A Bug's Life



The Goblin mask sucked.

And, I'm sorry, but maybe I missed a meeting: to me, Kirsten Dunst just isn't that hot. Both Peter Parker and Mary Jane were both way out of character: Peter was too wimpy (Peter is not a wimp), and MJ was, well, there really wasn't enough to Dunst's portrayal to even characterize what she was way too much of. Having said that, let me say this, as sincerely as I possibly can: this is, possibly, the finest super-hero film ever made. The last 30 seconds of this film left me gasping for air as I sat there, stunned, by the incredible scene of the euphoric Spider-Man webslinging across the city in a way I never dreamed would be possible. And, it's not just that the CGI animation is great, not only that it is incredibly seamless or that you really can't tell where Tobey Maguire leaves off and the stunt man and special effects team take over and where they hand it off to the CGI guys. 

You really can't tell what is Maguire and what is stunt man and what is computer generated. But, honestly, none of that matters. Had the movie only had great stunts, had it only had a script you could swear Stan Lee wrote (except that his Mary Jane was way more interesting than Dunst), had it only been a fabulous special effects bonanza, I still wouldn't have cared. 

What absolutely floored me was not just that Spider-Man
could move, but that he moved like Spider-Man. Not like Tim Burton's idea of how Batman moves, but how Spider-Man actually moves. This was a film obviously created by people who actually knew something about Spider-Man. People who loved Spider-Man and who cared a great deal about getting it right. They didn't approach the material in a patronizing manner, something Hollywood has an incredibly difficult time with. The first hour or so of Superman was one of the most brilliant moments in super-hero film, but then they just wrecked it by immediately camping it up soon as Clark hit Metropolis. The first couple of reels of Tim Burton's Batman were darkly gothic and a real pleasure to drink in, but Burton couldn't help himself when he got to Nicholson's Joker, and the taut plot careened off a cliff and never recovered.

Spider-Man remained disciplined from opening credits to the final shots of Spidey doing his thing. It set a new standard: Make It Good. Don't just make it work, but Make It Good. If you Make It Good, they will come. They will come in droves. And, better than that, they will go. They will go and tell people, and other people will come. Spider-Man broke $100 million in its opening weekend, a figure I guarantee you not even Stan Lee (whom I know, so I'm not talking out of my hat, here) could have possibly dreamed. Spider-Man had Marvel all over it, with both Lee and Marvel top dog Avi Arad actively involved, where the tradition as, typically been, to immediately exclude the comic book guys as soon as the deal is inked. Marvel is all over this film and it shows. There are dumb things about Spider-Man— the really bad Goblin mask for one, I almost didn't see the film because of it, and I almost walked out when Willem Dafoe first suited up— but the amount of dumbness was clearly kept to a minimum, and I refuse to accept the idea that that's a happy coincidence. That's what having Stan Lee in the room gets you.

So the new standard, Make It Good, includes, as a prime component, Keep The Comic Book Guys In The Room, Moron. This Is What They DO For A Living. In case it doesn't show, I am flat-out overjoyed by Spider-Man, a film that may actually help keep comics alive, as opposed to, say, the Joel Schumacher gay fest Batman & Robin. I have no problem with gay fests per se, but Schumacher was making fun of Batman and company and paying Ahh-nold (I still can't believe it) twenty-five mill to do it. Batman & Robin not only killed the Bat franchise, it nearly killed the notion of super-hero flicks altogether. I'm not sure when or if we'll ever see Batman suit up again, but Spider-Man has made Black Panther that much more likely, as now Snipes has to be thinking, "Spandex sells." Of course, at this writing, Snipes' team has violated the new deal. They have kept the comic book guys out of the room. I hope that changes. A recent article in one of those film previews magazine had sound bites from Snipes talking about Panther, but talking about Panther in a way that shows us he's never read the current incarnation of the character. In fact, the article published a BLACK PANTHER comic book cover to go along with the article— issue #7 of the greatly lamented and very silly Jack Kirby run. I hope Snipes learns the Spider-Man lessons. If he makes the Kirby Panther, the Joel Schumacher Panther, I may just have to kill myself.

I'm not sure where the misfire was on Mary Jane. MJ was a man-eater: a fiery and outgoing person who immediately became the life of any party and sucked all the air out of any room she walked into. MJ was aggressive in a playful way, very direct, and used to make Peter's knees shake just by looking him in the eye. She was not this... onion... Dunst portrays in the movie, who has no idea the boy next door has a crush on her. Stan Lee's MJ knew everybody had a crush on her. She didn't use it to an unfair advantage, but she had fun with it. She was a party girl. She called Peter, "Tiger," which was her way of gently mocking him (actually, she called all the guys, "Tiger," because there were too many guys to remember all the names). Mary Jane was a much brighter personality, a much sharper person, than the Dunst character, who came across as a little vapid and very bland. Dunst was playing more of Gwen Stacey, Peter Parker's actual love interest (his romance with MJ didn't really kick into high gear until Marvel decided to pervert my Spider-Man versus Wolverine into an excuse for the two to get married, but that's another story).



