April 2024

Spider-Man (2002)


CAST: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Bill Nunn


Spider-Man represents just about the perfect kind of summer blockbuster comic-book movie- flashy, fast-paced, faithful to the spirit of its source material, competently-acted, and achieving a nice balance between its serious moments and others where it’s not afraid to lighten up and poke fun at itself. The Spider-Man comics have been around since the 1960s, and struck a chord with its adolescent readers by featuring a new kind of hero. Unlike the virtually indestructible Clark Kent/Superman or the billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman, Spider-Man had an everyman alter ego: a shy, nerdy teenager named Peter Parker, who his young fans could identify with.

As fans of the comics will know, Spider-Man is really Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a bright but socially inept high school senior who lives with his elderly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and has pined from afar for his next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) since he was six years old. His only friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), is the son of the rich and ambitious scientist Dr. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), who is determined to perfect a performance enhancer giving superhuman strength to its subject. Things quickly change for Peter when he’s bitten by a genetically altered ‘super spider’ during a class visit to Columbia University. When Peter wakes up the next morning, he notices a few things are different. Suddenly the skinny Peter is buff and can see without his glasses, and it’s not long before discovers that not only can he easily overpower the hulking school bully, he can climb up walls and shoot webbing from his arms. Peter is excited, and soon begins using his powers, clumsily and tentatively at first, then swinging wildly from building to building with exhilarated glee. At first his primary motive for using his powers is to try to win the attention of Mary Jane, but a key tragedy (along with his uncle’s warning that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’) drives him to use his superpowers towards helping others. And Peter’s newfound abilities and his decision about what to do with them comes just when he needs them the most, as an accident with the performance enhancers grants Dr. Osborn not only superhuman strength, but uncontrollable rage and madness, and soon the scientist dons a metal suit and a one-man jet-propelled glider and becomes Spider-Man’s first archenemy- The Green Goblin.

Despite some initial skepticism about his casting, Tobey Maguire acquits himself nicely as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Not only does he have no trouble pulling off nerdy Peter, he’s also worked out enough to look good as his acrobatic alter ego. Maguire plays the fantastical material with a low-key, subdued performance that brings the right amount of earnest seriousness. The other actors have thinner material. Kirsten Dunst is adequate as the object of his affection, but besides being rescued from a series of perils, she doesn’t have a lot to do (and is forced to recite some awkward dialogue). Ditto for James Franco, who’s a little stiff as Peter’s best friend and romantic rival. Willem Dafoe is more effective as Dr. Osborn than as the Green Goblin, who is an adequate but not particularly memorable villain. Dafoe himself is certainly scarier-looking than his mask. The bright spot in the supporting cast is J.K. Simmons, who’s a hoot as the no-nonsense tabloid reporter J. Jonah Jameson, with his deadpan comic timing and drill sergeant-like delivery. Simmons doesn’t have a big role, but I found myself looking forward to his next scene.

Spider-Man is an eminently enjoyable movie, but it’s not a perfect film by any means. Certain scenes feel too brief and perfunctorily-treated (such as the key tragic event), and there’s some cringingly corny dialogue, particularly the quips and one-liners traded between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin (‘you’re out, Spider-Man!’ ‘you’re the one who’s out Goblin!  Of your mind!’). The Goblin’s mask and costume is a little silly, like something off of a Power Rangers episode, and is more of a hindrance to Dafoe’s performance than a help; Dafoe can contort his face into such maniacal expressions that we end up wishing it was onscreen more often, and he’s never more frightening than when he has a schizophrenic conversation with his evil alter ego in the mirror. As far as superhero movies go, Spider-Man is more light-hearted than Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, more in the vein of X-Men or Superman, including plenty of self-referential humor. The film’s fast-paced tone and the fact that there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor helps keep the movie from getting bogged down. It has its flaws, but none are insurmountable, and it’s enough of an exuberant joyride to get past them. Sam Raimi, who’s come a long way from his cult classic Evil Dead days, shows he knows how to handle a big-budget mainstream comic book movie, bringing energy, style, and flair to the material, and understanding the balance between being too comedic and too serious. We can tell when it’s a computer-animated Spider-Man swinging through the city, but the special effects aren’t generally so obvious that they’re detrimental, and along the way Raimi stages a few wonderful sequences. The scenes of Spider-Man swinging from building to building are particularly dizzying and dazzling, and often give us the sense of flying along with him. And beyond all the fun, the movie has a heart. Maguire gets a few laughs out of Peter’s hopelessly geeky demeanor, but he also lends him enough depth and feeling for him to be worthy of an emotional investment. Raimi keeps the plot moving along at a fast clip, but at least in the case of the main character, he and screenwriter David Koepp do a solid job with character development (everyone else stays more two-dimensional). We like Peter Parker, and the kiss between Mary Jane and an upside-down Spider-Man is one of the key moments of the film. Another noteworthy scene involves a tense Thanksgiving dinner with both Peter and Dr. Osborn, each oblivious to the other’s alter ego, showing up at the table.

Spider-Man does not transcend the genre as the very best examples do (such as Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the original Superman), but it’s one of the most engaging entries to come along in a while- exciting, well-paced, and consistently entertaining. Fans of the popular Marvel Comics series should be pleased, and the movie is enjoyable enough that it should appeal equally to those who have never picked up a Spider-Man comic in their life (I would include myself among the latter). If the series can sustain the life, flair, and heart of the first installment, we can look forward to more adventures with our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.