hero Learns the Ropes montage. And Peter’s first draft of what will become the red-and-blue Spider-Man togs is a terrific sight gag. But Peter becomes too virtuosic too quickly; before long, the computers take over and we’re watching a bits-and-bytes Spider-Man swing and zip all over the city. The people in his personal life — his devoted Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and his legendarily doomed Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) — take a back seat, and the movie becomes about the clash between Spider-Man and evil genius Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), who turns himself into the cackling Green Goblin in response to being ousted from his own corporation.

Dafoe has one wonderfully creepy moment when he achieves a perfect comic-book facial expression of complete megalomaniacal derangement. It makes you miss him all the more when he’s lost under the motionless Green Goblin mask, and when he’s up against Spider-Man you’re watching two guys in masks, as if the movie were history’s most expensive Halloween party. Maguire is appealing in his early, dweeby scenes, and Kirsten Dunst gets a gently teasing rhythm going with him, but you keep thinking they’ve both been in richer stuff than this. If the press is to be believed, you’re going to see a lot more fine actors collecting paychecks in these superhero thrill rides; they make the rides smoother, but they get turned into action figures.

J.K. Simmons comes through; as the blustery J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle, who has a knee-jerk distrust of Spider-Man, Simmons understands exactly what kind of movie he’s in and delivers a rapid-fire performance of high comedy, both utterly true to the comic-book character and entertaining for newcomers. Once again, he’s the best thing in a Sam Raimi movie. Spider-Man is unquestionably the biggest box-office success this once-great director (who made his name with the delirious Evil Dead films) will ever make, and it’s certainly livelier than his past few films, but Raimi has already made a brilliant superhero movie — 1990’s Darkman, which wasn’t based on a comic book but played so affectionately with every comic-book cliché that it was as if Raimi were saying to Hollywood, “This is how you do it.” Spider-Man doesn’t have anything like Darkman‘s parodic pop majesty. Raimi, who once was such a go-getter director that he had to invent cameras to get the swooping shots he wanted, stages the action here like any other high-paid summer-movie maestro. This time, it’s as if Hollywood were saying to Raimi, “This is how you do it.”

Explore posts in the same categories: comic-book, overrated

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