Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons
To answer your first question first: Is Spider-Man any good? Yes, it is very good indeed, and it succeeds on nearly every level on which it intends to.
Now I’d like to open this review with a few words about how glad I am the film is as good as it is, and will almost certainly be a strong summer box-office attraction. As Spider-Man fans know, a crucial part of his origin comes when, having recently discovered his powers and attempted to use them only for profit, he lets a criminal escape rather than get involved, an action that will come back to bite him hard. In the film, this comes right after the man who is robbed has cheated him, dismissing him with a snide remark. Angrily confronted and asked why he let the their escape, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) coldly repeats the same comment. And some people in the preview screening audience cheered and laughed. They applauded the fact that their hero was only looking after number one. Those people were in for just as big and nasty a surprise as he was. What makes Spider-Man a hero is that he does what he does not for money, love, or power, but because it is the right thing to do. I realized while watching the film with this audience that there may be ways in which we need a movie whose slogan is “With great power comes great responsibility” today.
Sam Raimi is a comic book fan of long standing. So much of one, in fact, that a celebrated shot from his The Quick and the Dead can be said to have been stolen flat-out from Geof Darrow and Frank Miller’s Hard Boiled. He and his team have clearly worked hard to put not a “re-imagining” of Spider-Man up on the screen, but the Spider-Man that you and I and they remember. Besides the origin, there is an assortment of “classic” Spider-Man elements to tickle the sensibilities of comic book fans old and new, and many of these are perfectly realized. I’m only hoping that the couple that I missed are in store for future films. I really wanted to hear Kirsten Dunst deliver Mary Jane’s line about Peter’s just hitting the jackpot, and would have loved to see the famous scene in which Spidey pushes several tons of machinery pinning him underwater off his back because he knows his loved ones need him. It’s also nice to see Stan Lee (who of course, contributes a cameo) and Steve Ditko properly credited as Spidey’s creators, which has not always been the case with comic book derived movies (rest in peace, Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster, and Jerry Siegel ).
Maguire does well as Parker, before his change, he is the mild-mannered high-school student with just enough of the latent wise guy to make his Spidey quips believable later, and afterwards bringing the appropriate mix of fun loving and angst to the character. Dunst is, of course, one of the cutest actresses in movies today, but she brings more than this to her part. She is saddled with some pretty flat dialogue at times, and she makes it work, which can be almost a great a test for an actor as good dialogue. Willem Dafoe gives, I’m sorry to say, the worst performance in the film. I speculate that he fell victim to the actor’s trap of deciding that, since he is playing a super-villain, he can go over the top. This is a mistake. Look at Ian McKellen in X-Men or even Gene Hackman in Superman. The latter is a comedic performance, to be sure, but in tune with the rest of the story (and nowhere near as broad as it would become in the sequels). He may have been having the time of his life, but where Maguire and Dunst try to give flesh-and-blood to their characters, Dafoe just seems hungry for scenery. As Peter’s high school friend and postgraduate roommate Harry, James Franco succeeds in suggesting the complexities of a character whose troubles, comic book fans will know, are only beginning. And as J. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper publisher who is Spider-Man’s persecutor and photographer Peter Parker’s employer, J.K. Simmons is a delight.
One of the things I most appreciate about the script (credited to David Koepp, with a handful of other writers going unlisted) is that it gives each of the main characters multiple dimensions. Spider-Man is not just a hero, MJ not just a love interest, each have flaws and virtues that make them engaging to an audience, and are in keeping with their comic book counterparts. Even the Green Goblin is shown to be a schizophrenic case who resists, however briefly, the terrorist activity his new self is calling on him to perform. And Simmons is given a splendid moment to show the integrity and backbone that Jameson possesses, despite his blind spot for Spider-Man. Confronted by the Goblin, who demands to know who takes the pictures of Spidey that run in The Daily Bugle, the publisher refuses to reveal the photographer’s identity, even under threat and though Peter is right outside his office.
Where there are changes from the original comic books, for the most part they work; even the ridiculously controversial “organic web-shooters” are fine. But there are some choices that don’t work as well as we might have hoped. The famous radioactive spider is changed to a genetically altered one, apparently the lab Parker visits is attempting to create a “super spider” with the abilities of several species combined into one. It’s only later one thinks to wonder why in the hell anyone would want to do this. A scene where Peter discovers early signs of his powers in high school, and uses them to get the better of the school bully, is funny, but begs the question, aren’t any of the kids around going to remember the day that Puny Parker got into a fight with Flash Thompson… and did suspiciously well? Spider-Man’s mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility,” seems a bit shoehorned in, delivered by his Uncle Ben not because it’s completely appropriate to the moment but because they had to fit it in somewhere. The CGI effects of Spidey swinging his way through Manhattan work much better than I feared they would after brief glances in the commercials, but they are still obviously, glaringly, CGI effects. It’s a wonderful technology in many ways, but one thing that hasn’t yet done to my satisfaction is creating realistic-looking human figures in action. And I would have preferred that the Green Goblin’s costume be less metallic and fixed in it’s visage, as it is, the confrontations between web-slinger and glider-rider are marred by the fact that we cannot see either of their faces. Spidey’s costume pretty much has to be what it is, but there was more room for experimentation on the Goblin. It’s possible to have an actor in mask lose virtually none of his expressive power, if you doubt me, review Andreas Katsulas’s work in Babylon 5 sometime.
The film seems to take 1978’s Superman: The Movie as a model in some ways, devoting roughly half of its two hour running time to the origin of the superhero, and the other to a confrontation with an arch nemesis. There is even a direct homage to the 1978 Christopher Reeve film when Parker rushes to change before saving his love interest, Mary Jane (Dunst) from falling from a great height. Those who remember the earlier film will get a laugh out of the shot where he pulls open his shirt to reveal the spider-symbol on his costume, as Clark Kent did while changing to save his love interest, Lois Lane, from falling from a great height. But this nod is appropriate, because on balance, Spider-Man can stand alongside Superman (and X-Men) as comic book movies that get it right.