Everyday Superpeople

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), looking serious sans mask.Photo: Sony Pictures

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.)

Along the way, Guinevere shows up, but—ah, revisionism!—she’s practically feral. Under the sway of Merlin (Stephen Dillane, who has a disappointing lack of screen time and performs no magic), Guinevere and her fellow Britons rally—humiliate, actually—Arthur to their defense. Guinevere (Keira Knightley), a great archer, suits up for the final battle against the Saxons by smearing herself in some kind of green paste. Pre-paste, though, she has exactly one love scene with Arthur, and it’s shot in that lyrical what-body-part-am-I-looking-at? mode that seems to be fashionable again. (Troy had one, too, with Achilles and his Trojan gal pal.)

The film may be set in the Dark Ages, but the clichés are vintage sixties Hollywood. Lancelot, for example, tells King Arthur, “You fight for a world that does not exist,” and who can argue with him? (You can always tell in a movie when something weighty is being intoned—no contractions.) Arthur is fond of saying things like “My faith is what protects me,” but it’s clear that the Round Table squadron—modeled rather too closely on the Wild Bunch—has a big hand in guarding his flank. Fuqua actually draws on a host of directors besides Sam Peckinpah for his battle scenes, and I suppose if audience members have never seen Alexander Nevsky or The Seven Samurai or Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, then all this clanging and broadswording, presented in gory close-up and edited rapid-fire, will seem impressive. Fuqua deliberately downplays the fantastical in King Arthur, but the gritty faux realism wears itself out quickly. You’ve seen one lancing, you’ve seen them all. Forget revisionism. Sometimes the old ways are the best. Take a look at John Boorman’s mesmeric Excalibur sometime, and tell me if I’m right.

Just because Cole Porter’s biography was botched and airbrushed in Night and Day, starring Cary Grant, doesn’t mean De-Lovely, which is up-front about Porter’s homosexuality, is a whole lot better. The best thing about the film, which was directed by Irwin Winkler from a script by Jay Cocks, is the music: 30 of Porter’s songs (the music was also the only good thing about Night and Day). They are performed periodically in different settings by different artists—from Elvis Costello (“Let’s Misbehave”) to Diana Krall (“Just One of Those Things”) to Natalie Cole (“Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”)—and the effect is a bit like one of those extended medleys at the Grammys.

The film’s framing device is ambitious: An elderly Porter sits in a theater with a director (Jonathan Pryce) as his life story is rehearsed onstage chronologically. The results, though, are staid, with re-creations of Paris in the Jazz Age and Hollywood in its Golden Age that are like waxworks in motion. As Porter’s steadfast wife, Linda, Ashley Judd is surprisingly one-note (not good for a composer’s spouse). Kevin Kline as Porter is better: He knows how to play dandies, and late in the movie, when Porter is crippled in a riding accident, Kline shows us the pain behind de-loveliness.

Everyday Superpeople