Director: Sam Raimi
"With great power comes great responsibility."
That one line, simple as it may be, is a line that has inspired countless comic book fans while serving as the motto for one of the most beloved characters in comic history. Spider-Man has become perhaps the most enduring character on the Marvel Comics roster since being created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, his popularity rivaled by only a few. A character that millions have connected to and identified with in the four decades since his debut, Spider-Man's motto has echoed through the years and has driven him to serve the greater good with the hopes of atoning for one tragic failure to act. The character sparked at least three animated shows, and was one of a number of Marvel characters (including the Incredible Hulk and Dr. Strange) to inspire a live-action TV-movie in 1977. Much to the dismay of fans, the TV-movie was poorly done and has been forgotten for the most part. Twenty-five years passed before Spider-Man was seen in a live-action movie again, but after comic book movies became big business, horror director (and longtime Spidey fan) Sam Raimi stepped up to helm Sony's big-screen adaptation of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man that's worth talking about.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is your typical high school geek. He's a brilliant student and genuinely nice guy, but he's a total social outcast whose shyness barely allows him to even say hello to the girl that's won his heart, next door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). His only friend is Harry Osborn (James Franco), but their relationship is often strained with jealousy, as Harry's wealthy industrialist father Norman (Willam Dafoe) prefers the intelligent Peter over his own average son.
During a class field trip to Columbia University's genetics lab, Peter is bitten by a biologically-engineered spider that has gained various extraordinary powers via the wonders of science. A huge blister appears on his hand around the bite, and the spider's venom makes Peter so sick, he barely makes it home before he passes out in the floor of his bedroom. After a difficult night's sleep, he wakes up seemingly unaffected, but soon discovers that his body has been altered dramatically. Not only has Peter gained 20/20 vision and a significant change in muscle tone, but he has the ability to shoot strands of strong webbing from his wrists, an ability to climb walls and cling to any smooth surface, and a "spidey-sense" that gives him a psychic warning of danger. While he loves the fact that his newfound superpowers allow him to humiliate bullies and things like that, Peter's secretive behavior prompts the concern of his uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and aunt May (Rosemary Harris).
On a trip to the library, Uncle Ben confronts Peter and stresses to him that with maturity and power comes great responsibility. Peter impatiently yells at him, telling Ben to stop acting like he's his father before sneaking off to his true destination: Madison Square Garden, where a local pro wrestling league is promising a $3,000 payday to anyone who can last three minutes against their top star, Bone Saw McGraw (Randy Savage). Dubbed "The Amazing Spider-Man" by the ring announcer (Bruce Campbell), Peter soundly knocks out McGraw in a cage match and stands triumphant. However, despite his victory, the fight promoter only pays Peter a meager 100 bucks, unfairly cheating him out of the full prize because Peter won in two minutes instead of going the full three. Naturally, Peter's a little honked off at getting gypped. You would be too, if you were promised 3000 George Washingtons to hang out with and you only got one lousy Ben Franklin wanting to bum a ride off you and raid your fridge. Peter does, however, gain a little satisfaction in his subsequent retaliation, refusing to help an arena security guard stop a criminal from taking off with the gate money. Returning to the library, Peter's satisfaction turns to horror when he discovers Uncle Ben has been shot by a carjacker, arriving on the scene just as Ben dies. Enraged, Peter dons his wrestling outfit and pursues the carjacker, swinging over the crowded streets with his webbing. He confronts the killer in an abandoned warehouse, only to learn that the man who murdered his beloved uncle is the same man who held up the arena box office. Peter loses his temper and violently pushes the killer, who trips over a pipe and falls out a window to his death.
