Why ''Spider-Man'' out-entertains ''Star Wars'' -- Even summer blockbusters need believable characters if they're going to succeed, says Ty Burr
Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones
Credit: Star Wars-Episode II: The Attack of the Clones: © & TM Lucasfilms, LTD; Spider-Man: Zade Rosenthal

Why ”Spider-Man” out-entertains ”Star Wars”

All those readers who respond to critics dissing blockbuster summer movies by saying ”Hey, man, we don’t want heavy drama and deeper meaning — we just want to be entertained,” well, those readers just don’t get it. Critics and media snarks like me certainly DO want to be entertained — we just want to be entertained competently. Is dialogue that sounds like it could be spoken by actual human beings (rather than a marketing VP) too much to ask? Can the audience NOT be insulted by having to step over gaping plotholes every third scene? Are characters that are comparatively three-dimensional and interesting within the universe that the film has set up, however shallow that may be, an impossibility?

Of course they’re not, and I hereby direct you to Sam Raimi’s ”Spider-Man” as proof. Here’s a movie that casts, as its leads, two actors who are supposedly ”better” than their comic book roles: Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst have both proved that they can do provocative, thoughtful work (see ”Wonder Boys” and ”crazy/beautiful,” respectively). Does that mean they can indulge in broad-scale slumming here? Hardly: They’re gifted professionals who imbue their ”two-dimensional” characters with heart, wit, and resonance; that final scene in which Peter Parker blows off Mary Jane to save her skin is both mythic in import and heartbreakingly personal.

Would ”Spider-Man” be a better movie if the CGI effects didn’t make Times Square look like a ”Bob the Builder” set and Willem Dafoe’s immobile Green Goblin mask didn’t render him as scary as an action figure wielded by a 6-year-old? Of course it would. But the fact that Raimi and his cast pretty much nail the filmmaking basics (I repeat: characters, dialogue, plot) makes it possible to overlook the surprisingly slipshod special effects.

The same formula applied to Peter Jackson’s ”The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” albeit with different chemistry. There the plot was fairly threadbare — c’mon, people, it was a chase scene for half the movie — but the effects were grand and the acting was top-notch, again bringing depth to characters that had the potential to be mere cardboard. Filmgoers’ rule No. 1: If you can emotionally invest in the people, you can buy the movie.

And what happens when the CGI is great but you can’t invest in the people? Well, you end up with ”Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.” Yes, now that I’ve seen it, I can say that the fifth installment is ”better” than ”The Phantom Menace” — but that still doesn’t mean it’s very good. In fact, it’s proof that you can have all the breathtaking effects you want; you can take us places, visually, we never thought we’d dream of going — but when the characters spout lines as wan and wooden as Anakin and Padme do here and when the actors are misdirected into flat line-readings, well, only true believers will make it to ”Episode 3.”

Some things to keep in mind, ”Star Wars” fans, when you finally file into the theater on May 16th: Do you suffer through the quiet character scenes while waiting for the next action set-piece? Do the words the characters speak sound like generic subtext or something a living person might genuinely say? If these people are meant to be mythic, are the performances pitched at the appropriately larger-than-life scale? In the end, do you believe the people?

If you don’t, then it’s a failure as drama, no matter what anyone says. And I’d argue that, unlike ”Spider-Man,” it would be a failure as entertainment, too.

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