review by Elias Savada, 3 May 2002

Forty years ago, a masked superhero was born at the hands of Mr. Marvel, a.k.a. Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko on the pages of Amazing Fantasy. As brilliantly evident in this bigger-than-life makeover of a now legendary webbed crusader's saga, it's obvious that there are other creatures than cats which have more than nine lives. Through more than a few television series (mostly animated), four video games, a couple of direct-to-video spin-offs, and a theatrical-development hell that could fill a supplemental DVD when this blockbuster hits Blockbuster later this year, now arises Spider-Man, THE movie, a wondrously Charles Atlas-esque story destined for overflowing popcorn sales and enthusiastic audience and critical response. That "97-lb. Weakling" turned world's most perfectly-developed man (with advertisements featuring in most of those decades-old comic books) is the type of spirited creation captured in the film, further embellished with a witty, gee-whiz smartness.

Sam Raimi, just a toddler when Spidey was born, returns part way to his darker directorial roots of the Evil Dead/Army of Darkness trilogy (with its star Bruce Campbell making an amusing appearance in the current film as a wrestling match ring announcer and giving the masked vigilante-to-be his moniker), while also imbuing his movie with those smaller human sensibilities found in A Simple Plan (1998) and The Gift (2000). Yes Spider-Man will be a super hit because of its tremendous mass appeal for people, like myself, who grew up on a steady diet of Marvel and DC Comics superheroes. Yet the film also succeeds because of Raimi's determined, deft touch in keeping his titular character relatively personal, tender-hearted, and narcissistically humorous within the confines of his supernatural, i.e. $120 million budget, abilities. He plays with CGI masterfully, on the rooftops, in the streets, and all those places spidermen tend to spin with webs, although some of the upper-story soaring isn't as believably smooth in transposing live action with computer animation.

When Tobey Maguire was announced as the film's lead, legions of fans let out an exasperated groan, fearing the project would deconstruct under the performer's minimalist acting style. But that now twenty-six-year-old boy we applauded in Wonder Boys, Pleasantville, and The Ice Storm, packed on a few pounds for his new vehicle while retaining a boyish veneer that ultimately made him the perfect choice. As Peter Parker, a meek, introverted high school science geek, Maguire impeccably embodies the orphaned good-body residing in Queens, New York, with his caring Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). He's living right next door to a red-haired angel, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), for whom he has been carrying a very big, and private, flame since she moved in at age six. Dunst adds her own dynamic chemistry as romantic love interest and vulnerable downtrodden daughter of a white-trash father. You notice that, as well as her low-cut tops and one jaw-dropping, rain-drenched moment that will send most of America's male teenagers surfing the internet for a few of the frames with this particular pose as their new screen saver. (Good news kids, I think it's in the trailer.) Their moms may not appreciate such virtual images flitting about the computer monitor, but their red-blooded dads will ogle along with junior. Yowsah.

Maguire's blue-eyed innocence as he transforms from school joke to action figure fills up the movie's first hour with a charming journey of self-discovery, set against the backdrop of the world's greatest city. The film also features more than a few tributes to New York City's huddled masses yearning to celebrate superheroes and brow-beat evildoers. Whether he's prepared for stardom, this role will change Maguire's life forever, especially financially, as he'll earn $26 million if he makes two sequels.

As a rite of passage, Parker, Watson, and classmate Harry Osborn (James Franco) graduate from high school at about the same time (mid-point in the film) that Spider-Man moves up from his amateur rankings (with a costume featuring a red ski mask and gloves, and what I believe are flannel pajamas) to full-fledged professional crime-fighter (with an appropriate, true-to-the-original upgrade courtesy of costume designer James Acheson). Veteran David Koepp's screenplay is serviceable, although I had some problems with his development of arch-nemesis Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), the alter-ego of military arms industrialist Norman Osborn (Harry's father), who doses himself with an experimental drug and gains super-strength and a split personality that too neatly separates its characters at the writer's whim. Put him in his green armor and plant him atop his armament-enhanced jet glider—he's one mean superdude. Plop him back in his business suits (how does he manage to gleefully wreak havoc, death, and destruction, yet still remember to be on time for Thanksgiving dinner?)—he's a semi-indulgent father and megalomaniacal executive. Dafoe plays it decidedly over-the-top, but it's a distraction that his Gobby wasn't better defined, as Superman's adversary Lux Luthor (Gene Hackman) was. There is also a conflict in the narrative about how long Peter has mooned over Mary Jane.

Danny Elfman's score is stupendous in its staccato urgency, complementing the breathtaking production design of Neil Spisak and the photography of Don Burgess (Forrest Gump, Cast Away). The supplemental cast is all very good, particularly J. K. Simmons (Psychiatrist Emil Skoda in all the Law & Order TV series) as the close-cropped, cigar-stomping, conservative newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson.

Raimi, taking a cue from a line in the film, realizes that with great power comes great responsibility. He's taken a childhood treasure and spun it into a delightful, respectable classic, something of which he, and Sony Pictures, should be very proud. Do I smell franchise? Who doesn't?

Directed by:
Sam Raimi

Tobey Maguire
Kirsten Dunst
Willem Dafoe
James Franco
J.K. Simmons
Rosemary Harris
Cliff Robertson
Michael Papajohn

Written by:
David Koepp

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for
children under 13.






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