Boys will be boys

Of Arthurian legend, Winston Churchill once gravelled: "It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides." With Nazis on his doorstep, Churchill had good cause to buck up his countrymen by invoking a 5th-century hero who had successfully repelled another terrible invasion of England. What comparable myth might Americans call on, in this anxious time of internal division and terrorist assault?

Two current films star something like superheroes, one drawn from a cherished comic-book tradition, the other from Churchill's centuries-old story about that once and future king who first dreamed a shining city on a hill. In these movies, both Spider-Man and King Arthur are portrayed as divided souls, aching for the kind of psychic wholeness and human connection that would actuate their full potential as larger-than-life saviors of their respective communities.

Preceded by trailers advertising a range of supersized unrealities ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," "Catwoman," "Alien vs. Predator," "I, Robot," "Anacondas"), "Spider-Man 2"'s Toby Maguire looked a bit slight, less man than Peter Pan beset by a host of teen troubles, compounded by his responsibilities as web-slinging crimefighter. Our hero can leap tall buildings and beat down the bad guys, but he can't deliver pizza on time, pay his rent or consummate his yearn for sweetheart M.J. (Kirsten Dunst).

Maguire is a past master of adolescent angst: his face projects a kind of perpetually stunned hurt, and his slightly hoarse, little-boy-gulpy voice seems always on the edge of breaking. In "Spider-Man 2," there's simply too much of this; multiple puppy-dog closeups and unhappy circumstance are piled on until you want to scream, "Grow up already!"

When Spidey is unmasked in a subway car he's just saved from a fatal crash, a grateful passenger gasps, "He's just a kid." It's a sweet moment, but overall "Spider-Man 2" makes you wish for old-fashioned masculine maturity (R.I.P., Marlon Brando), conflicted with something more than hormonal stress wrapped in identity crisis.

Dr. Octavius (Alfred Molina), not yet multi-tentacled villain Doc Ock, paternally counsels Peter Parker that "keeping love inside can make you sick." Soon M.J.'s engaged to an astronaut (!), and Spidey's anchoring webs stop rising to the occasion. It's as though we've time-shifted back to the 1961 sexual-represson classic "Splendor in the Grass." For lack of "going all the way," Natalie Wood goes nuts and boyfriend Warren Beatty finds release in all the wrong places. But while the heat between Beatty and Wood came off the screen in melodramatic waves, you can't even imagine Maguire and Dunst "doing it." Their coitus will always be interruptus, their passion projected primarily in longing stares.

What works in this boy's-life adventure are occasional flavor-bursts of humor and a couple of comic-book action sequences that are kinetic fun, pure CGI playfulness. You're tickled by Peter Parker at the Laundromat, discovering that the colors of his Spidey outfit have run into his everyday wear. Or the priceless expression on an ambiguously gay man's face, sharing an elevator with a fully costumed Spider-Man - whose webs have failed him yet again - when Peter confides that his skintight suit can be itchy, especially when it "rides up in the crotch."

Or the delightfully goofy "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sequence, after Peter has renounced his super-self for ordinary life: skipping through New York in a slo-mo haze of happiness, he looks as though he might at any moment leap up to throw his hat in the air, Mary Tyler Moore-style.

Wreathed in computer-smart tentacles, the result of beneficent science gone wrong, Doc Ock wrestles Spider-Man up and down the face of a skyscraper, batting poor Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) around like a Ping-Pong ball (just punishment for that saccharine sermon she later lays on her nephew). There's just a hint of grandeur here; you can imagine authentic titans at war in vast urban spaces, unconstrained by gravity or limiting flesh. And Spidey's excruciating effort to stop a speeding subway generates real empathy; you can feel that he's exceeding even his superpowers, so that it's not just another easy exercise of spider strength.

Interesting to speculate on moviegoers' state of mind as they broke Fourth of July records at the box office for "Fahrenheit 9/11" and now "Spider-Man 2." Supersized Michael Moore satirizes a nation deeply divided and deluded, while bug-boy Peter Parker heals his conflicted soul and saves New York from a mad terrorist. Could it be we're searching, in the dark, for some kind of firm ground between self-loathing and self-esteem?

