I, Bug

On Spider-Man and Woody Allen

As Peter Parker awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. Unlike the hero of Kafka's great and unnerving story, however, the Queens teenager doesn't turn into an immense bug but an enhanced human, endowed with the strength and physical gifts of a different species. He still looks like the film's star, Tobey Maguire, but bigger. With tumescent biceps and flagstone stomach musculature, he now moves like an arachnid, scuttling up the sides of buildings, volleying through the air and, most usefully, ejaculating long, white streams of webbing from his wrists. As with every adolescent, the live-action version of Marvel's bug-boy has sticky fingers and a world of deeply repressed desires; he aches for the seemingly unobtainable, having nursed dreams of becoming a photographer and snaring the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Yet unlike Kafka's Gregor Samsa and every other kid on the block, he can realize his dreams, transform his sexual panic, maybe even get the girl. Because unlike the rest of us, Peter Parker has something special going for him—a legacy as one of the coolest of modern comic-book creations, a superhero who was closer in age to his fan base than most, a hero, as the original comic explained, "that could be you."

The thing is Spider-Man hasn't aged all that well. There's that getup for starters, a one-piece stretchy number that, while appealingly form-fitted, when combined with the character's slinky athleticism, makes Spider-Man seem less like a superhero than a Cirque de Soleil acrobat on the cruise. His spider-ass bobs in the air like a buoy in stormy waters, but is that really what we're supposed to be thinking about when we watch Maguire (or his stunt double) flex his superhero moves? (And if that is what we're meant to be thinking about, then why is the spider-package as humble as that of a Ken doll?) It's hard to know what to think, given how unsteadily director Sam Raimi has delivered his version of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's creation into the 21st century. Like the characters themselves, the tone of this blown-up comic continually wavers between low-key hip knowingness and plaintive sincerity, without ever settling into a groove. Maguire isn't much of a geek, even before the transforming spider bite, though he wears Peter's bafflement and outsider status easily enough. It helps that the actor's voice sounds as if it has only recently broken because there isn't much else going on here to convince us that Peter Parker is anywhere near as tortured as his opening narration asserts. And, yeah, he's got "spider sense," but in the age of manga and The Matrix, who cares?

It isn't that Spider-Man is inherently unsuited for live-action translation; it's just that he's not particularly interesting or, well, animated. The costume's not just dorky (it's a unitard), it actively subverts the character's complexity, the human part of the superhero, by putting one of the film's strengths—Maguire's face—completely under wraps every time some villain says boo. On the page, a character's expression is subordinate to how expressively he or she fits into the panel; the exact tilt at which Batman clenches his fists or one of R. Crumb's balloon girls widens her mouth can be as revelatory as any movie close-up, often more so. For a comic book to pop off the screen, you need live-action images that can grab you as hard and fast as any graphic image—and if the actor's face and the action aren't there to hook you, then the film's style had better. In his moody 1990 thriller Darkman, Raimi didn't just fashion a poetics of despair out of his character's grief, he found the visual language with which to express that pain (much as he did eight years later for A Simple Plan). If there's nothing personal about the look of this film, it's in part because here Raimi never dives into the dark or rolls about in the muck of the human condition. His New York locations are as deracinated as a backlot, which wouldn't be bad if it served an aesthetic purpose rather than coming off as a sop to the PG-thirteens.

The tinniness of the big action scenes is especially calamitous. Too much of the computer animation is hard to buy—the difference between Maguire's tensile grace and the crude smear of his digital avatar is striking—and the action feels inorganic, more out of obligation to the genre than a brute fact of Peter Parker's world. As Spider-Man's nemesis, the Green Goblin, Willem Dafoe is never scarier than when he's stretching his beautiful corpse lips into a smile. But put him in a shiny emerald carapace atop an aerial boogie-board, sneering and tossing bombs like a one-man intifada, and the guy's a goof, nowhere near as dangerous as Dunst's liberally exposed d├ęcolletage.

Perhaps the real question, then, isn't how you update Spider-Man but why you would even try. Introduced in 1962, the original superhero helped to initiate the age of modern comics. Raimi hasn't figured out how to reconfigure him for the blockbuster age, and there are suggestions—from Dunst's chaste enthusiasm to the casting of James Dean look-alike James Franco as Peter's friend Harry—that the director would have preferred to set his story in a different era.

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