He flies through the air on long, extending strands of webbing, climbs walls without effort and protects the good citizens from all bad guys great and small. He's your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and he is truly amazing. Setting the bar high for this summer of blockbusters, "Spider-Man" (IMDb listing) is majestic entertainment, brought to life by a creative team that deserves a mountain of accolades for making, at least, the second best comic book adaptation in cinema history.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire, "The Cider House Rules") is a nerdy young man trying to make his way through high school with his friend, the nicest rich kid ever, Harry Osborne (James Franco, "Freeks And Geeks"). The object of Peter's affection is the beautiful Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and during one school trip to a laboratory, Peter's innocent flirtations with M.J. result in him being bitten by a genetically enhanced spider. The spider's bite changes Peter in ways he doesn't expect: he can see clearly without the aid of glasses, his body is in perfect condition, he can climb walls, shoot webbing out of his wrists, and develops a "spidey sense" that warns him when trouble is afoot. Peter soon becomes Spider-Man, and sets out to help protect the city. On the other side of town, Harry's father, Norman (Willem Dafoe) is the president of a gigantic weapons manufacturing empire, which he is in the midst of losing. Electing to try a radical experiment on himself, Norman is tragically changed into the psychotic Green Goblin, who wants nothing more than to wreak havoc on the city. Will Peter make his feelings known to Mary Jane? Will the Daily Bugle, and its editor J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons) turn Spider-Man into a villain? Can Spidey stop the Green Goblin?
"Spider-Man" is an origin picture, and these are the toughest stories to pull off. Think of Joe Johnston's heart-stopping "The Rocketeer" picture from 1991. Alone, a beautiful adventure film. Fun for the whole family. But it suffered from the lack of payoff. It spent the entire film building up the Rocketeer character so intricately, that there was little time to enjoy the fruits of the labor. Bryan Singer's equally determined "X-Men" film was also crippled ever so slightly by this problem, which hopefully the upcoming sequel will rectify in a way that "Rocketeer" was never able to do. "Spider-Man," written by David Koepp ("Jurassic Park, "Panic Room"), takes the origin storyline very seriously, but doesn't allow it to hog the film's attention. We see how Peter discovers his newfound abilities, and his attempts to use them in the everyday world. We see, step by step, how Peter becomes aware just what he is capable of, but accomplishing this task doesn't require the whole film. Koepp and director Sam Raimi keep the opening loose and brisk, and they don't waste a minute of screen time. We see the beginnings of Peter/Spider-Man, the conflicts with Green Goblin, Peter's homelife and the resolution of it all in one picture, and it's executed with the utmost respect to the comic book, and most importantly, the audience. There is payoff to be had in copious amounts with "Spider-Man," but for once, getting there is just as much fun.
It's little surprise though that "Spider-Man" works so well, considering that Raimi has honed his chops on his own superhero movie, the classic 1990 film "Darkman." "Darkman" was also an origin storyline, and Raimi brought it to life with the same passions, tragedies, and action that makes "Spider-Man" such a thing of splendor. Raimi isn't content to just let the character's already globally known personality do the talking for him, but instead reaches inside the character and reintroduces Peter's questioning, hormonally raging mind to the big screen. In place of wall-to-wall bedlam, there is much more emotionally charged drama and story to fill in the gaps between the chaos, allowing the cast to create rich characterizations that make them seem like real flesh and blood people on the street rather than creations from a pen and ink. It's a comic book movie in the way Raimi pushes the visuals to the brink of insanity (anyone who doesn't get a heart-charge out of watching Spider-Man swing through the city at break-neck speeds should check themselves into a nearby morgue now), and how these often crazy, flying characters can co-exist with real world concerns like love, unemployment and the death of family members. You buy it all the way through, just like in "X-Men," "The Rocketeer," and the grand daddy of them all, Richard Donner's masterpiece, "Superman." And though "Spider-Man" lacks the epic tone of the 1978 Clark Kent saga, it makes up for it by keeping things serious and sacred. There's no winking at the audience here.
And for you Raimi fans, an extra layer of fun is to be found, as icons Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi and the "classic" 1973 Delta 88 Oldsmobile all make quick cameos in the picture.
Star Tobey Maguire has a huge task set up for him at the onset of the picture, as he must inhabit a character held in great esteem by billions. But he does it, and he does it profoundly. Playing up Parker's geekish qualities, yet undercutting that with a nice layer of trauma and heroics, Maguire aces the role as few his age could. Credit that to Raimi, who has filled his cast with wonderful actors (Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Peter's sweet Uncle Ben and Aunt May, J.K. Simmons as the caustic J. Jonah Jameson, James Franco as the friendly but troubled Harry, and Kirsten Dunst, glowing and sweet as Mary Jane Watson), but also allowed them to act a little in between the bread and butter Spidey scenes.
Making a perfect adversary is Willem Dafoe, who has the more complex part of the Green Goblin. Most of the character is played either in Norman's head, or behind a ghoulish green mask. Dafoe's physicality is perfect for the character, as is his innate ability to creep me out like there's no tomorrow. Dafoe doesn't oversell the Goblin personality, or turn it into a cartoon, regardless of the outlandish outfit he has to wear. Dafoe is a pro actor, and his take on this superhero villain ranks as one of the finest seen yet in a movie of this style and size.
"Spider-Man" will have you cheering in the aisles, laughing with glee and most likely waiting for a chance (when nobody's looking) to see if you can climb the face of a wall with ease. The filmmakers behind "Spider-Man" deserve three cheers, as they've listened and learned form the mistakes of others, and have created a picture that sets a new level of expectation for the next group who wants to take a character from the colored panel to the wide open breeze of the silver screen.
Filmfodder Grade: A+