In the new version of "King Arthur," Artorius Castus (Clive Owen) is part Roman, part Briton, a deracinated hero caught between two worlds: one civilized, the other tribal and pagan. He's naïvely placed his faith in Empire and a brand of Christianity that emphasizes free will - anathema for a church busily consolidating its power over unruly humanity.

Legendary warrior Artorius heads the Roman effort to wipe out the Woads, naked, blue-painted natives of Britain, where he and his knights have been stationed for 15 years. Now he's become the pawn of an increasingly beleaguered superpower that wants nothing so much as to exit this cold, foggy island it once coveted.

(In case you stumble over that "Woad" label, know that the script invents the notion that an occupying force might name native Britons after the plant that supplies the blue dye that adorns their bodies - the objectifying equivalent of "slope" or "towelhead" in other wars, other times.)

In their self-proclaimed "historical" version of "King Arthur," director Antoine Fuqua and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have chosen to strip Camelot's much-embroidered legend of any glimmering of charisma, magic, mythic resonance, sensuality - everything, in short, except dull-as-dirt pseudo-realism. (We're talking the Bruckehimer-Fuqua brand of realism, of course, signaled by a plethora of dirt-smeared extras with stringy hair in their eyes. Leads, who must look good in closeups, somehow always have access to bathwater and haircuts.)

In contrast to the more familiar medieval retrospective on Arthur and his Round Table, resplendent with archetypal romance and religious/pagan metaphysics, Fuqua returns the myth to its probable roots, in 435 A.D., when marauding Saxons are ravaging Britain and the besieged Roman Empire is shrinking down to its Italian home base.

Due to be honorably discharged, Artorius and his decimated crew of knights are coerced by a bishop, fairly oozing corruption, into taking on one last assignment: the Magnificent Seven must rescue a family of Romans who have settled, improbably, north of Hadrian's Wall, square in the path of invading Saxons. During this campaign, prodded by Christian/Roman atrocities, Merlin's plea to lead the Woads against the savage invaders, and Amazonian Guinevere's attractions, Artorius evolves into Arthur, king of Britain.

"King Arthur"'s plot owes more than a nod to Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai," but don't look for anything like that film's visual grandeur or its colorfully individuated champions. Except for Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and Bors (Ray Winstone), the members of Arthur's posse are extraordinarily hard to tell apart.

But director Fuqua really craves for Arthur's lame adventure to be another "Gladiator" (one of whose three screenwriters, David Franzoni, is solo-credited here). Unfortunately, for starters, the movie lacks Russell Crowe, an actor incapable of being dull; you can't take your eyes off him, standing still or in motion. In awful contrast, Clive Owen's repertoire of expressions in "King Arthur" is limited to one, a noble mask of unmoving drear, so that we must wonder why his knights find his suicidal call-to-arms (times two) so compelling, how it is that Lancelot should be so deeply energized by their blood-brotherhood, what draws Guinevere to his bed for the most juiceless coupling in recent cinema.

Fuqua (best-known as the director of Denzel Washington's Oscar vehicle "Training Day") hasn't a clue how to imitate "Gladiator" director Ridley Scott's powerfully kinetic camera movements and authoritative compositions, his coherent orchestration of brutal battle. Consequently, this big film seems strangely flat and undramatic, despite showpieces such as an almost-battle on ice (see Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" for the real thing) and an all-over-the-map brawl between Saxons and Britons, when Arthur finally does for Saxon chief Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård, bearing a distracting resemblance to Harry Potter's Rubeus Hagrid).

Even Keira Knightley's gutsy Guinevere, all her naughty parts neatly covered by leather strapping as she wields her sword with (take your pick) dominatrix or proto-feminist verve, can't transform the film's climactic bloodbath from overlong mess into something that matters.

"King Arthur" lacks a beating heart; there's nothing behind this movie and no authentic action within it. To remind yourself of what a genuine cinematic poet is capable, rent "Excalibur" (1981), John Boorman's exquisitely glamored vision of Merlin and Arthur. That film's every moment is informed by an engaged, idiosyncratic imagination that conjures and populates a beautiful dream, a myth to live by.

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