A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 390 – Spider Man

Spider Man – March 25th, 2011

The Spider Man movies are ones that I’ve meant to see for a while, but I’m never quite in the mood for them. They’ve got a very intentionally cheesy and self-aware tone that I don’t dislike, but that I know I’m not always up for. And Spider Man isn’t like the X-Men for me. I love the X-Men, so I’m always up for them. Spider Man, on the other hand, just isn’t one of my favorites. I don’t know precisely what it is, but he’s just never clicked for me. I like him okay. Sort of like how I like Superman okay. And I like Swamp Thing okay. I just like other superheroes better. They resonate with me more. Spider Man? Fun, but not my guy.

The funny thing is, Spider Man was my first exposure to comic books. When I was a kid I got two magazines: 3-2-1 Contact and The Electric Company. Now, both brand me as a geek from an early age, but what’s important here is that The Electric Company magazine featured Spider Man comics inside. Given that the magazine ceased publication well before I hit middle school, I have to conclude that Spider Man was indeed my first actual comic book reading experience. The most vivid memory I have of any of them is a particular panel involving Doc Octopus. I’ve always liked him as a concept. You’d think Spider Man would hold a special place for me, but eh. I guess childhood experiences aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Still, I guess I owe the folks at The Electric Company and Marvel for putting comic books in my hands in the first place despite my mother’s thoughts on the matter. And she’s the one who got me the subscription – hah, little did she know.

Anyhow, Spider Man. This is a big budget movie with a well known director and a well known cast and lots of little nods back to the canon, even if it is apparently two versions of the canon smushed together. Not that I mind! As with the X-Men movies, I usually take comic book movies to be their own versions of canon, unique unto themselves. And I’m hardly well-versed enough to complain when it comes to Spider Man. And as a movie plot and origin story it all hangs together well enough. With origin story movies you need to get a lot of information in and still provide a solid villain for excitement and manage to keep both parts of the plot balanced. And sure, there are places where this movie could have done with a little more meat, but generally speaking it’s not supposed to be a meaty movie. It’s supposed to be popcorn, and at that it succeeds.

We begin the movie with an introduction to our hero, the dorky and shy Peter Parker, school paper photographer and science whiz. Neither characteristic is given too much time. Just enough so we know he’s a multifaceted nerd and so we won’t question his later job as a photographer for the Daily Bugle. We also get to see that he’s totally socially inept with everyone except his best friend, Harry Osborn. Why is the super rich and apparently not-so-academically-gifted Harry his best friend? I don’t think the movie cares. The important part is that they’re best friends and both interested in the same unattainable girl, Mary Jane, who lives next door to Peter but barely knows him because she’s popular (duh). During a field trip to a lab studying genetically engineered spiders, Peter gets bitten and ta-da! Spider Man is born. Then he makes with the training and discovers his various abilities.

Now, I do have to wonder – Is the amateur wrestling bit something out of canon or was it unique to the movie? Because it’s cute and all, but mostly feels like a way for Peter to show off his new skills before his uncle is killed. Yes, the movie manages to marry the two together in a nice bit of character development for Peter – showing him the effects his choices can make and giving him a sense of responsibility for his uncle’s death – but I don’t know. It came off a little awkward.

The whole plot with Norman Osbourn and his development as the villain was much more well done, I believe. Aside from the lingering questions I have about how Harry and Peter ended up friends (maybe it was addressed in a single line and I missed it, but if so that doesn’t give a whole lot to go on) it does end up working out well as a plot device. The character dynamics between Norman, Harry and Peter work excellently to set up a nasty little triangle with MJ smack in the middle between Harry and Peter. And I really did appreciate Aunt May getting a line about how it’s not up to Harry or Peter which one MJ chooses. It’s up to MJ. Yeah, Aunt May, you tell ‘em! But really, the scenes with Spider Man and the Green Goblin? Great action with just the right touches of camp. Tobey Maguire is full of smug as Peter, and Willem Dafoe chews the scenery like it’s beef jerky, but that’s fine! That’s perfect. It makes every dangerous exchange something fun as well.

I’ve got to say, I think it’s a remarkably well balanced movie overall. I’ve only got two issues. The first is with the Daily Bugle. Now, I loved every scene with J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. He is pitch perfect (even if I do think of him in Burn After Reading whenever I see him now) and provides some fantastic comedy for the movie. But I felt like the scenes and Peter’s freelance job as a photographer for the paper were tossed in as a convenient nod to the comics without really incorporating them well enough into the movie. Yeah, they put Peter in a position to hear the mixed views people have of Spider Man, but half of those realizations come from him seeing the headlines on papers out on the street. It’s setting up later character points, but it serves little purpose here on its own. My other issue is with the time span of the movie. It arches from the end of high school for the spider bite and Uncle Ben plot points to the beginning of college and moving to the big city for the rest. And the time that’s passing and the events going on outside of Peter’s new superhero role are all just sort of faded out. The movie doesn’t care, but it ends up making it feel a little split to me. I realize that the story that’s being told requires a transition, but I feel like it could have been done more elegantly than by bridging the high school to college time. There’s a whole summer in there that we miss entirely in order to stick with the plot. We hear that Peter’s in college but it has no place in the movie whatsoever. It’s a little packed in and messy there.