Following his graduation from high school months later, Peter's guilt over Ben's death prompts our hero to put his uncle's advice to good use. He designs a new and improved Spider-Man costume, and becomes a masked superhero fighting crime across New York City. He eventually thinks of a way to earn a living from it, taking pictures of himself in action and selling them to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Jameson gladly purchases Peter's Spidey photos, falsely portraying Spider-Man as a criminal because it sells newspapers. While this is going on, Norman Osborn is undergoing a transformation of his own. To protect his company from losing a vital military contract, he tests an experimental performance enhancement chemical on himself. The chemical increases his strength and intelligence, but as a side effect, it drives him completely over the edge, forming a malevolent alternate personality that urges him kill anyone who stands in his way. Using his company's prototype armor, a glider, and a spooky green facemask, Norman goes on a rampage at a festival in Times Square, incinerating his company's board of directors with a grenade, nearly killing Mary Jane in the process. Spider-Man saves the day, but after an incident at the Daily Bugle, Jameson soon prints headlines that the two are in cahoots, dubbing Norman's violent new persona "The Green Goblin." As the Green Goblin, Norman sees the potential in forming a partnership with his wall-crawling nemesis. Both of them are masked, both are made to look bad by the Daily Bugle, and both have abilities beyond those of normal people (even if the Goblin's abilities are thanks to military technology). Good ol' Spidey chooses the side of good, but wouldn't you know it, the Green Goblin doesn't respond to rejection too well. Peter must now deal with the Green Goblin while his own dual identity further strains his friendship with Harry and puts the lives of Aunt May and Mary Jane in danger.
Spider-Man is one of those rare movies that transcends the superhero genre, and becomes just a great movie overall. The thrills and acts of superheroism are secondary to actually telling a story about people, and how their lives are affected by heroes and villains. The movie actually takes the time to give us characters that we can truly care about, connecting to the story's more human aspect. Peter Parker begins as a shy teenager that everyone kicks around, but by the end of the movie, we've come to really know him. We can see inside his head, and watch as he evolves from a nerdy little wiener living with his aunt and uncle in Queens to a weathered young man who's probably seen more tragedy than he should have. That evolution is something that is also seen in the relationships between each character. The development of Peter's at-first unrequited love for Mary Jane is wonderful, definitely the movie's key ingredient. As stated in the opening monologue, "This, like any other tale worth telling, is all about a girl." While Spider-Man 2 deals more with the relationship between our hero and his lady love, the blossoming Peter/Mary Jane love story can definitely lay claim on a portion of center stage here.
As far as staying true to the comic book, that I can't comment on. I'm not a regular reader of comic books, but I did think some of the liberties taken were well-done. I personally felt giving Spider-Man organic web-shooters was a great idea, as I thought the homemade shooters probably would have just gotten in the way. So I'll give them credit for actually one-upping the source material here. Longtime horror director Sam Raimi ventures into the world of action fantasy, and while restrained, his style definitely comes through. Well-crafted shot compositions, well-made fight sequences, and he even worked in Bruce Campbell, his brother Ted, and his old '73 Oldsmobile. From The Evil Dead to multimillion-dollar blockbusters and movies with Katie Holmes topless... our little Sammy has grown up. And that score by Danny Elfman is wonderful! Quite different than his score for Batman and Batman Returns, his engaging score here works to up the excitement during the big action sequences. Great stuff from Elfman, as usual. Meanwhile, while the visual effects are great for the most part, I found the CGI to be really lame in some places. Once scene features Peter proudly jumping from rooftop to rooftop after discovering his newfound powers, but he looks more like something from a video game than a kid who just got bitten by a mutant spider. And the Green Goblin's glider work many times looks like someone's holding a picture in front of a backdrop and moving him around, especially in the Times Square scene. This kind of stuff might fly in Spider-Man: The Game, but I'm not letting them off the hook here. That's not how I roll.
Tobey Maguire is absolutely superb as Peter Parker. In fact, he's so good as Peter than he's almost more charismatic than his superhero alter ego. Imagine a Superman movie where you'd rather watch Clark Kent for two hours instead. Yeah, it's like that. He wonderfully shows us a young man with an inordinate gift, torn with guilt over the senseless death of his uncle. And Spidey's nemesis, Willam Dafoe, is nothing short of brilliant. The guy just looks insane from the start, and it's fun to watch him switch between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as he straddles the line between convincing and completely over the top. James Franco's low-key brooding is fun to watch, and Kirsten Dunst is both pretty and charming as usual. I doubt they could have gotten a much better J. Jonah Jameson than J.K. Simmons, because the guy is hilarious and steals almost every scene he's in. Perhaps the most understated cast members are Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Peter's beloved aunt and uncle. They make Ben and May the kind of relatives we'd all like to have on our family tree, bringing a much-needed warmth to the movie.
Along with its sequel, I'd say Spider-Man ranks right up there with Superman II as one of the best comic book translations ever made. The cast is awesome, the action is fun, the love story is gripping, and the direction is absolutely awesome. Even if you don't read comics or don't know much about the character, you can't go wrong with Spider-Man, folks. Four stars easily.
Final Rating: ****