Say what you will against the Hollywood event film, and you can say it twice about Spider-Man. Twice, because this movie has been so successfully pre-sold, mall-booked, cross-marketed and revenue-streamed that Columbia Pictures confidently scheduled Spider-Man 2 before it ever let an audience see the first. Violent? The fight scenes in this picture must have cost a hundred Foley artists a hundred nights in the recording studio, banging away at a hundred anvils. Crass? The product placements are literally as big as Times Square. Crude? The camera is perpetually drawn, as if by animal magnetism, to the cleavage of Kirsten Dunst, the better to examine two of her character’s few defining features. It is not enough to say that Spider-Man is a big movie. It is a big, big movie.
And Spider-Man is also a small movie, which hangs from the thin, very odd thread of its lead actor, Tobey Maguire. A little late in life, though not implausibly so, Maguire plays high school senior Peter Parker: the smart, shy, artistic, dateless victim of his graduating class, the kid voted Most Likely Not to Be Voted Anything, who happens to get bitten by a mutant spider and so turns into–what? A superhero? More like a freak. As conceived for comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was the first really alienated guy to swoop around fighting crime in a funny outfit. His strange powers made this teenage outsider into even more of an outsider–and Spider-Man the movie stays true to that idea, thanks mostly to Maguire.
Consider his voice, first of all: a nasal tenor instrument, with which he’s in no hurry to say anything. Maguire doesn’t cultivate a stammer, as did James Stewart (whom he occasionally calls to mind), but he does give a consistent impression of letting his words trail a beat or so behind his thoughts. You might recall his doing so in The Ice Storm (in which, for my money, he was the film’s one point of contact with reality), or in The Cider House Rules (where he was used for his air of moping fragility, yet somehow held his own against Michael Caine), or yet again in Wonder Boys (where Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. kept competing to see which one could play more broadly, and Maguire very quietly and subtly took control of the movie). It’s characteristic of him that in one of his better moments in Spider-Man, he says nothing at all. “Just got contacts?” asks MJ (Dunst), the girl of Peter Parker’s dreams, when she sees he’s no longer wearing glasses. The question sounds casual, but the occasion is charged; MJ has noticed for the first time the color of Peter’s eyes (spider-power has corrected his vision), and he’s just been granted his first chance to look into hers. Maguire considers her question, pauses as if a dozen possibilities were crowding his head and then settles on a reply: He grins. It must be the right choice. At the screening I attended, the audience answered his smile with laughter.
Maguire can get that effect because he generates a time zone of his own around his body, and also because that body is a mismatch not only for its surroundings but for itself. The carriage is stiff. The smile, when granted, loops goofily up and down the long face. The features of that face don’t quite come together. Although the assertive cleft chin might well belong to a superhero–or a movie star–it cohabitates a bit uncomfortably with rosebud lips, a delicate nose and eyes whose natural tendency is to watch for trouble. The impression, as a whole, is one of pleasant ungainliness–which may be why Maguire seems as surprised as the audience to discover what’s happened to his musculature. When he awakens after the spider bite, this 98-pound weakling finds that his torso can bulge and ripple, just like something from an old Charles Atlas ad.
The allusion to Charles Atlas seems deliberate on the part of the director, Sam Raimi. He knows those ads had their rightful place on the back covers of comic books, where they held out a fantasy of power to the medium’s core audience, the Peter Parkers of this life. That’s something comic books share with event movies; they’re both made to appeal to boys in their adolescence, or barely out of it. The difference, of course, is that event movies mount their appeal by deploying resources of a vastly greater scale, comparable (let’s say) to that recently used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Part of what I like about Spider-Man is that despite its staggering budget and daunting market clout, it stays in touch with the unpretentiousness of the source material. Raimi uses Maguire for that purpose, and he also uses a second, uncredited star: New York City.
To an extent that’s very rare with digitized, semi-cartoon pictures, Spider-Man is a movie shot on location. You see the Columbia University campus, Midtown, the Flatiron district, SoHo, the East River and (maybe most gratifying of all) the row houses and little commercial streets of Queens. Very often the action that takes place in these settings is computer-generated, with Spider-Man swinging from building to building by his web, or performing the kind of acrobatics that were a prime attraction of The Matrix. Even so, the real city remains an irreducible presence in Spider-Man, as when Peter discovers his new abilities and goes leaping across the rooftops in exhilaration–the roofs, in this case, belonging to the same squat apartment buildings you see every day from the elevated train.
