Spider-Man (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Recent times have been good to Marvel comics, and the long-anticipated arrival of Spider-Man represents the latest step up the ladder. Long the underdog in the motion picture arena, Marvel has at last been able to catch up to rival DC comics by placing a trio of its superheroes into multiplexes - Blade, the X-Men, and Spider-Man. DC may have struck first with Superman and Batman, but, these days, the comics-to-cinema summit belongs to Stan Lee's corporation. The second X-Men movie is on its way, as are Daredevil, The Hulk, and, a little farther into the future, The Fantastic Four.

Of all Marvel's titles, Spider-Man probably has the most name recognition, due in no small part to the late '60s animated TV series that became a staple in syndication. There have been other Spider-Man TV cartoons, and even a ill-advised foray into live-action television, but the first series is probably the one best remembered by fans and casual viewers alike. Crude as the animation may have been, nostalgia allows it to hold a firm place in cartoon history. A major motion picture adaptation has long been a pet project of Spidey's creator, Stan Lee (who, along will illustrator Steve Ditko, gave birth to the web-crawler in 1962). In the '90s, James Cameron spent years developing the project, but eventually gave up when legal issues held up production indefinitely. Eventually, those tangles were loosened and Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was brought on board.

Spider-Man is as critic-proof as movies come, so nothing that I say will make even a miniscule difference, but, for what it's worth, this represents the best kind of summer movie - bold, colorful, and well-paced without numbing the mind or insulting the intelligence. On the scale of superhero movies, this one is about on par with X-Men, ahead of all of the Batman movies, but behind the grandly reverent Superman. And, like the first movie featuring the Man of Steel, this one has a wide-open ending that invites - nay, demands - a sequel. Barring an unexpected box-office disaster, Spider-Man 2 is probably only a couple of years away.

In comic book language, this is an "origin" story, meaning that it tells how Spider-Man came into being. The movie starts by introducing us to nerdy high school senior Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), who is one of the least cool kids in school. He's shy and smart, and the girl of his dreams, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), doesn't know he exists, even though he has lived next door to her for more than 10 years. Peter's best friend is Harry Osborn (James Franco), the underachieving son of the rich and arrogant scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). Peter lives with his uncle, Ben (Cliff Robertson), and aunt, May (Rosemary Harris), who are like a father and mother to him.

Things change rapidly for Peter when, while visiting a lab at Columbia University, he is bitten by a genetically altered spider. Overnight, Peter gains arachnid powers - a sixth sense, the ability to climb walls, unnatural strength and endurance, amazing agility, and glands on his wrist that allow him to spin webs. Eventually, Peter is forced to make a choice between hiding his abilities and using them for personal gain or coming into the open and helping humanity. After choosing the latter and donning the red-and-blue costume, Peter Parker gives way to Spider-Man. Meanwhile, Spidey's first arch-rival is also in the making, as Norman Osborn's scientific experimentation gives him equal parts superhuman strength and madness, and his access to the latest technology allows him to don a horrific metal suit and ride a one-man jet-propelled glider. After his first public appearance, at which he wreaks mayhem, the press dubs him The Green Goblin.

The first hour of Spider-Man is unquestionably better than the second. This is the segment of the film where Peter discovers his newfound powers and tentatively explores them. Covertly, then with more confidence, he stands up to the school bully. He also has to deal with his unrequited love for Mary Jane and cope with the responsibilities and consequences of using (or not using) his abilities. An exhilarating sequence in which Spider-Man first employs his webs to swing from building-to-building is filmed in such a manner that we can sense how close he is to losing control and plunging to the streets below. The latter half of the film is more action-oriented and features an excessive reliance upon special effects. The CGI work is not clumsily done, but it is evident when the movie switches from live actors to computer-generated ones. Peter Parker has a lot of appeal and emotional depth. Those qualities do not always remain in force once the mask is donned.

Although it is first and foremost an action/adventure film, Spider-Man is many other things, as well. There's a fairly high romance quotient - after all, many of Peter's motivations are centered around his near-obsession with Mary Jane. These two make a cute couple, but the better part of their love story is still to come (although their kiss, with Spider-Man hanging upside down as they lock lips, is memorable). Spider-Man also offers occasional doses of morality, the biggest one coming from Uncle Ben's words of warning to Peter: "With great power comes great responsibility." In the comic book, that phrase became Spider-Man's credo.

Spider-Man's greatest strength is Tobey Maguire. The Cider House Rules actor, who has never given a bad performance, is an inspired choice for the role. Not only is he capable of handling the role of nerdy Peter, but he has bulked up enough that he looks good under the spider-suit (that is, when it's him under it). Maguire never overacts the part, nor does he view this as camp. It's a quiet, serious performance, and it doesn't take us long to believe in Peter. And, when tragedy strikes, it's genuinely moving. Added to that, Maguire can make some extremely dopey lines of dialogue sound convincing. With this everyman interpretation, Maguire shows us what could have been with Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader, but never was.

Speaking of Batman, one of the key flaws in that film was the way Jack Nicholson's mugging for the camera overwhelmed everything. Such is not the case here. Sure, Willem Dafoe overacts, but not to the point where it's embarrassing, and he isn't given enough screen time to overshadow Peter's story. Dafoe's performance is occasionally chilling, but, in the end, it's not especially memorable. As the film's love interest, Kirsten Dunst is moderately appealing, but, other than being saved from death á là Lois Lane, she doesn't have much to do. In supporting parts are a somewhat stiff James Franco as Harry, J.K. Simmons as newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson, and veterans Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Peter's guardians.

Raimi's direction is solid, although not as involving as it was in the Evil Dead movies or his other superhero yarn, Darkman. He avoids an overabundance of trickery, but chooses his shots in a way that often gives us the sense of being on a journey with Spider-Man, rather than standing to the side as detached observers. The special effects may not be entirely convincing, but they do not eclipse the characters. Danny Elman's score is workmanlike and somewhat reminiscent of the music he composed for Batman.

Spider-Man gets the 2002 summer movie season off to a satisfying start. This is a pure popcorn movie - the kind of film one can unabashedly enjoy for what it is. There's plenty of visual flash and dizzying action, but not at the expense of the other qualities that make for a complete motion picture experience. As a character in a comic book, Spider-Man is four decades old. His leap into this new medium has rejuvenated the legend, and offers movie-goers an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the birth of a new cinematic superhero.

Spider-Man (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Release Date: 2002-05-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1