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Spider-Man   B+

Columbia Pictures / Marvel Enterprises

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: David Koepp (based on the comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's gotten to the point where Hollywood blockbusters score major kudos simply by not disappointing us. They spend so much money hyping their ultra-expensive toys -- trying to convince us that life will be a miserable failure unless we rush out and see them RIGHT NOW -- that the inevitable letdown cuts far deeper than it should. And when a film meets our expectations, we feel more relief than excitement -- not because they're good but because they fail to be bad. "Thank you, summer event picture, for not sucking. Thank you for justifying our eight bucks. Thank you for refusing to disappoint us as so many have before."

Spider-Man doesn't disappoint, to be sure, and for an hour or so, it really achieves something memorable. The rest of the time, it contents itself with merely being a solid, entertaining ride, which is far more than we've received from most of its ilk. A good thing too. Spider-Man has always been more complicated than most superheroes. Creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gave us a costumed superman with real-world problems, a hero who saves the world but can't pay his rent. Spider-Man director Sam Raimi understands those nuances, as well as the indelible visual style of Ditko's four-color images -- a style that this film must duplicate in order to succeed.

He also has the unenviable task of finding the right actor for the part. Underneath his red-and-blue tights, Spidey is Peter Parker, a scrawny teenager too shy to ask out the girl next door. Whoever plays him needs the physical presence to make a convincing superhero without losing the character's core vulnerability, that nervous awkwardness that all teenagers share. In light of that, they could not have found a better choice than Tobey Maguire. As Parker, Maguire is all stammers and puppy dog stares: a sweet kid perennially at the bottom of the adolescent pecking order. Of course, that's before he's bitten by a "genetically enhanced super-spider," granting him all manner of funky powers. Maguire walks the line between badass and science nerd with deceptive assurance, blending the character's dual sides into an utterly convincing package.

The film's early sequences complement his balancing act divinely. Initially, Spidey isn't sure what to make of his new abilities, but with the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) -- a death he could have prevented -- he learns the famous maxim "with great power comes great responsibility." Soon, muggers, bank robbers, and ne'er-do-wells of all stripes have reason to beware his web-swinging form. Naturally, being a superhero isn't as easy as beating up a few hapless street punks. The public hates him as much as they adore him, his super powers take some real getting used to... and then there's his love life. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the girl next door of every boy's dreams, genuinely likes Peter, but always seems to have her eye on someone else. ("You're taller than you look," she comments at one point; "I hunch," he replies sheepishly.) Even when she begins to take notice, the whole crime-fighting thing keeps getting in the way. Peter perseveres, however, and the slowly blossoming romance proves one of the film's real strengths. Not only do Dunst and Maguire have tremendous chemistry together (their first kiss is a knockout), but they reveal a gentleness to their characters that makes their dilemma all the more poignant. When you're 16 and the prettiest girl in school won't speak to you, it feels like the end of the world. Credit a surprisingly strong screenplay by David Koepp for making that just as important as whether Spidey gets the bad guy.

With such bravura elements, it's inevitable that the film gets a little winded in the second half. After establishing Peter's motivation and modus operandi, it settles into a solid yet routine standoff between hero and villain. In this case, the villain is the Green Goblin, aka Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe). A requisite brilliant scientist, as well as the father of Peter's best friend, Osborne crosses the line with an experimental serum, transforming him into a cackling Jekyll-and-Hyde figure in burnished-emerald body armor. Fans of the comic book will recognize parts of the famous Gwen Stacey storyline as the über-baddie seeks to destroy his nemesis in an escalating series of set pieces. The action works fine (spiced up by Raimi's trademark camera flourishes) and Dafoe hams it up nicely as the Goblin, but as time goes on, it starts to feel standard-issue. Add to that a few flat-out stumbles -- some questionable plot threads, bits of sloppy editing, and points when the comic-book campiness comes across as stupid rather than clever -- and it's probably just as well that Spider-Man wraps it up in two swift hours. Any longer and they might have gotten into trouble.

Fortunately, the minor shortcomings never add up, and by the time you've registered their presence, the film has moved on. The visual effects reek of obvious artifice, but they're so gleefully executed -- and so perfectly capture Spidey's trademark acrobatic swoops -- that you don't really care. Raimi's visual flair beautifully matches his hero's wall-crawling antics, and the shots of Spidey swinging through Manhattan reminds us once again that a grinning lunatic still lurks beneath the director's A-list exterior. The supporting cast is solid as well, and as strong as the leads are, they're almost trumped by a scene-stealing J.K. Simmons -- best known for his neo-Nazi thug on the prison drama Oz -- who has a few marvelous bits as grumpy newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. These are assets that every blockbuster should have, and if the film flags a bit towards the end, it's only because it sets a high standard for itself.

In the end, Spider-Man is a summer blockbuster, from a long line of summer blockbusters. Dollar figures are the name of the game, and the enormous marketing machine has ensured that we can't look anywhere without being told to see this movie. This time, at least, someone cared as much about the product as the packaging, ensuring that your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man won't go the way of so many other discarded event films. A round of applause to the cast and crew for doing better than "not bad:" with Spider-Man, the annual warm-weather mayhem is off to a roaring start.

Review published 05.05.2002.

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