| May 6, 2002

Much of the appeal of Spider-man, as a character, is the humanity and morality that makes the teenager turned superhero something less “other” and more relatable, more like us. Superman is an alien, almost invincible; Batman is a man, true, but a man of privilege and pain, characteristics that serve to separate him from the norm and isolate him in a milieu of his own. Spider-man, though, is just a teenage kid experiencing the same growing pains of adolescence, the same slow discovery of potential, the same awkward struggle towards adulthood that everyone experiences one way or another. Such similarities, along with a core of vulnerability, make Peter Parker’s alter ego one of us, in a spiritual sense at the very least.
So it makes sense that the strongest element of Sam Raimi’s new movie, while making room for some dazzling (though uneven) action sequences, is the realistic depiction of the hero’s human side. Whether showcasing the shy, nerdy Peter Parker’s loyal, loving relationship with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) or his fumbling attempts to charm the girl of his dreams, the cast of this movie puts its heart and soul on the front page, and it is there that this blockbuster feels most comfortable. The talent of the two co-stars, as well as his obvious affection for the source material, allows director Sam Raimi to elevate this popcorn movie above its fantastic comic book premise and into a truly well-rounded depiction of the angst of a superhero.
The first hour of the movie, during which Peter’s transformation occurs, builds a strong foundation, not only for the second hour’s action sequences, but also for upcoming sequels that will (hopefully) be able to effortlessly draw on the substance of this film while at the same time upping the throttle a bit. The story is simple, kind of: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a hardcore nerd, great at science but completely inept socially, especially when it comes to wooing the girl-next-door-of-his-dreams, Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst). One day, on a field trip to a local museum, Peter gets bitten by a genetically engineered spider and is soon feeling the effects of the radioactive arachnid’s venom. Almost immediately his body gets toned, his vision is improved, and he’s sticking to walls. He begins to test out his new abilities and quickly delights in impressing his schoolmates with lightning quick reflexes and a hell of an uppercut. But this character, and likewise the film, is not about a teenager’s fantasy of being more than he can be, becoming big man on campus and winning his dream girl. Spider-man is about the weight of responsibility that comes with having extraordinary powers and the ability to help, or hurt, people at will.
Raised by his Aunt and Uncle with a strong work ethic and a firm sense of morality, Peter’s character is soon put to the test when a criminal he allows to escape, out of spite, ends up striking close to home and hammering the familiar refrain “with great power comes great responsibility” into his head. The lesson is learned, and Peter quickly gets to work as the friendly, neighborhood Spider-man, saving babies from burning buildings, catching purse-snatchers and even occasionally rescuing the trouble-prone Mary Jane from danger. Everything is going well, until the requisite villain enters the scene. In this case it’s Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn, a scientist who, in professional desperation, tests out his new exo-skeleton on himself, and subsequently goes insane and spawns a split personality coined by local newsman J.J. Jameson (J.K. Simmons, all comic bluster) as the Green Goblin. The armor suited, glider riding, bomb tossing Goblin originally starts out trying to eliminate Norman’s professional competitors, but eventually goes so far off the deep-end that he targets Spidey and even endangers his own son, Peter’s friend Harry, in the process.
Dafoe goes all out as the Goblin, biting off pieces of celluloid as he converses with himself in the mirror and makes outrageously insulting comments about his son’s girlfriend. Occasionally, Dafoe scores with a riotous comic touch, such as a lecherous glance or two at Mary Jane, but it’s hard, even for an actor of his ability, to shade such a character. After all, when it boils down to it, Osborn’s “sane” personality of overbearing father and his lunatic Green Goblin side, aren’t that different. Aside from his insanity and some early capitalistic intentions, the Green Goblin has little motivation for his actions other than anger that he is upstaged by Spider-man, and such a limited character proves to drag the movie down a bit during his scenes. It doesn’t help that the Goblin’s costume is completely non-expressive, in fact, that only reinforces the character’s remoteness.
Partially because the Goblin is a weak villain but also because of some artificial-looking CGI work, some of the action scenes in the films second hour fall flat. It’s already a bit much to see a body-suited man nonchalantly talking to the cops about a nearby fire, but when he’s having a conversation with a man in a green metal suit, it’s tough to take seriously. But such is the problem with comic books turned movies. Whereas Tim Burton’s Gotham was a hyper-stylized gothic playground that perfectly synthesized with its characters, Sam Raimi’s New York is a bit too real for his super-men to seamlessly blend in. As a result, the film has its moments of cheese, especially when the director utilizes montages of thrilled citizens singing Spider-man’s praises that have a very comic book feel but are too lacking in edge to pass as reality.
Thank God, then, for the gravity and confidence the two major players bring to their roles. Kirsten Dunst, already an excellent young actress, brings her skills to a summer spectacular, investing golden girl Mary Jane with a believable sense of insecurity brought on by a bad home life and a need to be loved. Her infatuation with the masked man who saves her on more than one occasion never feels contrived, not in the way the strong-willed Lois Lane’s aggressive pursuit of Superman does; MJ really needs someone to save her, whether it’s the genuinely caring Peter Parker or the breathtakingly heroic Spider-man. Dunst is nothing short of adorable in this role (and out of it as well, for that matter), and it’s easy to see what Peter sees in her. As for Tobey Maguire, well, anyone doubting his capacity to pull off this role will be pleasantly surprised when they see his fantastic performance. He has played enough nerdy good guys to pull of Peter Parker with ease, but the true meat of the performance is his flawless, plausible transition to the confident young man that his new powers allow him to be. Once he’s become Spider-man, he clearly delights in his newfound abilities, but he isn’t Mr. Popular. He gets cool (losing the glasses helps), but not too cool, and he never loses his sense of responsibility, especially when his loved ones are being threatened. Maguire invests Parker with bravado but not arrogance, and you always get the sense that he’s a normal, helluva nice guy, even when he’s shooting webs out of his wrists.
Sam Raimi and his cast score big with Spider-man, but I don’t think it’s quite up there with the original Superman in terms of comic adaptations. The action sequences are unfortunately this film’s primary weak point, but the appealing story (especially before he truly becomes “Spider-man”) allows for plenty of compelling, funny (witness Parker’s photo work for the Daily Bugle), even tender moments. The special effects are sure to improve as the technology ages and the second film will probably provide more room for action than this story-heavy outing does, but one hopes Raimi realizes that the strength of this franchise, so far, is the cast and the characters. If the right folks are pegged to play Dr. Octopus and the Lizard man (both rumored to be in the sequel), there’s no reason to think that an already fun film can’t be one-upped, at least in the adrenalin department, come 2004.

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