NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.2002
Columbia Pictures Corporation for stylized violence and action
The fate of New York City rests in your hands. Or at least, it rests in somebody’s hands. And since the city’s being terrorized by a fellow with a green mask and a handful of bombs (and, oh yes, super-strength, super-sense-perception and lightning reflexes), it seems like the best person to hang all our hopes on is the high school kid who was recently endowed with super-strength, super-sense-perception and lightning reflexes. That would be you. Or at least, we’re all betting you can identify with the luckless teenager—even with his superpowers—who’s been pining over the girl next door since first grade, better than you can identify with, say, a mild-mannered extraterrestrial, or a millionaire philanthropist who has to pretend to be either a bore or a jerk to cover up his humanitarian spending habits.
Peter Parker is one of the more down-to-earth superheroes (barring, maybe, the genetically-engineered spider incident), which means that, like most of us, he’s not naturally inclined to search out opportunities for saving New York City single-handed. He has ordinary goals, like making good grades and getting Mary Jane Watson to smile at him, as well as the earth-shattering goals like trying to rid the world of the Green Goblin. He doesn’t have Clark Kent’s brains or Bruce Wayne’s millions. And, unlike most other comic book superheroes, Peter Parker doesn’t have to pretend to be a jerk. It seems that’s his natural state of being.
Spider-Man, the movie… well, it has a few issues. Yes, like the fact that Peter Parker is just about as immature at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. That would be an issue. Existentialism, another issue. Stylized violence, language, sexual content and a really predictable bad guy—all things that have to be taken into account.
Don’t worry, superhero; the fate of New York City will hang on long enough for you to find out just what saving it’s going to cost you.
Part of the cost would involve seeing Mary Jane… eh, pretty close to what she’d look like without anything on. Sometimes that’s because she’s deliberately baring her thighs, midriff and cleavage; sometimes it’s because she’s standing out in the rain, kissing Spider-Man, with nothing between her flesh and the audience’s eyes but a wet dress.
The fact that Mary Jane was kissing Spider-Man is a bit of a problem in itself, especially since 1) the sensual intimacy is played up almost to the level of a bedroom scene, 2) she thought he was a complete stranger, and 3) she was dating someone else. Mary Jane—quite the bold one in romantic relationships—also kisses Peter Parker, passionately and uninvited, thinking he’s a different guy from the one she kissed a few scenes back.
M. J. isn’t the only inappropriate element in sexual content, though probably the most constant one. There are a couple of tasteless, sexually-oriented remarks and a few shirtless-Peter scenes; and there’s… well, there are the other women you’d have to see with practically nothing on.
Peter/Spider-Man’s brief stint in amateur wrestling brings him—that is, you—into contact with trashy, aggressive, bikini-clad women…
… who shout obscenities at him. The muffled F-words go with the trashy women; the half a dozen hells go with the villain, and the couple of a--es go with Aunt May. “Cr-p” and “p-ssed” get some attention. Of the ten times God’s name or title is used, only four were even possibly (though probably not) sincere—once, the name of Jesus is specifically abused.
Violent and Intense Content:
Here’s the thing about stylized violence: you (Spider-Man) don’t really get thrown up against anything you (the audience) couldn’t handle if you had superpowers, too. It’s everybody else in the movie who has to be scared—and/or murdered.
Intense: the (later) villain undergoing a violent drug test—seizures, smoke, white eyes, etc. The villain strangling someone to death and throwing his body through a glass wall. Terrified people in a building being blown up. One out of the many battles between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. A couple of successful attempts to startle the audience. An impalement.
Possibly intense: the spider bite. Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man—hallucinations, moments when he appears as a skeleton, etc. A good guy dying from a gunshot wound. People (who you—that is, Spider-Man—will obviously be able to save) being threatened with death. Most of the other battles between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin.
Not as intense as they should be: the chase scenes. Fights with bad guys who don’t have superpowers, but who do have guns. The remaining Spider-Man/Green Goblin battles.
Peter is a jerk. No surprise there; lots of stories begin with someone who has to learn a lesson or two. Problem is, not a whole lot of what makes him a jerk at the beginning of the movie is resolved at the end.
Sure, Peter realizes that Uncle Ben was right when he tried to tell him that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but as nicely as the “great power” phrase fit with Peter’s new super-strength, super-sense-perception and lightning reflexes, what Uncle Ben had been trying to do was get Peter to take responsibility around the house. Show up on time. Stop being so secretive and self-absorbed. None of that gets resolved—i.e., nothing gets done around the house, Peter’s still always late, and he refuses to tell the people who raised him the reason why (or even that he was just bitten by an unidentified spider and really isn’t feeling too great).
His choice to deceive his family—since the only motives behind it were selfish (Batman’s Alfred wasn’t in greater danger for being in on the superhero secret)—is 1) immature, 2) idiotic and 3) something you really don’t want to start identifying with.
And, eh, evading arrest as often as you do (that is, as often as Peter/Spider-Man does)… well, it’s something worth thinking over, anyway.
So… what’s existentialism, again? Existentialism: it’s kind of like humanism, which says that mankind as a whole is the solution to the world’s problems, except that existentialism tends to ignore mankind as a whole, and doesn’t think there is a solution to the world’s problems. Basically, you (that is, Spider-Man) are caught up in your own personal angst, your separation from the rest of humanity, your search for meaning and purpose, and your realization that everything you do involves a large measure of futility, and most of what happens to you involves a large measure of unfairness. That’s life. But you still press on, trying to define yourself and taking leaps of faith into the great unknown, in spite of the fact that you’re not accomplishing a whole lot. Obviously, it’s not a biblical worldview. It does happen to fit Spider-Man pretty well, though, from Peter’s angst-y self-absorption, down to his noble (but still angst-y) rejection of Mary Jane’s love for the sake of a higher (but still largely unfair and futile) calling. Spider-Man ends on a down beat—not with the sad ending but profound message of a Shakespearean play, but with a slight touch of despair. Not only do you have to spend the rest of your life saving New York City, you have to do it without hope that it will matter much in the long run.
At some point in the story, I think it’s standard practice to let your hero become a better person than the average movie-goer. It’s more inspiring that way. Technically, Spider-Man gets points for originality on that head, but I’d have been more impressed by the movie if they’d taken Peter up a notch and spent the originality revamping other comic book “standards.”
There’s a fair amount of predictability to this one, especially when it comes to the villain. Conversations with his own split-personality in the mirror, old-hat expressions like “We’ll meet again, Spider-Man!”, the coincidence of having two people who already knew each other suddenly gain super-strength, super-sense-perception, lightning reflexes and the ability to go zipping through the air, through completely unrelated genetics-experiments-gone-wrong—these things aren’t always handled with the kind of super-human finesse it would take to turn a story about this Peter Parker into a satisfying movie.
Superhero, I think you’re fighting a losing battle (and that’s not just because that’s the point of existentialist movies). You’re up against sexual content you don’t need to see, language you don’t need to hear, worldviews you have no business identifying with, and a bad guy who can’t even think to lift a captive Spider-Man’s mask before turning him loose. New York City may need saving, but watching Spider-Man isn’t going to do anything toward that end. Identifying with Peter Parker isn’t even going to give you an especially high-quality entertainment experience. Go back to your lives, citizens. Or at least, move on to something better than Spider-Man, and someone better than Peter Parker.