- compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2002 1 Jan
The big-screen version of
In a feat rarely achieved, a blockbuster action movie is also getting good reviews. Most critics found it high-spirited fun. The cast is extraordinary. Raimi couldn't have done better than Tobey Maguire as the awkward photographer Peter Parker, Kirsten Dunst as sweet and seductive Mary Jane, James Franco as Parker's friend Harry, and Willem Dafoe (who has played Jesus and various devils) as the Green Goblin. The cinematography is bright, vivid, and at times breathtaking. And scriptwriter David Koepp has the patience to develop characters we care about. Even in the battle scenes, Raimi never stoops to bullying the audience with chaos and explosions. He always keeps us grounded in action that reflects specific personalities and serious choices.
You probably know the film's story: On a class field trip, Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, and after a fever, he wakes up with strange new powers. Maguire gives Parker just the right mix of exhilaration, bewilderment, and fear characteristic of boys who are becoming men. But Parker's powers are more than a coming-of-age metaphor. They raise questions about responsibility that resonate throughout the film.
All of this works wonderfully in the film's first hour. But then things turn into a routine showdown, and the flaws really start to show. Many critics complain that the digital animation propelling Spidey through action scenes is too obvious. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) writes, "Not even during Spidey's first experimental outings do we feel that flesh and blood are contending with gravity … he's as convincing as Mighty Mouse." True. And there are other wrinkles. Obvious plot problems become distracting. (Parker fails to conceal his identity when he shows off his powers to classmates and an arena full of wrestling fans. So that bit about a "secret identity" is hard to believe.) Meanwhile, Danny Elfman's soundtrack is derivative and unremarkable. But the film succeeds in spite of it all. That first hour is an excellent example of how to enthrall audiences with strong character development and efficient storytelling.
Some religious press critics are thrilled with this first installment in what will likely be a long-running franchise. Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) declares that the movie "may be the most satisfying cinematic comic-book super-hero experience to date.
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) is frustrated by an overdose of overly sentimental "special moment" scenes between Parker and Mary Jane, Parker and Uncle Ben, Parker and Aunt May. "These outweigh the action sequences by several minutes and yet serve little purpose in either developing character or moving the story along. So yawns of boredom replace yelps of excitement. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of complaining about a blockbuster that actually tries to have some brains. I'm all for character development and interesting themes, but Spiderman doesn't pull it together."
Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) is almost alone in his claim that the film "is brim full of the best special effects I can remember." But he complains, "It does misuse Jesus' name two times." Likewise, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) and Paul Bicking (Preview) warn viewers about "graphic violence and impolite language."
Some Christian critics, however, cheer specifically because of the language. Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says the movie "is not only well-constructed, exciting and entertaining, but it is chock full of faith, much to our surprise." Likewise, Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) celebrates "the role of prayer and faith" in the film. And Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) calls Spider-Man "the most spiritual of all super heroes." He adds, "What is even clearer is that his spirituality is rooted in Christianity."
This sounds like reason to celebrate. But where is the evidence that the film is, as Baehr and Furches claim, "full of faith" and "rooted in Christianity"? Their proof is that Spidey's Aunt May and Uncle Ben utter common God-oriented phrases—"Thank God," "Godspeed" and "God bless you." Furches draws special attention to Aunt May's recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
Holly McClure (Crosswalk), who also recommends the film, disagrees. "Although the story has a moral message and a hero who's a great role model, the few scenes of his aunt and uncle saying grace or the Lord's Prayer don't make it a 'spiritual' film. Even though the story takes place in the present day, I think the director was trying to hearken back to the culture and mentality of the '50s."
Indeed. If Harry Osborne says "Godspeed" it doesn't make him any more spiritual than if he wears a necklace with a crucifix. It is worth noting that exclamations of "Oh my God!" are equally common throughout
This theme is not unique to Spider-Man. My favorite movie about comic book heroes, M. Night Shayamalan's underrated
But there is one other hero that Spidey resembles more than any of these—a champion frequently attacked by Christian critics: Harry Potter. Compare the two. Both are orphans, raised by an aunt and uncle. Both develop magical powers—one through fairy tale magic, one through an accident of genetic experimentation. Parker and Potter struggle with the desire to misuse their gifts, but they face their challenges honorably. The villains they face are close acquaintances, each one hiding an "evil face." The boys become heroes, but instead of basking in the glory, they come to understand their duty. And both heroes are motivated by devotion to their loved ones. Are we really to believe that Spidey is spiritual because Aunt May says "God bless you," while Potter is satanic because he flies around on a hot-rod broom instead of a web? If Harry's whimsical tricks could lure children to the occult, perhaps Spider-Man will influence them to try genetic enhancements, jump off buildings, and carry out vigilante justice.
Spidey should be honored more for his morality than his spirituality. Stef Loy (Chiaroscuro) argues that Spidey is special because of his motivation: "Whereas Batman and Darkman operate out of a sense of revenge, Spider-Man operates out of a sense of guilt from the consequences of his own wrong actions. His motives are more pointed than any of the super heroes I've seen on the big screen so far, and it's nice to have a little bit of depth from our protagonist for a change"
The debate over which comic book movie is the most exciting, the most fun, and the most meaningful will go on for a long time. And there will be plenty of opportunity to return to the subject here, as Ang Lee's