The major treat of all “Golden Age” comic book characters is the simplicity of their Origin Story. Superman is an alien who came to Earth as a child and was raised by a kind Kansas couple, and he fights evil because he’s been raised to stand up for the little guy. Batman’s parents were killed before his eyes, which spurs him to fight evil as a means for revenge. The point is that the best superheroes are the ones with a simple background story. “Spider-Man” is no different. Nerd Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has been picked on all his life, until one day when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider while on a school field trip.
The bite imbues Peter with incredible powers such as allowing him to stick to walls, as well as giving him tremendous agility and strength. When Peter fails to stop a criminal who ends up killing his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), Peter feels responsible, and becomes determined to fulfill his Uncle Ben’s golden advice: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Wishing to prove himself “worthy” of his newfound powers, Peter dons the Spider-Man costume and fights crime. And oh yeah, along the way he pines for the lovely Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).
It’s amazing how closely the movie follows the comic book origins of Spider-Man, who was created decades ago by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. As envisioned by Lee, “Spider-Man” was supposed to be a teenage student with all teenage problems, with the one exception being that he dresses up in a bright red and blue spider outfit and fights crime. Over the years, despite the change in creative teams (i.e. different writers), the many comic book incarnations of Spider-Man has always remained loyal to Lee’s vision. The books were just as much about the trials and tribulations of ordinary Peter Parker, struggling photographer, as they were about Spider-Man’s neverending battle against his Rogues Gallery.
The Rogues Gallery in “Spider-Man” comes in the form of Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a corporate tycoon and scientist who becomes the Green Goblin, a glider-riding killer in a powerful green exo-skeleton. Dafoe’s Osborn develops a split personality (the tycoon on one side, with the destructive, murderous, and completely insane Goblin on the other) after he subjects himself to one of his own experiments. The Goblin’s presence and his reasons for being is oddly not very “comic booky”, at least in comparison to Spider-Man’s own origin. Osborn is a businessman trying to protect his wealth, and decides to use everything in his power to do so. This gives the character a more grounded reason for being what he is instead of the usual brightly colored villain who wants to “rule the world.”
The true highlight of “Spider-Man” is the dizzying camerawork by director Sam Raimi (the Evil Dead films) and cinematographer Don Burgess. The two men go completely insane whenever Spider-Man appears on the scene and swings his way through the city. The camera never stops and is always twisting and twirling and winding and moving sideways and over and under — you get the idea. Besides making the audience “follow” Spider-Man’s webslinging across the cityscape of New York City, the chaotic camerawork also helps to hide the fact that Swinging Spidey is obviously a CGI Spidey, and not Tobey Maguire in costume.
Which leads me to this: If there is one negative to “Spider-Man” it’s that CGI Spidey is sometimes painfully obvious. The same is true for the Green Goblin, who flies around on his silver glider firing rockets and missiles at people. Not very “realistic,” and Raimi must have realized this because there are quite a number of scenes where we only see the Goblin and Spidey from very far away. That isn’t to say Maguire doesn’t do any of the Spidey stunts, because there are numerous scenes of Maguire clearly in the Spidey costume, hanging or climbing or bouncing off walls.
There was a lot of press about how Tobey Maguire, a usually skinny young man, bulked up for the role. It’s true; Maguire is, as the saying goes, “pumped.” Maguire is an old hand with dramatic roles and makes us care about the troubles of young Parker and his undying (and unrequited) love for his neighbor Mary Jane. Kirsten Dunst is appropriately red-haired and spunky as Mary Jane, and it’s easy to see why Parker is so in love with her. Yet at times Mary Jane is too much of damsel in distress, waiting for Spider-Man to rescue her. That last part, of course, is in comparison to all the “tough chick” characters of today. Dunst, as always, is perky and lovable, and you can’t help but fall in love with her just as Peter did.
“Spider-Man” also has a couple of very dark moments that caught me off guard. The final fight between Spider-Man and the Goblin is quite violent and bloody, more reminiscent of the Terminator movies than a PG-13 comic book film. Another scene, where Spider-Man confronts his uncle’s killer, is also quite chilling, much more so than I had expected. In another scene Mary Jane is chased by thugs into an alley and nearly raped. Despite my surprise at the movie’s slightly darker tones, I wasn’t completely unhappy because the darker moments added to the movie’s overall feel of teen angst and emerging adulthood. In a way, they added some “real life” into what might have been a silly comic book movie.
“Spider-Man” is a fast-moving film that despite being over 2 hours long feels short. It’s filled with intense drama, a lot of teen crush and love affairs, and plenty of thrilling action sequences. Ignore the too-fake CGI Spidey and remember that this movie would not have been possible just 5 years ago. At the rate technology and films are progressing, in a few years too-fake CGI Spidey will become so-real-it’s-scary CGI Spidey.
Sam Raimi (director) / Stan Lee, Steve Ditko (comic book), David Koepp (screenplay)
CAST: Tobey Maguire….Peter Parker
Willem Dafoe….Norman Osborn
Kirsten Dunst….Mary Jane Watson
James Franco….Harry Osborn
Cliff Robertson….Ben Parker