They’re both franchises. Spider-Man, in his various incarnations, and
Woody Allen, in his, have been around seemingly forever; both, too,
are identified with New York City. Both released films on May 3, and
both films are pretty much as you would expect them to be: the former
a big-budget action spectacular, the latter a low-budget comedy.
I was more disappointed in Spider-Man, if only because it’s been so
successful that I thought that maybe there might be something to it
beyond the standard action-hero caper.
Why, then, the success? Well, Spider-Man is a much-loved cartoon character,
both in comic-book and cartoon form. A lot has been made of the way
in which he’s one of us: an adolescent boy, rather than a reclusive
multi-millionaire (Batman) or an extraterrestrial refugee (Superman).
I think the reason is more basic still: the idea of swinging on spider-ropes
from building to building, once implanted in the brain, is impossible
to remove. I should imagine that pretty much every kid who’s ever been
exposed to the Spider-Man concept has looked up at his or her city at
many points in his or her childhood and fantasised about what it would
be like to be up there, among the skyscrapers, freed from terrestrial
Both theories of Spider-Man’s success correspond to weaknesses in Sam
Raimi’s movie.There’s a cute bit where Spidey is learning the ropes,
as it were, and crashes into a wall, and there’s even a great half-second
or so when we realise along with him that the way to do it is to fire
off a second rope in the opposite direction and let go of the first.
But after that, it’s all jumps and blurs: no Spider-cams, or feelings
of what it’s like to swing around the rooftops.
More problematic for the movie is the very fact that it’s grounded
in some kind of recognisable reality, where Peter Parker is bullied
at a New York City school, lives in a loft on Broadway and Bond, and
bumps into his love interest at the corner of Houston and Sixth Avenue.
That’s all well and good, but it makes our suspension of disbelief a
lot more difficult: it serves to make the slavishly-followed comic-book
conventions look as ridiculous as they are when you stop to think about
them. The cigar-chomping newspaper editor; the girl who somehow never
cottons on to Spider-Man’s identity; the villain who, even after he’s
decided to kill his nemesis, decides to construct a dastardly plan involving
torn loyalties despite the fact that it serves no purpose whatsoever:
switching back and forth between reality and ultrafantasy can be a bit
tiring after a while.
The biggest switch of all happens halfway through the film. It’s fun
to watch Peter Parker coming to grips with his spider-powers; it’s boring
to see him use them. The minute he appears in his full-blown spider
costume, ready to save the world from evildoers, is the minute that
you can safely walk out of the cinema. After all, you know the ending
already: Spider-Man vanquishes the Green Goblin, while leaving lots
of room for a sequel.
Also confusing is the fact that the movie doesn’t seem entirely sure
where it’s set: it’s New York, to be sure, but when? The street
criminals are straight out of Taxi Driver, but the Macy Gray
appearance in Times Square is post-Disneyfication. I last got this feeling
in Eyes Wide Shut, weirdly enough, in the scene where Tom Cruise
is jeered at by Greenwich Village hoodlums accusing him of being gay.
But if Eyes Wide Shut is hurt by the disconnect between the real
and the portrayed New York, Spider-Man suffers more, because
the portrayed New York is so central to the film. Maybe this is a criticism
only a New Yorker could make, but what’s the point of setting your movie
here, of having Spider-Man introspect from the vantage point of a Chrysler
Building gargoyle, if you’re just going to turn NYC into Batman‘s
Gotham? In Batman, Tim Burton got to spend a fortune on a slick
dystopian production design which looked gorgeous; in Spider-Man,
Sam Raimi’s constrained by the fact that New York City is a real place,
and then denies himself any of the upside.
Woody Allen, of course, is virtually New York incarnate, and any time
he makes a film without some kind of heartfelt expression of love to
our city we feel that something’s missing. His latest effort, Hollywood
Ending, comes sans any kind of New York flavour, and one gets the
impression that Woody didn’t really invest any emotional equity in it.
It’s a throwaway Allen film: very funny, yet even more lightweight than
Small Time Crooks. Good comedy is hard work, and although there
are some great lines and fabulously inventive writing in this film,
most of it seems rushed, as though Allen couldn’t be bothered to put
in the extra effort.
Take just about any scene between two characters: you’ll see one of
them say a line, then there’ll be a slightly-too-long pause, and then
you’ll cut to a shot of the second responding, back and forth any number
of times. No fluid cameras, no flavour; it’s as though he’s decided
that the writing is funny enough that he doesn’t need to bother directing
There’s also really only one joke in the film: the film director who
can’t see. Woody Allen makes sure it’s a funny one, but I’m not sure
it’s really capable of sustaining a full-length feature. Bring back
the inventiveness of Deconstructing Harry, please!