Is he strong? Listen, bud,
He’s got genetically-altered blood.
Okay, so it doesn’t quite have the same rhythm, but Sam Raimi and David Koepp had to make a few changes in the origin, or else we’d have a bunch of kids running around trying to irradiate spiders. Fans can breathe easy, though. Some things may be different, but it’s still our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
You know the drill. Perpetually picked-upon Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gets bitten by a strange spider at a science show. The bite makes him feel strange, and when he wakes up he no longer needs his glasses, his physique suddenly has a physique, and other, even more mysterious changes make themselves apparent throughout the day. At no point, however, does Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) offer Petey wheatcakes.
What makes it all new is how economically Raimi and Koepp introduce the potentially unwieldy cast of characters. In the first five minutes we encounter Flash Thompson (Joe Mangianello), Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and The Osbornes, Norman and Harry (Willem Dafoe and James Franco, respectively) and immediately have a perfect grasp of who they are, and what their deal is. By the time Peter has to get through a school day with spider-powers, we don’t mind his gradual discovery of his powers, as it’s set among relationships we understand.
Throughout Spider-Man, the creators of the movie keep it personal. Threatening civilians isn’t an end for The Green Goblin, for instance, it’s a means to his real goals, which often involve tormenting Spider-Man. And that motivation always lurks under the surface.
Raimi has often commented over the last year that he himself is a fan, and has directed the movie the fans want to see. He has succeeded in spades, and key iconic moments such as Peter confronting Uncle Ben’s attacker deliver the punch fans always imagined it would on-screen. There’s a reason the work of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko has lasted forty years, and by sticking to the truth of it, Raimi and Koepp translated it well. While not the complete Marvel Universe, fans can see the bigger picture without it being a geeky distraction for casual movie-goers. Look closely and, yes, there are seeds all over the place for future installments. Even Mendel Stromm shows up.
Of course, Spider-Man also owes a debt to the superhero movies that worked before. Raimi works in sly references without seeming overly reverential, remembering that homage doesn’t mean rip-off.
With a director as inventive as Raimi, too, the film has quite a few unique moments of its own. It never stops being thrilling to see Spider-Man webslinging through the streets of New York, even when the CGI work gets a little obvious. (Admittedly, they might have trusted stuntmen with a little more of the work — Blade II does a better job of blending the two.) And I give it maybe two months before bad comedies start parodying the upside-down kiss between Spider-Man and Mary Jane. Even with flaws, this movie has images that make their mark.
For whatever reason, no superhero movie has been truly perfect, and Spider-Man proves no exception. In fact, it falls into the usual trap. Every such movie has to have at least one embarrassingly bad scene that VCRs and DVDs were made to fast-forward through. In Superman, it’s the “Can You Read My Mind?” scene; in Batman, it’s any moment Kim Basinger opens her mouth. Again, Raimi remembers that Peter is clueless at love, so at least the scenes with Mary Jane have the right touch of pathos without being pathetic.
Instead, the weak moment comes at the “World Unity Festival.” The movie literally stops dead to say “ladies and gentleman, Macy Gray…” Macy Gray? Yes, she may have been popular when they shot the footage, but by now everybody has pretty much figured out she just sings weird. Worse, the festival has bizarre and non-descript giant helium balloons, one homage to Batman that really seems out of place. And for a New York City World Unity Festival, attended by the board of directors of a huge company like Oscorp, it seems woefully underattended. The Manteca Pumpkin Festival draws a bigger crowd, and I know of whence I speak.
Thankfully, the Festival gets pretty much destroyed by the first public appearance of The Green Goblin. Though Macy Gray survives, many don’t, raising the stakes for Spider-Man and earning the film its PG-13 rating. As a nice touch, Stan Lee gets his most heroic cameo yet, saving a little girl from falling debris.
Perhaps the most controversial element for fans has been The Goblin. (Okay, and the organic webshooters, but get over it because it works and makes sense.) The Goblin uniform looks like The Transformers meet The Silverhawks. For months we’d hoped that some of the CGI would be used to make the mask more expressive. No such luck. What fans failed to take into account was the talent of Willem Dafoe. With him, The Green Goblin is a personality, not a uniform. And Dafoe’s creepiest moments come with the mask off, when you know that The Green Goblin is in charge. Though it took the comics a good eight years to reach that point (and it’s since been undone), Dafoe makes Norman Osborne tragic. At first he doesn’t know what he’s done, and watching the two personalities fight for control provide some of the most gripping moments in the film.
Forget every other super-villain in the movies; Dafoe has raised the bar high. Jack who?
Despite that tremendous performance, it’s not Dafoe’s movie. It is, after all, called Spider-Man. And in the central role, Maguire comes through. Always appearing a little doughy and out of it, he fits. There’s no doubt that Peter Parker is a shy outcast. And even as he grows in emotional strength, that wound will always be there, overlaid with personal tragedy. The performance never gets overwrought, even in scenes harking back to Uncle Ben. Future films might see the pain fade, but it’s still fresh throughout this story. Even while Peter has fun being Spider-Man, his voice remains somewhat uncertain; he’s growing into the role just as Maguire does.
Supporting the two main characters is a near-perfect cast. Kirsten Dunst may not quite be the bombshell that the comics’ Mary Jane is, but then it’s always seemed soap-operatic that Spider-Man’s secret identity would know, love, and marry a supermodel. Instead, Dunst plays Mary Jane as a pretty girl pretty much beaten down before she can get started. As with Maguire, there’s room for her character to grow. Harris’ Aunt May is a little stronger than portrayed in the comics, but perfectly matched by Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben. Though his time is brief, Robertson quickly makes you believe that this man raised and loved Peter.
And out of all the movie tie-ins, all I want is a J. Jonah Jameson action figure with desk pounding action. J.K. Simmons is JJJ brought to life.
Though not perfect, the overall effect of Spider-Man is a long-overdue rush. And they even play the old cartoon theme over the end credits. Again, Raimi gets it. As a result, we get the movie we’ve waited to see.