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Spider-Man

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Spider-Man



from Film Forum, 05/09/02

The big-screen version of Spider-Man has finally arrived. For almost a decade, studios bickered over the rights while fans argued over the actors. Titanic director James Cameron wrote a script and seemed poised to helm the project, but the title went finally to Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, A Simple Plan). It apparently paid off: the movie grossed $114 million dollars in its first weekend, almost the entire cost of the film's production. The Webbed Wonder has torn asunder Harry Potter's box office record.

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. Spider-Man is one of those rare adventure movies in which character, not violence, is the backbone of the film.

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. Spider-Man has a swashbuckling flair and a style all its own." Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) raves, "This movie may actually live up to all of its hyphenated hype."

But Canadian Christianity critic Peter T. Chattaway muses, "I think there's a good film buried inside a pretty average film there." In comments at the Chiaroscuro Discussion Board, he writes, "The dialogue is too simplistic and expository. For the money they dumped on this film, I would have preferred [fewer] effects, and more attention paid to them." A critic for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees about the effects and says that the film is "missing a compelling story line." But he adds, "Audiences may be willing to forgive the film these faults. Magnetic performances and an energetic pace fill in the narrative inconsistencies and lack of cohesion."

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 Spider-Man. Regardless, the story's action—its play of choices and consequences—is where Spider-Man stands out. "With great power comes great responsibility," says Peter's Uncle Ben, and the story bears that out dramatically.

This theme is not unique to Spider-Man. My favorite movie about comic book heroes, M. Night Shayamalan's underrated Unbreakable, illustrated a hero's power/responsibility dilemma far more effectively. X-Men made more specific connections to Christian faith, highlighting the similarities between its troubled heroes and the persecuted early church. Superman takes the hero myth to such a level that he is sometimes interpreted as a Christ figure.

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"

Spider-Man "touches something very primal within us," says Jamee Kennedy (The Film Forum). "In this crazy, unpredictable, and evil-filled world we want to feel safe. We want power over evil and we want evil to be destroyed. Superheroes like Spider-Man allow us, for two hours, to believe that no matter what happens, there is someone out there to protect us. What's great about all this, besides the fun to be had, is that superheroes, can pave the way to understanding the true superhero of the universe."

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 Hulk looms on the horizon, Bryan Singer's X-Men 2 is being prepared, and Spider-Man's cast and director have signed on for sequels.

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