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I guess since I’m supposed to be some sort of film critic that I ought to at least attempt to be objective when writing a review. That likely means I should take a few steps back and tear Spider-Man apart one piece at a time, until the wall-crawler has received an analysis that would make Freud proud. Well I’m not that kind of critic.
Spider-Man is a gem among gems. Perhaps my Spider-Lust is influenced by my life long love affair with the web-head. Perhaps my Spider-Love is driven by a needy childhood spent reading useless comic books and science-fiction paraphernalia. Maybe, just maybe, Spider-Man really is that damn good.
Spider-Man stars Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, High School student, nerd, and all around class whipping boy. Until… on a field trip to the prestigious Columbia University research center, Parker is accidentally bitten by a genetically altered “super spider”, irrevocably altering his genetic structure, gifting him with increased strength, agility, and a host of spider-like abilities including the ability to stick to walls and shoot super-strength webbing from his wrist.
Spider-Man is an homage to the legendary comic book series about a hero of the same name… which, next to only perhaps "Batman" or "Superman", is one of the most read, and best known in American pop history. True, Spider-Man doesn’t follow the wall-crawler’s original story exactly, taking a few very small liberties with some issues, such as the nature of his web shooters and the identity of his girlfriend. But, frankly, in all other instances, Spider-Man director Sam Raimi goes so far out of his way to be TRUE to the great American web-head, that it’s hard to imagine even the most rabid Spider-Fan finding displeasure in what he has wrought.
Enough with the geek talk! Forget comics; let’s talk about the movie. Spider-Man is everything that Burton’s brilliant Batman movie is not and is the better for it. Spider-Man is an origin story, so Raimi shows us the making of the man. Who is Spider-Man? Why is he Spider-Man? What is he thinking behind that mask? Raimi knows, and makes sure his audience does as well.
To do that, he shrugged off suggestions of pretty boy leading men and instead cast perennially soft spoken Tobey Maguire in his lead hero role. He’s no Val Kilmer, but then Peter Parker isn’t exactly Bruce Wayne. He’s a pimple faced nerd; angst ridden, unsure, and most of all in love. Peter Parker doesn’t live in a lavish mansion, he gets his butt kicked at school and chases the bus. Spider-Man isn’t beloved by the city… he’s an outcast, a freak, and wild card. Slandered, hated, cast off, even with his new-found powers, Peter Parker is every bit as much a social outcast as he was being his normal self. That’s what Tobey brings to the equation. That’s who Tobey’s Spidey is… and that’s what made Spidey great all along. Maguire’s not some Hollywood hunk, likely to beef it up on the cover of the latest GQ. Instead, his soft-spoken sincerity and oft quick wit are what so easily sell the true nature of Spider-Man.
Spider-Man isn’t some hyped up gadget fest, where adrenaline pumps behind techno beats from beginning to end. It’s about a kid who becomes a man. It’s about a boy who facing great tragedy to learn that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Raimi takes his time with Peter Parker. No rush. There’s true joy in exploring the nuances of Parker’s newfound powers, delighting in each new discovery as he and Maguire uncover the man before he puts on the mask. Unlike the impassive Batman, or the Uber-cool Blade, or even the all-American boy scout Superman, Raimi and Maguire let us know there’s a real person under that blue and red.
Character development is the key to Spider-Man and Raimi has unlocked the gates, not only by capturing the heart and soul of young Peter Parker, but by providing a deep and meaningful supporting cast behind him. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson is not some pretty, dumb, red head who ignores Parker one day, then notices him the first time he pops out some muscles. Instead, Dunst does a marvelous job of developing layers of increasing affection for Peter, built upon the foundation of a shared past. At odds with the wall-crawler is the always odd looking Willem Dafoe, who with that ugly mug has long been destined for super-villaindom. And though his real face is actually more frightening than the Green Goblin mask he wears, Dafoe ably balances the demands of loving yet distant father to Parker’s friend Harry, with the totally unbalanced lunacy of his secret super-villain life.
I’m starting to turn into a Spider-babbling idiot, so I won’t stop to extol the scene stealing virtues of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. Nor will I spend time talking about the deceptive depth of James Franco’s Harry Osborne. Instead I’ll give you those two sentences and move on to what you really want to know about… ass kicking.
Don’t think for a second that Spider-Man is some namby pamby girly movie, more obsessed with teen angst and budding romance than delivering spider-style justice to the lawless New York underworld. I’ve heard complaints about cgi, but with the exception of a few easily forgettable computer generated oddities, I can’t honestly say I gave it a second thought in either of my two Spider-Man viewings. Instead, Raimi delivers a realistic vision of a man doing the unimaginable. Parker dons his costume and SHOWS us the barely controlled INSANITY of swinging through a concrete jungle with nothing between you and the ground but the slimmest thread of super-strength web.
Surprisingly, even though the Goblin’s costume resembles that of a Power Ranger reject, Dafoe’s body language projects a threatening and deadly presence in battle with Maguire’s Spidey. Each and every scene is a piece of crime fighting JOY as Spider-Man fights two-bit thug and super-villain alike with uncanny wit and an assorted variety of web slinging, fist slamming action. Nothing happens without reason though, as even these scenes serve to further develop the characters within them. Spider-Man fights for a city that has been told to hate him. Saves lives even when the cops are trying to arrest him. He battles the uber-techno Green Goblin high above the city in aerial combat the likes of which I’ve never seen, all while protecting the innocent and his one true love.
There’s more to come. This is only the beginning. This is a movie about a HERO. Not some outlandish vigalante on the edge of society, nor some cape wearing alien in strangely red tights. Judging from where Spider-Man now stands, the sequel can only be better. Now that we KNOW this character, there are so many more places that Raimi is free to take him. This is the beginning, an origin story to rival any other. Among superhero movies, Spider-Man walks tall as a one of the finest comic book inspired pieces of cinema yet to stick to the silver screen.