Dreaded Purple Master

Spider-Man (2002)

I laughed. I cried. I sighed happily.

Yeah, there were a few places where I cringed. The ghostly images of MJ as Peter is designing his wrestling costume were a bit over the top. Some of the dialogue between MJ and Peter was a bit odd. And it seems like Peter spent a lot of time staring off into the distance with his wide, vulnerable eyes. And exactly how long do the events of this movie take, anyway?

But I forgave them. Peter is a high school student (or was, at first) -- Love is melodramatic at that age. No, the dialogue wasn't polished Hollywood: It was the kind of things people say when they're struggling for the right words -- or when they accidentally say what they mean. As for Peter's wide, vulnerable eyes, well, check any of the first hundred issues of the comic. They're all over the place.

For every cringe, there was another scene of ineffable Rightness.

"What are you doing up there?" "Staying away from you!"

"I missed the part where that's my problem."

"Go web!"

"I was in the neighborhood. Well, I had to take two buses and a taxi to get to the neighborhood."

"Do I have a super-hero stalker?" "I was in the neighborhood."

"Would it hurt to tell her how you feel? Everyone else knows."

J K Simmons is J Jonah Jameson. In fact, all of the casting is exactly right.

The film's special effects are good -- but the digital Spidey doesn't move quite like a real person would, hanging in mid-air a little too long, twisting oddly in mid-leap from rooftop to rooftop, with no sense of real weight when he hits the ground. Some of the fight scenes look more like a big-screen video game -- and they took long enough for that to be noticeable.

The big thing that I didn't think would work was Kirsten Dunst.

You have to understand what a stereotype-shattering character Mary Jane Watson was in the original comics. Aunt May: "I've arranged a date for you with a lovely girl. She's a niece of our neighbor, Mrs. Watson, and she'd just love to meet you, Peter."[1]

For over two years, Peter managed to avoid Miss Watson[2], until circumstances conspired to leave him with no deadlines to meet, no villains to fight, only an unyielding matchmaker aunt who would no longer take "no" for an answer. "You must think of your future, Peter dear."

Finally[3], a nervous, unhappy Peter contemplates his fate (what kind of girl needs two elderly aunts to arrange blind dates for her?) when in walks...

Well, Steve Ditko wasn't known for drawing gorgeous girls[4]. By this time, though, Ditko had left the strip. John Romita had a long history in romance comics, and a reputation for drawing beautiful women. Everything he knew, he put into this one frame, MJ's debut as an on-panel character. And jaws dropped.

"Face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!"

Well, yes, Stan Lee trying to write “hip” dialog led to some unintentional comedy.

But if ever there was a girl who just wanted to have fun, it was MJ. What in the world had "puny" Parker, bookworm Peter, done to deserve this? (And could he bottle it?) From another perspective, though, it was inevitable that MJ (or someone like her) should walk into Peter's life. Peter has always had girlfriend troubles, having either several at once or none at all. MJ, alone among all of them, didn't care who else he was seeing. As long as she was where the action was, she was happy.

It may say something about the character that she didn't have a "thought balloon" until three years later. Never was the introspective type, was MJ. We didn't get the darker side of her history until many more years after that.

Gosh, what a soap opera.

The movie crushes MJ's story down to a manageable complexity: Fine with me. The movie only runs 121 minutes. We lose Peter's earlier girlfriends, although MJ's new backstory contains elements of all of them. OK. All we've lost is trivia: The essence of the science nerd with unresolvable girlfriend problems is untouched.

But... Kirsten Dunst? I mean, she's cute'n'all, but Mary Jane? She didn't look right in other movies. She didn't look right in pre-production photos. She didn't look right in stills from "Spider-Man"...

But on-screen, in motion, in life... Yes. She's exactly right. And when she smiles, she dimples in exactly the same way John Romita always drew her. I'll…be…darned. (I'm going to be so disappointed if I find out that dimple is a CGI effect...)

This is the same MJ: She transitions from her unhappy family life (just as in the comics), to some Quality Time over the back fence with Peter, to the familiar "Hey, Tiger" persona as she keeps her date with Flash. We don't see that MJ much because we see her from Peter's point of view -- and with Peter she doesn't pretend, at first because he doesn't matter to her, later because... he does.

We hit the jackpot.

When can we go see it again?

[1] #15, August 1964.

[2] Liz Allan and Betty Brant met her briefly in #25, as the three girls converged on the Parker home looking for Peter. The readers didn’t see Mary Jane’s face.

[3] #42.

[4] The nature of Peter’s life was such that Liz and Betty rarely met. In the aforementioned #25, where we saw them together, they had the same face, differentiated only by hair color and style. By the time we got our first glimpse of Gwen Stacy in #32, I suspect, some panels were being ghost-redrawn. Gwen looks like a Bill Everett girl to me.

My, what a comics nerd I turned out to be.

Daniel Taylor: Wednesday, May 15, 2002