Screenplay : David Koepp (based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man / Peter Parker), Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin / Norman Osborn), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), Michael Papajohn (The Burglar), Randy Poffo (Bone Saw McGraw), Joe Manganiello (Eugene "Flash" Thompson), Rosemary Harris (Aunt May), Ted Raimi (Hoffman), Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben Parker)
Sam Raimi's Spider-Man is the best big-screen superhero movie since Richard Donner's Superman (1978). Like Donner, Raimi achieves a near-perfect balance between the humanistic and the mythical, giving us a deeply human and often moving character story in addition to a rousing action-adventure fantasy.
Created for Marvel comics in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man would seem to be the least appealing of superheroes--after all, who really likes spiders?--but Lee and Ditko realized that the key to this character was grounding him in human reality. One of the few comic-book superheroes to be an awkward teenager, Spider-Man's misunderstood existence was as firmly rooted in his own hormone-addled insecurities as it was in the public's misconception of him as a potential menace.
The casting of Tobey Maguire (The Cider House Rules) as Peter Parker, the high-school senior who would become Spider-Man after being bitten on the hand by a genetically manufactured super-spider (back in the original comic, the spider had been atomically radiated), was a source of great controversy when first announced, but it is now clear that it was the right choice. Maguire's understated screen presence and expressive eyes are exactly what the character needs. Handsome, but somewhat awkward in appearance, he is fully believable as he morphs from outcast geek to misunderstood superhero, the two halves of his persona feeding off each other. His Spider powers give Peter new confidence in himself while Peter's firm moral grounding brings humanity and caring to his superhero alter ego.
Screenwriter David Koepp (Panic Room) takes his time with the narrative, focusing the first half of the movie on the characters and the origin story of Spider-Man. He wisely structures the origin sequence during a high-school field trip at Columbia University, where a professor discusses the special abilities of each of the spiders that have been genetically combined into the red-and-blue super-spider that bites Peter (one has leaping ability, another has a special sixth sense that border on precognition, while a third spins especially strong webbing). Thus, we are quickly and efficiently informed of all of Spider-Man's specific powers. Peter's story is rooted in his lower-middle-class home life with his caring Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who teach him what's right and wrong and love him like a son (it is never explained why he is orphaned).
Early on we are introduced to Harry Osbourn (James Franco), Peter's only friend who is, like him, an outcast, but for different reasons. Harry's father is Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a multi-millionaire president of a bio-weapons research firm with huge military contracts that are in jeopardy. Norman's research is in "performance enhancers," which unfortunately have nasty side effects like aggression and insanity. When he decides to use himself as a human guinea pig, he turns into the movie's villain, the Green Goblin.
We are also introduced to the beautiful red-head Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Peter's next-door neighbor with whom he has been in love since he was six years old. She, of course, doesn't really know he exists, and much of the movie's core emotional story is in the gradual building of a relationship between Peter and Mary Jane. Spider-Man, of course, intervenes, saving Mary Jane on several occasions and getting her heart racing as a result.
With all this set-up, the action that unfolds in the second half of the movie is that much richer and more invigorating because we feel that something is at stake. The fact that Norman, before turning into the Green Goblin, looked on Peter as a son of sorts, adds a new dimension to the battles between their respective heroic and villainous alter egos. And Peter's long-burning flame for Mary Jane is complicated when she and Harry become involved, and it becomes unclear as to exactly which side of the divide Harry stands (those who have read the comic book series know where his character is headed, but James Franco brings a nuanced performance to the spoiled rich kid who resents that material privilege has not brought him love or respect). The villainy of the Green Goblin is also more multi-dimensional than you might expect, as Norman remains a divided character, at one point talking to his vicious other in a full-length mirror. When the Green Goblin takes over, his ultimate goals remain somewhat vague. Nevertheless, he is particularly vile because he realizes that he can hurt his enemies more by going after the ones they love, so he targets Aunt May and, eventually, Mary Jane.
As a big-budget summer tent-pole movie, Spider-Man has more than its share of violent action and explosions. Using a combination of stunts and digital imagery, the film convincingly creates the spectacle of Spider-Man leaping from building to building, swinging about New York City on strands of spider webbing that have the tinsel strength of high-tension wire. (The fact that he creates the webbing out of his own body, rather than out of mechanical devices of his own invention, was one of the few major changes from the comic book series and was originally envisioned by James Cameron, back when he intended to write and direct this film back in the early '90s).
Some of the computer-animation is hopelessly cartoonish, as Spider-Man's body simply doesn't appear to move like a human's (this is particularly evident when Peter Parker is running across a series of rooftops, his body moving more like Jell-O than flesh and bone). Director Sam Raimi, who got his start with the low-budget horror-comedy Evil Dead series (the star of which, Bruce Campbell, has a nice cameo here as an wrestling announcer who coins the phrase "The Amazing Spider-Man"), knows how to choreograph action and violence, and he gives the fight scenes a thudding verisimilitude that sometimes borders on overwhelming the garish comic-book atmosphere.
Still, despite the action and spectacle, Spider-Man works so well because Raimi never loses sight of the story's human core. He elicits excellent performances from both Maguire and Dunst, and the two generate palpable heat on-screen together (particularly the already infamous upside-down kiss in the rain). The movie is invested with subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle humor (the best being when a nascent Spider-Man enters an amateur wrestling competition in a spray-painted tee-shirt and red ski mask asking to be called "The Human Spider"), all of which works well. Like a strong spider web, all the strands of what makes great summer movies great come together in Spider-Man, so that even when it slips from time to time, the overall effect is near greatness.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick