Along Came a Spider

Superman, as pretty much anyone can tell you, is the Man of Steel. Solid, self-assured and uncomplicated as apple pie. Spider-Man, whose big-screen appearance marks the official start of Summer 2002, is something else entirely. Just as Superman holds a special place in the hearts of a generation of self-made men and women (but let's face it — mostly men) who survived the Great Depression, stormed the beaches of Normandy and remade the world in their own image, so does Spider-Man speak to their less secure children and to their children's children.

Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, is a geek. This is something I know a little something about, having once upon a time possessed a geekishly extensive collection of early Spider-Man comics, including Spidey's debut in Amazing Fantasy Comics No. 15 — a little item which now commands a selling price roughly equivalent to what a piece of prime oceanfront property in Malibu goes for.

Not being a complete geek, though, I didn't bother to keep my Spider-Man comics in absolutely pristine condition, sealed and tucked away in those curious little air-tight vacuum bags favored by fanboys everywhere. Rats eventually devoured my entire collection, including that priceless Spidey debut ish, which is why I was unable to retire early and am now here telling you this story and, eventually, getting around to actually reviewing the Spider-Man movie.

There's a moral in there somewhere (and I'm still waiting for someone to tell me what it is), but the point is that the rats-ate-my-retirement-fund story is something that could easily have happened to Spidey himself. Besides the geek thing, Peter Parker/Spider-Man is one of those guys who just can't seem to catch a break. Often called the first "adult superhero" — a slightly misleading label considering that he's also a teenager — his personal life's a mess and even his most spectacular acts of super-heroism are often misconstrued as being somehow self-serving or even nefarious.

He's a well-meaning screw-up, a loner, an outsider (although not necessarily by choice), a slightly depressed self-doubter for whom every silver cloud has a sooty lining — in other words, a typical teen. Superman lived in Metropolis, Batman lived in Gotham, but Peter Parker lived in Queens, with the Big City glittering away in plain sight just down the way, but always somehow unattainable.

Sam Raimi's big-screen adaptation of Spider-Man is remarkably faithful to almost all of this, even if the edges have been smoothed out a touch. It's not by accident that the first visual is a collage of panels taken right from the original comics, immediately followed by, in massive red and white letters, the Marvel logo. Comics company Marvel created Spidey and introduced him to the world in the early '60s, along with a host of other problem-plagued, soul-searching superheroes. Spider-Man may have its flaws, but it's the real deal, and Raimi wants us to know that right off the bat.

All the right elements are there, laid out in the movie's first half in a manner that has all the symmetry and primal oomph of classical mythology. The movie details two parallel transformations (or hero's journeys, as Joltin' Joe Campbell might have had it): the first is that of Peter Parker himself into Spider-Man, the other being that of a loose-cannon businessman into a physically-enhanced madman who becomes Spidey's first nemesis. Coincidences and irony abound, from the evil arch villain who turns out to be the father of our hero's best friend, to the mugger Parker doesn't bother to apprehend — a decision that allows the criminal to go on to murder Pete's beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), thereby prompting Parker to don those snazzy Spider-Man threads and devote his life to crime fighting.

Tobey Maguire is extremely likable as the title character, if a tad too upbeat and uncomplicated for this role. The movie doesn't dwell on Peter Parker's position as his school's resident nerd, being humiliated by bullies and rejected by girls. Instead, it leaps right into his transformation into Spider-Man, a change brought about by being bitten by a new, genetically engineered species of spider (it was a radioactive spider in the comics, but hey, genetic engineering is so much sexier).

Peter soon discovers that he's buffed up and acquired enormous strength, enhanced reflexes, and all sorts of other cool powers that reveal themselves throughout the course of the movie's first hour. In no time flat, he's even sprouting coarse, non-human bristles from his fingertips (a touch, revealed in bizarre close-up that seems lifted from a David Cronenberg bio-horror flick) and crawling straight up walls.

