For all its high-flying, sticky-webbed pyrotechnics, Spider-Man is best remembered for the sweet, upside-down kiss in the rain between Spidey (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). It was an action-hero movie that put heart ahead of groin (or deltoid). From his earliest comic-book incarnation, this has always been the appeal of Spider-Man—no matter how daredevilish his exploits, underneath it all he was the penitent, lovelorn Peter Parker, an alter ego mild-mannered enough to make Clark Kent seem positively hale.
Of course, the yin-yang of these scenarios requires an excessive villain to balance out the recessive hero, and so the first Spider-Man offered up Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, who looked like he had spent as much time toiling at the Actors Studio as in the laboratory. The arch-nemesis in Spider-Man 2, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina)—“Doc Ock”—is a distinct improvement, and not only because he has mechanical tentacles (manipulated offscreen by an ace team of puppeteers). The Green Goblin looked like something you might see flapping through the air on Chinese New Year, but Doc Ock is a slithery, high-tech grotesque capable of smacking all of New York upside the head.
The city is featured prominently in the sequel, which zigs and zags up and around Wall Street, the theater district, Columbia University, Chinatown, Queens, and Brooklyn, leaving much wreckage in its wake. Between this movie and The Day After Tomorrow, there might not be much left to annihilate by the time Peter Jackson gets around to shooting King Kong. It’s a cartoonish travelogue, though—the colors are brighter and the boulevards and tall buildings look varnished, not quite real. When Spider-Man swoops over rooftops, the streets below have a higgledy-piggledy cross-hatching, as if Mondrian were a Marvel illustrator.
“The set pieces are furiously scary, and compensate for all the icky mooning and moping that Peter Parker does whenever he’s questioning his gift.”
Two years after Peter Parker’s woebegone decision to carry on as Spider-Man and part with his beloved M.J., he remains in the dumps. He’s still a photographer for the Daily Bugle, but he’s also a pizza boy who can deliver on time only by going into spider mode. (And not even then—the joke here is that the city’s traffic is too much even for him.) He wants to give it all up and become a full-time regular guy, and for a while, he does just that: He starts acing his science courses at Columbia, and M.J., who is engaged to an astronaut, is drawn back into Peter’s web of winsome angst. (She’s now an acclaimed actress starring in The Importance of Being Earnest—which might also stand as Peter’s motto.) But when a fusion experiment goes awry and the philosophic Dr. Octavius, Peter’s mentor, is transformed into the diabolic Doc Ock, it’s time to whip out the sticky stuff. The set pieces, such as an unmasked Spider-Man trying to stop a runaway subway car, are furiously scary, and compensate for all the icky mooning and moping that Peter does whenever he’s questioning his gift, which is most of the time.
Much has been made of the fact that Spider-Man, as the first post-9/11 comic-book movie epic, represented just what we were looking for in a superhero: Despite Spidey’s wondrous feats, he’s rattled and all too human—he’s one of us. I just wish that the sequel didn’t try so hard to target our inner dweeb, even if the payoff is Kirsten Dunst. It’s one thing to sympathize intellectually with the need for a hero like Spider-Man, but something is skimped on in the process, a sense of uncomplicated, four-square courageousness perhaps. (Wouldn’t this also serve a current need?) Maybe the problem is just that Tobey Maguire doesn’t have the kind of negative charisma that the role requires; he’s a bit blah when he’s supposed to be soulful. Director Sam Raimi takes the soulfulness very seriously, and so does his Oscar-winning A-list screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, and Michael Chabon, who wrote the comic-book-themed Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and is co-credited with the screen story. They’ve made a comic-book movie that is many heads and shoulders above the competition; it improves on the first one: better action, better comedy—like the bit where Peter accidentally mixes his red-and-blue costume with the whites during a wash. But the filmmakers may have too great an affinity for the commonplace. Sargent wrote the screenplay for Ordinary People, and some of that film’s moody malaise has crept into this cartoon universe. The appeal of the Spider-Man series is ordinary people doing amazing things, but what this film misses, for us spoilsport traditionalists, is the extraordinary doing the extraordinary.
The new Jerry Bruckheimer production, King Arthur, directed by Antoine Fuqua, claims to be the real (historical) deal. Arthur, it seems, was actually Lucius Artorius Castus, and he lived much earlier than we thought—in the Dark Ages. In this revisionist version, Arthur (Clive Owen) is a reluctant Roman leader who takes his Knights of the Round Table—the usual suspects—on one last mission in Britain, to defend against the invading Saxons, led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård), who looks like a yeti and speaks like one, too. (Don’t ask me how, I just know.)