I think the film wimped out by not killing Dunst's character. In the comics, the Green Goblin tosses Gwen Stacey off of the Queensboro Bridge. Spider-Man saves her with his web line, but the shock of the fall, and the whiplash of the sudden stop, snaps Gwen's neck and kills her. This was one of the most brutally shocking moments in the history of comics, one that hundreds of writers, including myself, have attempted to top. It was one of those seminal, almost religious moments where the standard has been set. Gerry Conway's brilliant writing of The Death of Gwen Stacey stands as a landmark in comics history, a moment so shocking it just left twisting for a month, refusing to believe she was dead, thinking Spidey would get Dr. Strange or somebody to resurrect her. But, no, she was gone, and that death and the subsequent showdown with Norman Osborne's Green Goblin constitute likely the best 44 pages of comics ever written or drawn (art by the fabulous Gil Kane, tempered by the more familial inks of legendary Spider-Man artist John Romita).

Has Willem Dafoe tossed Dunst over the bridge, and Maguire saves her only to realize he has not, in fact, saved her— my lord, that would be some movie. I have no doubt this scenario was played out as some point in the development process, but scratched likely under pressure of the looming franchise and merchandising. This creative choice was likely one not even Stan or Arad could change, although every Spider-Man fan knows what actually happened on that bridge, and every Spider-Man fan likely walked out of the film knowing they chumped out when the going got rough: when the film actually came close, for a brief moment, to the actual intensity of real comics.


The way it really happened, from Gerry Conway's brilliant Night Gwen Stacey Died


I wonder why that is: why the studios round off the corners and simplify and pull back and make the films "safe" because kids are going to see them. Kids listen to Marilyn Manson and Creed. Kids are not stupid and kids are not nearly as fragile as Hollywood seems to think they are. I doubt Bambi could ever get made today. If it did, there'd be this really happy ending  where they all gallop off into the sunset. Not killing MJ was a cowardly act, but, thankfully, the only major flaw in the film (other than the Goblin mask). And, hey, what did I know? Spider-Man is steaming towards $200 million with the chump-out in it. Had they done it my way and iced Dunst, it would have been a better movie, a more shocking film, a more emotional film, but maybe some parents would have shied away from bringing the kids (yeah, lotsa luck keeping them away).

With that minor complaint noted, I salute whoever that was playing J. Jonah Jameson. Oh, man he was funny. Bill Nunn was wasted as Robbie Robertson (why even bother hiring a real actor? *I* could have played that part), Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben was spot-on, except he reminded me too much of Pa Kent (but, I guess that's deliberate). Flash Thompson was forgettable, when he had a whole lot more depth going or him. And, as for Tobey's Parker: with just a tad more spine, he would have been right. Peter Parker was never Clark Kent, not under any circumstances. Maguire's Spider-Man needed to be funnier. The 1960's animated series actually got that right. Here we have a form of funny, enough to let us know Spidey has a sense of humor, but Spider-Man isn't just kinda funny, he's bugs bunny funny. He's Paul Reiser funny if not Jerry Seinfeld funny. At his peak, Spider-Man used to lay us out with his quick one-liners. Not everybody has that gift *coughs into fist,* but that's who Spider-Man is: Bugs Bunny with web shooters. We get that sense, an idea of that, here, but his lines should have been more, faster and funnier. People should have been spitting popcorn all over the seats. Spider-Man says what Peter would have said, had he thought of it and had he the nerve to say it. Once he puts the mask on, he is downright hilarious. He's good, at times amusing, but never hilarious. He needs Matthew Perry to coach improvised sarcasm: the very first thing Spider-Man should have done when he saw the Goblin costume is excuse himself for a moment so he could go somewhere and die laughing. Here, he sees the Goblin, and immediately takes him seriously. Spider-Man doesn't take Spider-Man seriously, doesn't consider himself a super-hero. The Green Goblin?!? Spidey would like to have a stroke snickering.

Which is all minor quibbling with a really fun day at the movies. It is rare for me to like, well, anything, or to use such glowing terms. This is a really good movie. You will have fun watching it. It may very well be the best super-hero film ever made, and it will certainly help the comics biz. There will be sequels, so there's plenty of opportunity to try again and get the small stuff right. But, for my money, the big stuff, the major stuff, is spot-on here. So much so that Spidey, by way of this marvelous film, may have saved us all.


Christopher Priest
May  2002

  Why I Never Talk About Spider-Man

Spider-Man is wearing the Reebok Classic Cobra Slip-On. www.reebok.com
Spider-Man REEBOK ad Copyright © 2003 Reebok International. REEBOK is a registered trademark of Reebok International.
SPIDER-MAN and related characters Copyright © 2003 Marvel Characters. All rights reserved. Excerpt from The Night Gwen Stacey Died taken from MARVEL TALES #192 Copyright © 1971. 1986 Marvel Comics Group, a division of Cadence Industries Corp. All rights reserved. SPIDER-MAN FILM ELEMENTS Copyright © 2003 Sony Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved. Text Copyright © 2007 Grace Phonogram eMedia. All Rights Reserved.