By Mark J. Torma

Chicago film critic Roger Ebert tells a story from about thirty years ago, when someone asked him his opinion of a movie playing at a theater near their home in Wilmette. “I think it’s the year’s best film,” he answered. He was shocked (and later, I suspect, amused) by their response: “Oh. That doesn’t sound like anything we’d like to see.”

If anyone out there shares this perverse knee-jerk reaction to critical accolades, you can rest easy—I’m here to tell you that Spider-Man is not the year’s best film. There, now you can go see the movie without being afraid it might turn into the long awaited sequel to Day for Night.

For all the rest of you, who are just waiting for me to begin eviscerating (I believe that’s the word of choice here at Chicago, isn’t it?) this, the newest film from Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Dark Man, and improbably, A Simple Plan, too)—who do you take me for? Spider-man wasn’t half-bad, either. Before I launch into my likes and dislikes about this movie, I just want to say that some great cinema has resulted from the big studios funding projects based on what was essentially pulpy, popular entertainment (The Godfather and The Adventures of Robin Hood (the one with Errol Flynn) among many others), and that some independently funded, very personalized projects have turned into utter crap (Inchon, to give one extreme example).

There—now that I’ve more or less placed Spider-Man in the cosmology of film, I can get down to brass tacks. Spider-Man is not disappointing; I think that maybe, just maybe, it will disappoint the fans of its source material less than most other movie adaptations. I know that ever since Batman came out in 1989 (heck, probably since Superman came out in 1978), fans of Spiderman (myself included) have been wondering when they were going to get theirs—on screen, that is. I will admit that I am surprised it took this long, since it usually takes Hollywood about two years, not twenty-four, to crank out any and all viable variations on the most recent blockbuster. Now that Spider-Man is finally here, I am certainly not irate, nor am I thrilled. I am, if anything, placated.

Let’s attend to the focus of the most media attention in regards to Spider-Man: the lead actor, Tobey Maguire. When I first saw him in Pleasantville, I was pleasantly intrigued. Here was a young actor who saw no need to make himself into a hunk, a tragic victim, or a fool, but instead played his teenage character straight. It wasn’t a mark of greatness, per se, but his choice was an all too rare one these days. Since then, however, I’ve begun to wonder if that’s all he can do. In Wonder Boys and The Cider House Rules, and even in his earlier picture The Ice Storm, Maguire played essentially the exact same character—sometimes it fit the movie well, and sometimes it didn’t. What it definitely didn’t do is establish any range of acting ability. Some actors live off this sort of caricature (then again, maybe that’s simply the real Tobey, and he’s never actually acting), but most top-flight actors try to avoid it like the plague, and for good reason—producers tend not to give “character actors” the big bucks.

In the end, however, maybe Maguire will be lucky in the roll of the acting dice. It appears that he may be able to have his cake and eat it too. You see, Spider-Man is assured to make a lot of money (not that I’ve seen the Monday morning headlines, but I’d say it’s take over the weekend will be about, oh, $114 million), and even if Maguire carries his vague stare, doped-up grin, and spacey voice into every single part he plays from now on, he will probably be sought out by producers and directors simply because he is now a “big draw.” Sometimes it doesn’t exactly work out this way (Michael Keaton), but more often than not it does—most of these filmmakers have a hard time remembering that Sandra Bullock was also once considered a “big draw.”

What does this have to do with Spider-Man itself? Well, in keeping with how I started the review, if you are looking for any sort of acting prowess out of Tobey Maguire, you’re not going to get it. If you specifically don’t want to be distracted by any thespian histrionics, well, you’re not going to be. With the notable exception of Willem Dafoe (and I’ll get to him later), I don’t think any of the cast took any more than a minute on any of their lines. Fortunately, there weren’t really any duds among either the lines or the actors (other than J. K. Simmons, who played the editor of the Daily Bugle—he really annoyed me). The unrequited-love story was both predictable and “awww”-inspiring, and the scriptwriters get kudos for not glossing over the process by which Spiderman develops his “look.”

On the other hand, the glaring deficiency of the film was in its special effects—not that they weren’t up to industry standards (I’m sure that they were), but that the industry standards these days tend not to look like reality. The most visually exciting part of the Spiderman comic books have always been the sequences when Spidey is airborne, either swinging, leaping, or striking; but in the movie, these sequences, made possible by computer graphics, don’t look like anything other than something that might pop up on my computer screen when I surf the web. I was sorry to see that this was the case, for if my imagination was uninspired, well then, what will the children think?

Oh, they’ll probably think it’s great anyway, but if any of them have ever actually seen the original Green Goblin, even the smallest tyke is sure to raise their voice in complaint. As I’m sure most people will note when they see the movie, the original Green Goblin—the comic-book version, the TV cartoon version—was bare-faced, with a maniacal green sneer that looked like…well, nothing less than a green Willem Dafoe. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to hear that they got Dafoe to play the Goblin—the greatest casting coup ever! Jackie Robinson as Jackie Robinson couldn’t have been more perfect!

So what does some idiot do but put a mask on Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin? They put a mask on the man who was born to play this part! That would be like giving Ben Kingsley a face-lift to play Gandhi! What were they thinking? And to top it off, Dafoe is forced to deliver his juiciest lines behind about two inches of plastic. I don’t know who had the bright idea to say that the Green Goblin outfit was the result of an Army-contracted exoskeleton development project, but I have news for them: the Army would never have developed a helmet that looked like the Green Goblin! Who do they take us for?

Now that I have that off my chest, I have to say that, nevertheless, I liked Spider-Man, and that I’m looking forward to seeing the inevitable sequel, if only to see if it will get more intelligent and correct these egregious missteps. I can dream, can’t I?

And don’t you want to see how they’re going to pull off Doctor Octopus?