Comic book movies are hard. The devil is in the details. And Lord knows there are legions of faithful comics fans ready to love your product, but equally ready to nit-pick. To be a true comic book movie, a director can't just appropriate years of lore and a character with a catchy costume; atmosphere must be considered, a palette formulated, perspectives and camera angles chosen with precision. Most of all, the movie version must somehow be imbued with the same surreal reality of the two-dimensional version. It's got to be bigger than life, yet fit in the palm of your hand all at the same time. A true comic book movie can't look like just another summer blockbuster. More than any other kind of movie, visual brilliance and cohesion are the names of the game here. Without them, a director becomes the ultimate comic book villain.
Director Tim Burton understood this; his brilliant first Batman was a comics cavalcade, Gotham City writ large, Batman and Joker picture-perfect. Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy got it right, too, all primary colors and geometrics. The ultimate comic book movie, however, was Spider-Man director Sam Raimi's 1990 cult classic Darkman. Darkman feels like a comic book. It moves like a comic book. It is over-the-top and melodramatic, dazzling to watch. Even the scenes in everyday settings are hyperrealized, comics-style. Sadly, Darkman is everything Spider-Man obviously wants to be and isn't quite.
The fundamental elements of the Spider-Man story are familiar. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a geek; he has a thing for next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). He lives with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). One day, on a field trip, he is bitten by a radioactive spider. The next day, he is sticking to walls and unexpectedly shooting webs from his wrists. In the midst of all this, a thief he refuses to interfere with escapes, only to kill his Uncle Ben. Spider-Man, the web-slinging crime fighter with a conflicted conscience, is born. Soon, the demonic Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) starts to wreak havoc on New York City. Has Spidey met his match?
Thankfully, Sam Raimi hasn't forgotten everything he learned making Spider-Man. The script, beginning to end, unfolds just like a comic book story; the dialogue balloons practically pop up on screen when the characters speak. Press the pause button on any given scene and you've got yourself a comic book panel in set-up at least, if not in actual execution.
But the movie starts too slow. Maybe that's because the audience can hardly wait for the arachnid acrobatics to begin. Or maybe it's because there is so little of visual interest early on. Everything looks too real in a might-as-well-be-watching-American-Pie kind of way, but the audience is still pulled along by Maguire's charm, the details of the birth of Spider-Man and a tantalizing anticipation.
Finally, we get to where we want to be, Tarzan-ing our way through the concrete jungle and pausing to perch atop cathedrals and skyscrapers, fighting crime with spectacular agility and acerbic one-liners. This is Spider-Man eye candy: any time he's in action the look of the movie changes -- no more washed-out cinematography and plain-Jane shot selection. Computer-generated images and superbly utilized Matrix technology kick in, just real enough to be believable and just fake enough to be electrifying. The world suddenly goes metallic and shiny, kinetic and fantastic. Which only makes it more jarring when suddenly the movie reverts to its less-interesting look. The Green Goblin goes from a maniacal devil floating high above the city to just another actor stumbling around in a clunky green suit of armor, a la the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
When Spider-Man is good, it is very, very good. Tobey Maguire surprises with his deft embodiment of everybody's favorite webslinger; Willem Dafoe was born with the face of a comic book bad guy. J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, looks and acts like he simply stepped off the pages of an Amazing Spider-Man comic book. The ultimate showdown between Spider-Man and Green Goblin is a top-flight action sequence that almost makes up for a slow start and uneven production values.
But while Spider-Man weaves a web of solid summer fun, it's unlikely that the audience will get as caught up as the film's creators would like. The first round in this inevitable franchise goes to Hollywood summer blockbuster, not artful, atmospheric comic book movie. Spidey sense says there's always the sequel.