It’s easy to get turned off by the super-hype that precedes the summer blockbuster movie releases. Reams of newspaper pulp about the stars, about the making of the film, about the gazillion dollar box office competition. Endless trailers on TV and in the movie houses. (And all the tie-in promotions. Yes, we’re guilty, too. Just look to the left. We gotta pay the bills somehow, don’t we?)
For once at least, rest assured that a blockbuster lives up to the hype. Spider-Man is a winner. The movie is. The character, of course, has a somewhat more complicated destiny. As fans of the comic book will remember, "With great power comes great responsibility."
Director Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan, The Gift) delivers a fast-paced, elegantly produced and thoughtful film based on a firmly focused screenplay by David Koepp (The Panic Room, Stir of Echoes) that tells a cogent story and even offers gratifying character development beyond what is generally expected or offered in the realm of comics.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a classic nerd, Mr. Everyloser in dorky black-rimmed eyeglasses. He moons over the girl next door Mary Jane ("M.J.") Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but is too shy to express his feelings. He’s the butt of the bullies at school. On a class trip to an exhibit of spiders, he is bitten by a genetically manipulated spider and finds himself with the attributes of a spider-man. He can leap, he can spin webs and powerful silken threads, and he has precognition–a sense of what will happen just before it actually does. That’s a great help if you’re in a physically confrontational situation and never doubt that there’s plenty of that to come. Peter was raised by an uncle (Cliff Robertson) and aunt (beautiful Rosemary Harris) who taught him the down home virtues, including the one about power and responsibility. The force of good is established.
Superheroes are required by the rules of comicry (and good drama) to have supervillains. Superman has Lex Luthor, Batman has The Joker, and Spider-Man has The Green Goblin, a vicious megalomaniac who is the alter ego of Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a hyper-ambitious defense contractor who desperately experiments on himselfonly to emerge from a cloud of green vapor with a Jekyll and Hyde duality and some fancy superpowers of his own. The subtext that he’s sold his soul to the devil is writ large.
Thus protagonist, antagonist, and romantic interest are all established. Certain other paradigms are required of the genre. It is a given that good will triumph over evil. It is a given that boy will ultimately win girl’s heart. It is a given that the conclusion will leave a wide opening for the sequel. Within those parameters, it’s a question of style and it’s style that distinguishes Spider-Man. No attempt is made to create a new environment as in the Batman films. Spider-Man is set in New York City, whose skyscraper canyons make an ideal backdrop for a muscle man in red tights to swing about on his own spun silk filaments like a big-city Tarzan on the way home from a Halloween ball. The city never looked better, although frequent bombs exploding in buildings do lead to unfortunate associations. The stunt work/flying/digital effects are stunning and graceful, calling to mind the fight movements in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The use of New York landmarks like the Public Library, the Chrysler Building and the Queensborough Bridge situates the fantasy in familiar realities; the contrast heightens the fantastic element.
With just the right amount of give and take between the action scenes, the romantic scenes and the family scenes, Raimi doesn’t linger overlong in any one place. He makes his point and moves right along–the pace seems fast even at almost two hours running time. Koepp keeps tongue firmly in cheek, his script offering satirical jabs at everything from professional wrestling to corporate wolves to unprincipled newspaper editors.
Tobey Maguire (Wonder Boys, The Cider House Rules) has often displayed a quality of nerdiness onscreen, so he does well with Parker; as Spider-Man it doesn’t matter much since you can’t see him anyway, behind all that latex. He capably handles the added touch of wry that Koepp provides in Parker’s outlook, as well as the double-edged challenge of his powers and the sheer fun of finding himself capable of extraordinary physical prowess. Kirsten Dunst–at age 20 credited with 41 films including the current The Cat’s Meow–is charming, sexy, and completely at ease as M.J. Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire, Pavilion of Women), in the schizoid role of Osborn/Goblin ranges nicely from evil to super-evil. And it isn’t often that you will see the bad guy literally hoist by his own petard. Ouch.