Would too much depth drown the spider?

So, this movie made history with a $114 million opening weekend. What does that really tell us? Mainly that the film was highly anticipated. The expectations seem to have been for a good opening, but not necessarily record breaking. We're at the leading edge of the summer blockbuster season, without many attention getting films coming into the weekend. Perhaps the masses were hungry for a big budget mass of special effects, plot and character development being optional.

Yes, Spider-Man resembles a mass of blockbuster elements, but I was surprised at the amount of effort spent on balancing out those elements. There are problems, though, but I wonder how many people care.

As any good hero franchise premiere should, we witness the 'creation story' for Spider-Man. It parallels the comic version with some relevant updates (if you think about it, a genetically engineered spider's bite makes more sense than a radioactive spider's), and also starting the story with several of our principal characters closing out their senior year of high school. We follow with the story of losing Parker's Uncle Ben that leads our hero to a life of crime fighting. This part of the movie has a touch of humor that gives the movie, and Peter Parker, a certain warmth that pays off in the long run. On the other side, there's a certain disconnect with Uncle Ben's death which seems to lie in the script - or perhaps the cutting room floor - but it feels like we breeze by the moment, like the movie was ready to finally get into the real special effects and couldn't wait any longer.

The filmmakers are in a tough position. The creation of Spider-Man is important, but is also a complicated enough story that it takes serious screen time, but also never would make a complete film - or rather, not a blockbuster film. To make sure they make a nicely formed plot arc, they introduce the villain of the film, the Green Goblin, early on, following his own creation story. The thing about it is, they arrange for these two opposing people to know each other before becoming, well, costumed characters - a fact that leads to some interesting scenes and plot complications, but is a tremendously coincidental pill for the audience to swallow. I feel like this choice enabled them to make a more unique film, but it's also a bit counter to the big problem of comic book movies - they tend to assume the world as-it-is, and then suddenly we get two super-powerful forces that end up at each other's throats. A more informed film is Mystery Men, having a bit of a hierarchy of heroes and villians of different strengths in the world as it starts. But again, does anybody care? The set up for this kind of movie is established already, and my impression is that it was a conscious choice to make the film this way and try to make it more interesting, rather than obliviously following the set pattern by default. It is, honestly, a valid choice, if not an arty one.

Where Mystery Men went wrong was in having a poorly characterized villain. Spider-Man does a better job, creating some dimension to the Green Goblin, but ultimately, the character becomes a caricature. We start off with Norman Osborn, our future Goblin, as head of a defense contractor. He ends up killing off his board of directors to keep control of the company, which could have been an interesting set up for something, but then the existence of that company simply drops away as we watch our costumed folks beat each other up. The other thing about the Goblin is that we see him supposedly going insane, for a reason related to his 'creation', and while there is some promise shown of interesting things, the script reverts to a very standard, even predictable treatment of that insanity at the last battle of the film.

Let's turn now to the character of Mary Jane Watson, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst. As you may know, this is the future wife of Peter Parker in the comic version of Spider-Man. I'm not sure of her introduction in the comics, but here, she is the girl next door - literally. Parker is clearly in love with her, but geeky and shy, and she has a bonehead boyfriend as we start as well. Dunst looks pretty good in the red hair, and actually has some reign to bring interesting sides to the character. Unfortunately, the script implies, but leaves out, what would be the most interesting aspects of her life - the apparently abusive father, why she got involved with that bonehead, and the real transition to (no shock here) falling for the boy next door.

It really is unfortunate that the movie brings up so many interesting things, but doesn't follow up or merely blunts them. When it comes to your standard blockbuster special effects and fight sequences, it's all executed well enough (the more low-tech walking up walls does look at times like they just rotated the camera 90 degrees), but these things have to live within a context. While I might harp on about the problems with the film, the context is there, and may very well be better than any of the Batman films (is that a recommendation?). There are just some failings that come from an ambitious film. Ultimately, there is a certain design-by-committee feel here, and while there were a lot of stylish pieces selected for the final product, it proved too difficult to make them all fit together quite right. If you don't look too close, you can have a good time watching Spider-Man, but it's a long way to fall if you do.

Update: I've dropped my rating a notch - now that Spider-Man is getting a fair amount of play on cable, I've found the film less compelling the more I see it. While I enjoyed it in theater, this one doesn't really have staying power.

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