So there’s something humble, plain and slightly old-fashioned working within this mega-movie–or perhaps even working against it. As I turn from Maguire and the settings to the story and its themes, as elaborated by screenwriter David Koepp, I notice that the conflict between big and small is more than an accidental effect in Spider-Man. It’s the movie’s substance.
The plot, in brief, concerns a surrogate father who happens to be an all-powerful homicidal maniac. Norman Osborn (played by Willem Dafoe, the movie’s Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. rolled into one) is a millionaire scientist who at first befriends the impecunious Peter, offering him concern and sympathy. But Norman is also a military contractor who hungers for that next big contract, as a result of which he undergoes his own transformation, developing a monstrous alter ego known as the Green Goblin. Whereas Norman is kind and gentle toward Peter, the Green Goblin schemes to destroy Spider-Man, striking at him through the people he loves.
As someone who has been a son and is presently a father, I wasn’t convinced. Spider-Man tosses out a notion of the paternal relationship, but it conveys nothing of the feeling of bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. (Paradoxically, the relationship between MJ and her father has emotional weight, even though it’s a side issue in the movie. Her father bullies and belittles her–which may be why she takes a liking to Peter. He’s the one male animal she encounters who is strong but doesn’t act it.) But if we agree not to take the movie’s terms more seriously than they deserve, then the father-son conceit can be made to yield some sense. Let’s say the father is a stand-in for Columbia Pictures, a Sony Pictures Entertainment Company, and the son is Sam Raimi, who at one moment gets sweet talks and huge sums of money from his corporate parent and at another is reminded, no doubt forcefully, that the parent is in fact his master, who will kill for those revenue streams.
Does this interpretation seem far-fetched? Then think about Peter’s Uncle Ben, the other surrogate father in the film and the movie’s moral voice. Raimi has waggishly cast Cliff Robertson in the role–no doubt because Robertson, too, went through a life-altering, science-fiction change in the movies, in Charly, but also perhaps because he was the one who uncovered malfeasance at Columbia Pictures in the late 1970s and so brought down its management. Robertson’s mere presence in a new Columbia release is a kind of history lesson, and a rebuke. Who better to tell Peter, practically with his dying breath, that power brings responsibility? Who better to play a wise, elderly working stiff from Queens, in contrast to Dafoe’s military-industrial tycoon?
And who can doubt that such a contrast is needed, when Spider-Man portrays modern economic life as an endless series of downsizings? The older people in the movie are pushed out of their jobs; the younger can’t get any. Why, the very notion of hiring someone seems repugnant to the editor of the Daily Bugle (JK Simmons) when Peter comes looking for work. “Freelance!” he bellows. That’s the best thing for young people today. Then, as a substitute for decent freelance pay, the editor goes on to promise “Meat–Christmas meat!”
As an object of commerce, Spider-Man belongs to the world of the Daily Bugle, and to the Green Goblin. As a work of the imagination–as a movie, rather than a blockbuster–it belongs to Cliff Robertson and Tobey Maguire, to New York City and to New York’s people (who put in a surprising, crucial mass appearance late in the film). I liked seeing this conflict played out openly, in the first summer-season mega-production of 2002. But that’s not why I gave my heart to Spider-Man.
What really moved me was the exchange between Peter and MJ at the end of the film. It’s a scene that comes out of nowhere, if you’ve ignored the small movie within Spider-Man and seen only the product placements and special effects. But if you’ve registered the moments of wit and feeling that surface throughout the picture, intermittently but steadily, you will feel that it’s right for the movie to end here, in a graveyard, with MJ at last caressing Peter’s face and doing it with a black-gloved hand. Finally she can speak of what she wants, amid death. Peter wants to reply, and could do so eloquently; but, being Tobey Maguire, he chooses to hold back.
And so it ends, triumphantly, unhappily–that is, until Spider-Man 2.