Parker doesn't immediately become Spider-Man. Interestingly enough, he spends most of the movie simply adjusting to his new powers (we don't even see Spidey in full costume until a full hour into the movie — and even then, frankly, it's a moment so understated it's almost anti-climatic). When Parker isn't coping with his new abilities, he's being consumed with guilt over having inadvertently caused the death of his surrogate father, Uncle Ben. Even more so than brooding Bruce Wayne (whose childhood trauma of witnessing his parents' violent deaths precipitated his taking up tights, cape and vigilantism), Peter Parker's whole crime-fighting career seems like nothing so much as one big guilt trip. The movie doesn't exactly linger on this point, but it does position it right at the emotional center of Spider-Man.

The movie's first part is so compelling that what comes after is something of a letdown. Even though the second half of Spider-Man is infinitely more action packed than the setup, the movie gives the distinct impression of slowing down as it progresses. This is partially due to the film's later sections switching the emphasis from Spidey to his nemesis, the Green Goblin, who looks a little too much like an overgrown Japanese action toy and is played with a bit too much hammy gusto by Willem Dafoe.

The main reason the movie's second half suffers, however, is due to the fundamental shift from characters to CGI-dominated action — and, frankly, some of the digital effects aren't quite up to the task. This is a movie with lots of fantastic feats of seemingly impossible acrobatic prowess and lots of special effects — the most special of all being Spidey himself in motion — and too much of it looks just a bit off: It's not exactly cheesy, but neither is it entirely believable (at least in terms of what we've come to expect from our state-of-the-art action flicks). There's often a slight jerkiness and a weirdly weightless quality to Spider-Man's more intricately choreographed movements that's almost doll-like, in a way that recalls the stop-motion claymation of Ray Harryhausen. It's actually sort of charming to see a Hollywood special effects extravaganza where we can actually see the stitching, but it messes with our ability to fully engage with the movie.

None of this will keep the crowds from flocking to Spider-Man, of course, nor should it. Raimi, who proved his mastery of the comic book sensibility in Darkman as well as his Evil Dead movies, has basically done right by this seminal superhero. He's not exactly the Anti-Superman, nor is he quite the disaffected teen he was in the comic books, but Spider-Man on the big screen remains someone that kids can relate to as well as thrill to, even as grown-ups find themselves compelled to discover what makes him tick.

Anime-niacs If the recent local showing of the Japanese anime feature Metropolis blew you out of your proverbial seat, there's lots more where that came from. In conjunction with their current exhibition, My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation, The Tampa Museum of Art is devoting the next few months to a film series of some of the best anime has to offer.

Every Saturday in May, you can catch some of the family friendlier feature-length animes, beginning with the magical adventure Card Captor Sakura Movie 2 on May 11. The real highlights of the month, though, are a pair of lyrical fantasy masterpieces by the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke), My Neighbor Totoro on May 18 and Kiki's Delivery Service on May 25. The Kiki being presented by the museum is the surprisingly good English dubbed version prepared a few years back by Miramax, featuring the voices of Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman and Janeane Garofolo. All May screenings will take place at 2 p.m. and are free with museum admission.

The anime film festival takes a turn towards edgier, more adult fare in June, with a series of evening screenings every Saturday at 7 p.m. On June 1 and June 8, you can catch a local encore presentation of Osamu Tezuka's spectacular Metropolis, a politically grounded sci-fi epic set in a fabulously stylized futuristic city stocked with proles, callous rulers, mad scientists and powerful robots. Part Blade Runner retro-future and part Leni Riefenstahl Third Reich chic, Metropolis is a dense, intricately detailed triumph of imagination. The anime series continues on June 15 with the sci-fi action adventure Spriggan, and concludes on June 22 with Isao Takahata's masterful Grave of the Fireflies, a poetic and sometimes unbearably intense tale of orphans struggling to survive in a ravaged, post-World War II Japan.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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