Films

A case of arachnophilia

The coolest superhero has legs in his movie debut

Brian D. Johnson May 13 2002
Films

A case of arachnophilia

The coolest superhero has legs in his movie debut

Brian D. Johnson May 13 2002

A case of arachnophilia

The coolest superhero has legs in his movie debut

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Spider-Man has always been the cool superhero. Among the legions of orphan crusaders, Superman is the prototype, but he’s humourless and square, a Mr. America dressed like a human flag. Batman is a kind of crypto-fascist vigilante, a vengeful rich kid who arms himself as a one-man militia. But Spider-Man is the sensitive superhero, a romantic acrobat who relies on agility and stealth, rather than muscle or weaponry—his ego hangs by a thread. And now, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Stan Lee’s Marvel comics creation, the season’s most keenly awaited blockbuster brings him to the screen with a panache that should delight both fans and the uninitiated.

Spider-Man has a refreshing lightness of touch, especially after the overwrought fantasies of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Under the straightforward direction of Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan), the special effects hit more as a tonic than an onslaught. But the movie shows its real strength, oddly enough, when its hero is out of costume. You find yourself looking forward to the quiet character scenes, and that’s largely

thanks to the subtle charisma of its star, Tobey Maguire.

This remarkable young actor has already proved his talent in The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, The Cider House Rules, and Wonder Boys. He projects a disarming combination of vulnerability and resolve, sort of a boyish gravity. At first, Maguire seemed an unlikely candidate to play a superhero. Too short, too slight, too homely. But he has a deft way of drawing in the viewer, of calming the movie down to his own sardonic rhythm without letting it go slack. You can always sense a reserve of intelligence behind his eyes, which are large and blue and, well, kind of buggy.

Although he’s 26, Maguire is strangely credible as high school senior Peter Parker, an orphan nerd who lives with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) in Queens, N.Y. Peter, who works as a photographer for the school paper, is a target for bullies, and he’s tormented by an unrequited crush on the lovely Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who’s

literally the girl next door. Peter’s life turns around when he gets bitten by a genetically altered spider, acquiring arachnid strength, agility—and sticky fingers. His uncle suspects he’s acting weird because of “raging hormones.” And as Peter struggles with his new powers, his awkward transformation serves as a nifty metaphor for the passage to manhood. No wonder the superhero fantasy has such enduring appeal: it’s the perfect antidote to the lopsided equation between desire and possibility that we call adolescence.

For a while, between Maguire’s low-key performance and Raimi’s flat realism, Spider-Man doesn’t look much like a comic book. But then Peter starts spinning webs from his wrists and bungee-jumping from Manhattan skyscrapers. Felons pop up on every street corner (superheroes always have the good luck to stumble across crimes in progress). And Willem Dafoe pushes his arch-villain role as the Green Goblin—a bionically enhanced businessman with a rocket sled—deliriously over the top. As the damsel in distress, Dunst has a less enviable role. Superhero girls have to be thick enough not to recognize that, say, Clark Kent is Superman with glasses. Dunst’s best scene belongs to her breasts, rain-slick against her blouse, as she slowly rolls SpiderMan’s mask off his mouth to give him an upside-down kiss.

With such droll touches, it’s a pity the movie has to climax with a fist-fight cliché. And while Raimi lends contemporary Manhattan the vintage lustre of a Marvel comic, the ghost of 9/11 lurks around the edges, as the American flag creeps into the final frame along with the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So much for escaping to another world.

Now, a quick note on a more obscure, utterly different movie about a man with a secret identity. Time Out (L’Emploi du temps) is about a French businessman named Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) who spends long hours on the road, commuting to high-powered meetings and conferences, while keeping his wife abreast of his movements by cellphone. But as slowly becomes clear, he’s just going through the motions. Vincent has been fired from his job but can’t bring himself to tell his wife. So he constructs an elaborate fantasy about a new posting in Switzerland as a UN consultant. Directed by Laurent Cantet, Time Out is a beautifully disturbing drama that reminds us how deeply our lives are invented, whether we know it or not. 03