Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Spinning Spider-Man's Web on the Big Screen

I was never a devotee of comic books.

Oh, sure, there were some I would read when I was a kid — but not regularly. I could take 'em or leave 'em.

I always preferred the comic books that made me laugh as opposed to the ones that I judged to be dramatic, more serious in nature.

It was in that category that I would put characters like Superman, Spider–Man, etc. It seems to me that superheroes are, almost by definition, about serious stuff, and their fans are deadly serious about them. I've known people who were really into the superhero thing. I even worked with a guy once who was petrified of spiders but loved the character Spider–Man. Go figure.

That might explain why I liked the "Super–Man" movie that made its debut on this date in 2002 — even though many people seem to prefer the version from 2012. I've never seen that one, though, so I can't be making any kind of comparison except based on what I've heard from others.

That wouldn't be a satisfactory answer, either, though, because the general consensus seems to be that the 2012 version was better. And it may well have been.

I just felt thoroughly entertained by the version that premiered 15 years ago today. It may not have had the special effects that were available a decade later, but movies have always been that way. They've always had to compensate for the things they didn't have or couldn't do.

"Spider–Man" told a good story. That always makes up for a lot with me. It was like watching a comic book, frame by frame, on the movie screen. I could almost see the balloon dialogue between the characters.

Except there was a difference.

Comic books have always seemed scripted to me. In real life, people aren't usually as quick on their feet as they appear to be in a book, comic or otherwise. In real life, humans sometimes (often, in fact) need at least a little time to absorb what they have heard or seen before making a response — which is rarely as impressive as what appears in print. Books, comic or otherwise, may be intended to appear spontaneous, and many may succeed even though they almost certainly went through several lengthy revisions.

But the acting in "Spider–Man" always had just enough of those human pauses for entirely plausible intervals to make things seem spontaneous — even though the movie was just as scripted as the book(s), comic and otherwise.

Although it might have lacked as much action as Millennials prefer, I thought it was a good call to spend the first half of the movie essentially exploring the character of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) rather than assuming that everyone who saw the movie already was familiar with his story. It helped to establish that he had been a neighbor of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) since he was 6 and, by his own admission, had been in love with her all that time.

It was certainly a good call as far as Maguire was concerned. It was the movie that made him a star.

Film critic Roger Ebert and I frequently agreed in our assessments of movies, but we never saw eye to eye on the "Spider–Man" franchise.

Ebert, for example, thought Maguire was miscast. I did not.

"Imagine 'Superman' with a Clark Kent more charismatic than the Man of Steel," Ebert wrote, "and you'll understand how 'Spider–Man' goes wrong. Tobey Maguire is pitch–perfect as the socially retarded Peter Parker, but when he becomes Spider–Man, the film turns to action sequences that zip along like perfunctory cartoons."

I suppose that was the quality I liked best. I always see comic books when I see suuperheroperhero movies, anyway. For me, that made Maguire ideal for the role.

And, although their roles were supporting, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris were well cast as Maguire's aunt and uncle.

Willem Dafoe was perfect as Norman Osborn, the father of Maguire's best friend and a bit of a mad scientist who became Spider–Man's nemesis, the Green Goblin.

I guess the thing about the movie to which I objected was the portrayal of the newspaper editor. Now, I like J.K. Simmons, who played the part. I especially like him in his television role in the Farmers Insurance commercials.

It is likely that he had little input into the character, but I thought it was an unrealistic portrayal. I have worked for several newspapers — and, as a result, several editors. They all had their shortcomings, but they had their redeeming qualities, too. Simmons' character did not.