Really though, my issues are the sorts of issues that can be easily overlooked when it comes to a movie that was made to be silly and actiony and fun and fast paced and full of wisecracks and scenes of Spider Man web slinging through New York City. The point of this movie is Spider Man, not college or summer vacations or Peter Parker’s job or anything mundane like that. It’s to see the beginning of a fun superhero whose secret identity is a shy nerd. We’re not watching for the shy nerd alone. We’re watching for the shy nerd getting a chance to be someone else without ceasing to be himself at the same time. And we’re watching for the action. Let’s not kid ourselves.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Spider Man

March 25, 2011

Spider Man

This weekend we’re embarking on the Spider Man trilogy. More comic book movies. A trilogy of big budget summer blockbusters. Also a trilogy that is the most cartoonish and comic bookish of all the comic book movies we own.

I do actually enjoy Sam Raimi as a director. He has a fun, quirky and energetic style in general. Clearly it served him well in the making of these films. They’re such ridiculous blatant cheese though. Sam Raimi’s Spider Man movie is like the Spider Man costume: bold, outrageous, and striking.

In stark contrast to yesterday’s movie tonight’s is a strictly by-the-numbers super hero origin story. It details the events that turned mild-mannered high-school nerd Peter Parker into the amazing Spider Man. In the process it highlights Spider Man’s most appealing feature: he is just this kid with super powers thrust upon him. He’s relatable. The Peter Parker of this movie is a painfully shy nerd who is picked on by his classmates and can’t get up the courage to speak to the gorgeous girl who lives next door to him an upon whom he has had a vicious crush since they were seven years old.

The movie is none too subtle about its portrayal of Peter’s powers as analogous to the onset of puberty. Nor does it shy away from showing every awkward moment of teenage angst that Peter undergoes – laughed at and ridiculed as he is by everybody in his class except for his one friend, Harry Osborn. There are so many moments in this movie that are familiar to me from my own awkward teen years. Particularly the beat when Peter thinks for a moment that Mary Jane is waving to him and then realises that she’s waving to friends behind him. I’ve had that happen to me. As has probably every comic book reading nerd ever – which explains why this transparent and shallow movie enjoyed such success. It knows just who its audience is and it delivers a rousing story of vengeance and super powers.

Where this movie succeeds best is in showing the unbridled joy of being Spider Man. It’s got the trademark comic book quips. It’s got the wall crawling. And more than anything else it’s got the swooping, soaring, thrilling flight as Spidey figures out how to swing from his webs between the tall buildings of New York City.

Where it fails most is whenever it makes an attempt to show a darker side to Peter’s abilities. It tries to graft something onto the movie about how everybody who is close to Peter is going to be hurt so he feels the need to push everyone away. There’s also a plodding and irritating love triangle between Peter, his rich pal Harry and his crush Mary Jane. Fortunately for this movie it doesn’t linger too much on these moments. Aside from one lengthy scene in a hospital where Peter goes on for about three hours about his feelings for M.J. things move at a pretty good clip. I suppose it’s part of the whole wish fulfillment nature of the movie that Peter has to get the love of the beautiful girl, but it really feels like it slows things down.

Luckily he’s got a fantastic villain to help move things along whenever they start to get bogged down. William Dafoe is one of the best things in this movie as the laconic Green Goblin and as the tortured Norman Osborn who can feel his empire crumbling around him. (I was slightly disappointed that the corporation Oscorp is in danger of losing its military contracts to was not Stark Industries.) Every time the movie threatens to go off the rails with the romance plot he goes out and blows something up and it’s right back to the action adventure that is its strongest suit.

I had not realized quit how much this movie felt like a series of cliches held together by some thrilling CGI effects before tonight’s viewing. When peter gets on the school bus and nobody will let him sit with them I felt like I had slipped back in time to a Brady Bunch episode or something. Every crook in the movie wears black pants and a black sweater (I’m a little surprised they don’t have dynamo masks, striped shirts and sacks with dollar signs on them.) There’s a non-sensical parade with giant balloons in times square that has something to do with Oscorp. (It seems incongruous because I can’t think of any defense contractor that has a parade with balloons.)

I find however that I just don’t care. It’s a movie that is fully aware of how silly it is. Everybody in the cast seems to know exactly what kind of project they’re a part of. I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoy William Dafoe, but there’s also my favorite part of the entire movie: J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson the blowhard editor of the Daily Bugle. He’s just so much fun! Tobey Maguire is perfect for the role of the nerd who discovers that he’s a super hero. Kirsten Dunst is not really given much to do besides look cute and be endangered so Spider Man can rescue her, which is kind of sad but is consistent with Mary Jane from the comics. (I still have scars from reading Todd Mcfarlane’s first attempt as a writer when Mary Jane goes clubbing while Spidey gets beat up. That was his idea of showing her as something other than just a damsel in distress.)

In spite of the stupidity and the familiar and cliche feel to much of the movie I still find it fun to watch. Maybe it’s the nerd in me that just wants to fly, but the thrilling soundtrack and the sweeping camera moves and wonderful CGI of the web slinging segments somehow make all the movie’s many other faults simply disappear. Let’s see if when we watch the second movie tomorrow it lives up to my memories of it as being the best in the trilogy.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment