TONY'S ONLINE TIPS From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1489 (06/15/02)
"We're gonna need a bigger can of Raid!"
--Ace photographer Rick Chandler, who took the photo gracing this week's column.
Our spider-sense wasn't tingling. Oh, we tried to guard our optimism--Hollywood had hurt us so many times before--but, the more we saw of the ads on TV, the more we heard/read the buzz, the more excited we got.
Rick Chandler, my fellow contributor to the Perpetual Comics website, read an interview with Ang Lee in which the director said that, while driving to his set every day to work on THE HULK in San Francisco, he passes a giant Spider-Man on the side of the Sony Metreon. Chandler decided to take a look for himself, and snapped a few digital camera shots to share with me.
On the Tony Isabella message board, posters were making their plans to see the movie, sharing their hopes more than their fears, and generally allowing anticipation and nostalgia to rule the week. Comics reader Sam Tomaino shared a limerick he wrote sometime back in the 1960s:
There was a young fellow named Pete,
Who was not one of the elite.
He got bit by a spider
With uranium inside her.
Now he walks on walls with his feet.
Around the Isabella household, baseball and softball schedules were consulted to determine what first-day showing my children and I could attend. Sainted Wife Barb opted not to join us, figuring the kids and I would want to see it again. Her prescience borders on the supernatural.
I even bought the soundtrack CD, a purchase which surprised my son Eddie. "You won't like it," he said. "It's not your kind of music."
ONE time I leave the van radio set to a country music station and I'm marked for life.
Then it was Friday, May 3. I was sitting down to see SPIDER-MAN in a not-quite-packed theater, an impressive audience when one considers that it was right after school had let out and the local multiplex was showing it on four screens. A brief trailer for THE HULK was a pleasant surprise, but it was our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man I had come to see.
We interrupt this column for two announcements:
First, the SPOILER WARNINGS are being activated. I'm going to be discussing key plot elements in the course of this review and, if that concerns you, you should skip ahead to Indiana Rozanski's column. This week, he's hot on the trail of the Temple of the Lost Collector, which, it has been rumored, holds the greatest stash of pre-Inca comic books ever gathered. I hope he remembered to duck when he heard that swooshing sound.
Second, I loved SPIDER-MAN. I wanted to put that up front, in case you haven't yet seen the movie and don't want to read further.
Go see it already. You'll love it, too.
SPOILERS ARE ACTIVATED IN THREE...TWO...ONE...GO!
The movie opens with Tobey Maguire's voice-over narration and, from that first moment, the actor captures the burden of the great responsibility which is at the core of his character's duel lives as Peter Parker and Spider-Man. He says his story, "like any story worth telling," is about a girl, but, from our less personal view, it remains a story about power, about responsibility, and, most of all, about the hero next door.
Director Sam Raimi and writer David Koepp absolutely nail the heart and soul of the Spider-Man comic books. They never let the action overwhelm the humanity that has always been the franchise's greatest strength. Their Spider-Man is Peter Parker, not the other way around, and he doesn't save the world, he saves you and me and the people--friends and strangers--around us.
SPIDER-MAN's story is as riveting as the best of the comics; the prominent credits for creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko testify to the filmmaker's intent. We see Peter's life before he gets his powers, his initial reaction (and over-reaction) to those powers, his tragic mistake, and his resolve to forge past that mistake and put his powers to good and noble use.
Yes, there were the inevitable changes from comic-book canon, but, in all but one case, I thought the changes were logical and in service of the story. Though he's thoroughly convincing as Peter, Maguire is more convincing as Peter the college student than Peter the high-school student. Raimi wisely limits the number of scenes set in the high school. That's not what this story is about and, besides, without Lee and Ditko's cute gag of Flash Thompson being Spidey's greatest fan, there was never anything special about the school's resident bully...something which has yet to be recognized by Marvel's writers.
The radioactive spider of the comics is replaced by a newly-created genetic hybrid of several spiders. In 1962, atomic energy was mysterious and scary. In 2002, genetic manipulation of living things is equally so. I approve of the updating, including Peter's organic web-shooters.
Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson are simply terrific as May and Ben Parker. Harris gives us both fragility and inner strength as needed, just as May does in her better comics appearances, and it never once seems forced.
Robertson's Ben is as much the Everyman as Peter, dealing with getting older, providing for his family, paying bills, and raising his nephew. He meets his end when he is carjacked by "the" burglar Peter didn't stop, another updating that works. Kudos are also due Robertson for manfully delivering the "with great power must also come great responsibility" line--twice--two of the few cases where Koepp's dialogue got clunky. The line is brilliant, but it works so much better in narration or in a caption.
Relying on the comics canon, yet tweaking it slightly, Raimi and Koepp, as well as actors Willem Dafoe and James Franco, bring more realistic dimensions to Norman and Harry Osborn. It is more desperation than greed which leads Norman to experiment on himself, a mistake which leads to his becoming the Green Goblin and which somewhat parallels Peter's bad choice.
Norman's fascination with masks and the power they confer on their wearers is beautifully understated. It also explains why he doesn't unmask Spider-Man when he has the chance. He respects the foe he wants as an ally and removing the mask would be a violation of the bond he wishes to create between them. That wish is echoed in Norman's paternal feelings for Peter. The more I consider this movie, the better I like it.
Dafoe's performance is mostly excellent. He engages in a bit of scenery-chewing as the Goblin, but it's nothing compared to that of the villains in the various Superman and Batman films. If these moments are a little over the top, and they are, Dafoe makes up for them in scenes where Norman's other self ever so slightly intrudes on his "normal" persona.
Franco has no such missteps as Harry. The friendship between Harry and Peter is utterly convincing, as his Franco's portrayal of Harry as a insecure young man who doubts he can measure up to the expectations of the father he loves and admires.
Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson is stunningly beautiful, but retains the "girl next door" feeling that's vital to the character. I've heard complaints that the role is nothing more than resident "damsel-in-distress," but I think those viewers overlook what M.J. overcomes in the course of the film and the good, albeit ill-timed, choices she makes. If I had doubts about Dunst's acting ability, they were completely dissolved by her final screen moment, a moment in which she sees Peter more clearly than anyone else and quietly conveys her surprise at the realization.
We don't get to spend much time at the Daily Bugle offices-- two scenes--but that's enough for J.K. Simmons to absolutely shine as J. Jonah Jameson. He mostly plays the publisher for laughs, but we also get to see the courage behind the clown in a dead-on scene in which the Green Goblin wants the name of the Bugle photographer who has been taking pictures of Spider-Man. Jameson knows he's in the grip of a killer, but he still refuses to expose an employee to save his own skin. He's no Ben Parker, but Jameson does have his redeeming qualities.
The Bugle scenes are also notable for a small comedic role for Ted Raimi; a brief mention of Eddie Brock (who, in the comic books, became Venom); and the unnamed secretary who must be Betty Brant. There's no mistaking that Ditko-designed hairdo.
The story is there, as are the characters, the humor, and the humanity. So what about the action, you ask?
Raimi does not disappoint. Though the animation effects are obvious and distracting when Peter is bounding across the rooftops sans costume, that isn't the case once our hero dons even a crude, early version of his legendary costume. Then it's like seeing the comic books come to life.
The cinematic Spider-Man moves like he was being positioned by Ditko, John Romita, and Gil Kane. The experience is even dizzying at times. Even better, no matter how fast and furious the action becomes, Raimi never ignores the humanity at the core of it. The hero, the villain, the street-level criminals, the bystanders, the imperiled, the cops, the firefighters, they are all there and they add the air of reality so necessary for our willing suspension of disbelief. My sense of wonder went into overdrive.
(I will caution parents that some of the battle scenes may be too intense for younger viewers; that's why the movie has a "PG-13" rating. People die, sometimes in frightening fashion. Innocents, including children, are put at risk. The final battle between the Goblin and Spider-Man is brutal. You know how your child reacts to such things, so let that knowledge be your guide.)
The one change from the comic books that didn't work for me is most obvious in the fight scenes. The Goblin's costume looks like body armor and his mask is a metal helmet. I'm not at all certain the traditional comics costume would have looked convincing on the big screen, but this version struck me as too mundane to be part of Spider-Man's world. There was too much metal and not nearly enough "boo" in the suit. Its confining nature contributed to the less-compelling aspects of Dafoe's work as well, though, thankfully, the lenses of the Goblin-mask could be raised to allow the actor to use his eyes on occasion.
On a related note, three cheers and a tiger to Raimi for using the savagery of the final Goblin-Spidey battle to tear large chunks out of Peter's mask. This let Maguire use his full range of acting chops to marvelous effect.
Ultimately, SPIDER-MAN is a satisfying movie that delivers on the opening promise that it is not a "happy little tale." Peter's pledge to use his powers responsibly demands he make choices that bring him small comfort.
Yet SPIDER-MAN is never a movie without the hope that there is hope. It is never a movie that apologizes for its heroic soul or which denies us the possibility that, someday, somehow, Peter and Mary Jane will find happiness. Just as it was when Lee and Ditko first told it, SPIDER-MAN's tale is one worth telling...and Raimi's version of that tale stands above all others as the best comics-to-film production of them all.
Ken Tucker reviewed TALES OF TERROR by Fred von Bernewitz and Grant Geissman (Fantagraphics; $24.95) in the June 14 issue of EW. He wrote:
This beautifully designed, oversize paperback teems with the decapitated heads, bugeyed monsters, and stiletto-heeled females that filled the pages of EC Comics in the 1950s--well-known series like SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES and TWO-FISTED TALES, as well as lesser-known but intricately campy comics such as A MOON, A GIRL, ROMANCE.
Tucker praises the "insightful" interviews with EC artists and authorial sidebars on such subjects as the Comics Code. He gives the book an "A."
I LOVE THIS QUOTE
"Katherine Harris. The Florida secretary of state is writing a book about the 2000 election. I preordered it and they sent me a Pat Buchanan book my mistake."
-Jim Mullen's Hot Sheet
My review of SPIDER-MAN generated quite a bit of mail from my CBG readers, starting with this from D.L. ANDERSON:
If a film review is really great, it'll either make a person want to run out and see the film reviewed, or, if they've already seen it, the reviewer will make them want to see it again, because he saw things in it that the film goer missed. For example, I saw the same film you did, but I failed to notice the courage JJJ showed in the scene you described in your review. Too busy waiting for the Big Fight Scene, I guess!
And I especially enjoyed your comments about MJ. How could anyone think her part was underdeveloped or "underwritten," when I thought the script deftly showed she was as kind and considerate as she was pretty and popular? Now, having a popular girl who is also sweet and kind is perhaps the most fantastic element of the film, next to which the development of super-powers from a spider bite pale, but never mind...
I read two great reviews from sources not generally considered as film review sites: NATIONAL REVIEW and JEWISH WORLD REVIEW. They approached the film from a different angle; the writers discuss the different super-hero archetypes, and how the popularity of a well-known super-hero, or the appearance of a new one, reflects changes in the American self-image. I thought you might enjoy reading them. Here are the URLs for the reviews:
I hope if you look at them you enjoyed them as much as I did, or as much as I enjoyed reading your review in CBG.
Thanks for sending along the URLs. I did enjoy both of these columns. The public seems to be embracing SPIDER-MAN, which, when I consider how closely it embodies the better aspects of super-hero comics, gives me hope that those comics, and comics in general, can attract and retain a mainstream audience.
I also heard from MICHAEL O'BRIEN:
In your review of the Spider-Man movie you mentioned how you disliked Flash Thompson. I just wanted to share with you why I like Flash.
He's not a one-dimensional character archetype of a bully. In my opinion, he was consistently fleshed out into a "real" character instead of a plot device. I love the fact that, over time, he and Peter became good friends.
I've encountered bullies in school myself, and I learned from Flash that they might grow up to be nice people. In the past ten years, since I graduated I have encountered many such bullies only to have pleasant conversations about our lives. I would hate Flash if he had stayed a bully, I like him because he was not a black and white character.
Also...didn't you just love those early issues when Flash was Spider-Man's number one fan? The irony of it did not escape me as a child and I would like to see that same ironic twist explored in "Spider-Man 2."
There you have it...why I like Flash Thompson. Thank you for your time. Stay frosty.
Going for three great letters in a row, we have this one from DR. DION CAUTRELL of the Department of English at The Ohio State University at Mansfield. He writes:
I'm one of those many lurkers who reads your columns (in print and online) avidly but who never speaks up. I've finally been encouraged by your recent CBG solicitation re: topic suggestions. This latest request in conjunction with my recent rereading of your JUSTICE MACHINE run has me thinking.
You've covered your time writing It!, Ghost Rider, and Black Lightning in CBG's hallowed pages, but there's been little mention of your work on Hawkman or Justice Machine, or even your short relationship with Atlas/Seaboard. I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing you'd share any memories you may have.
I especially loved your columns and letter pages in JM and am shameless in asking for a few peeks behind the scenes. How could anyone forget the "plot" to inundate Peter David with pizza boxes and photos of family pets? Or how about your excellent treatment of Demon's drug addiction in JM #8?
At 30, I haven't followed your career from the beginning, but I have always sought out your work. I've even been formulating a plan for teaching some of the best in an upcoming writing course. (The Captain America novel is as good the tenth time as it was the first. Kudos to Mr. Ingersoll and you.) Thanks for the continued enjoyment.
Those are all terrific suggestions. It sounds like a trip to my back-issue boxes are in order.
In the meantime, I'm thinking of putting together a list of my own favorite top 10 Tony Isabella stories...or maybe 13, my being a baker's son and all. In preparing this list, memory-jogging from my readers would be most welcome. If there are stories you think I should include on this list, by all means, send your suggestions to me. They will be appreciated.
ONE MORE THING
My pal LEE BARNETT is a clever and thoughtful commentator on many topics. Here's a note he sent informing me of his most recent publication:
Every so often, someone is crazy enough to ask me to write something for them. NINTHART.COM (a comics journalism website) is comprised of such people and a few months ago they asked me to write a column for them on children and comic books, particularly why more children don't read comic books and the problems in getting kids to read them.
So I wrote it for them. Mad fools that they are, they put it up on the web. The URL is:
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
Please send material you would like me to review to: