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Movie Review: Spider-Man

Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by David Koepp from the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Sony, 2002

Spider-Man arrived in 2002 after the adaptation of X-Men had rejuvenized the comic book film genre two years earlier.  Audiences had been stung by Batman and Robin in 1997 and the entire genre needed a refresh.  Thanks to the studios gambling on talented indie directors (Bryan Singer for X-Men, Raimi for Spider-Man, and later, Christopher Nolan for the reinvention of Batman), comic book films began a renaissance that continues to this day.  I mean, crap, even a movie like Ghost Rider is a hit.

In Spider-Man, we see nerdy Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) longing for his neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who seems to go for the bad, rich guy.  On a field trip to a science museum, Parker gets bitten by an escaped, genetically-enhanced spider and it’s not long before he starts changing in ways he can’t understand.  In true comic book spirit, he does not seek medical attention for a potentially deadly bite.  He goes home and sleeps it off, and wakes up more powerful.

Meanwhile, his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) swoops in on Mary Jane, since it seems like Peter never has the courage to make a move.  Harry’s dad is wealthy scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), who under the threat of losing his military grant is trying to create, without any regard for safety, a super-evolutionary serum that has only been known at this point to amp up aggression and insanity.  This, combined with the creation of a protective suit and a small airship, looks like every country in the world’s worst nightmare.  In true comic book form, Osborn goes too far and yes, becomes insane.  He starts hearing voices inside his head…he’s the Green Goblin.

As Parker struggles with his changes, his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) try to keep him grounded, not knowing truly what those changes are, just thinking it’s normal adolescence.  Right after Peter shuns his uncle’s fatherly advice, his uncle is killed by a thief he could have stopped on his own, but selfishly didn’t.  This is where Ben’s “With great power, comes great responsibility” comes in, and Peter knows he has to use his powers for good.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a dark side: he gets swift revenge on the thief and becomes a target of the NYPD.  But soon after, he’s battling crooks and murderers and becomes a New York icon.  Parker sells pictures of Spider-Man to the Daily Bugle, run by the fast-talking slimeball J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, who probably should have gotten Oscar consideration).

Norman seems content to be nice until his own company’s board wants his ouster, and thus the Green Goblin becomes a permanent fixture in his life.  He wants Spider-Man to join forces with him, but of course this won’t happen, especially since he’s tried to kill people close to him.

Spider-Man is a beautifully multi-layered story: it’s an origin story, a love triangle, a battle between good and evil, and an ironic tale of two normal men who respect each other immensely when the masks are off, but unknowingly do battle against each other when they don the costumes.  Normal comic book adaptations usually take a paragraph to describe the story, but Spider-Man defies that by offering a rich narrative.

Sam Raimi, who had only been known to cult audiences for his Evil Dead trilogy and had entered the critical radar with A Simple Plan, had made two bombs just before this: For Love of the Game and the underseen The Gift (best known for Katie Holmes nudity).  It’s really quite amazing he was pegged to direct this, considering his box office track record.  At the very least, they had box office champ screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room).  But someone showed some smarts and recognized the energy Raimi could infuse into this franchise.  He would truly shine in the sequel.

Tobey Maguire is a great Spider-Man, as well.  The actor known for being so understated fits the nerdy loner well.  Dunst plays damaged-but-sweet really well, and Franco plays his character with some unexplored demons that we will soon see explored fully in the third installment.  Willem Dafoe became the first villain I had seen in a long time to actually play the part with some menace, to actually be scary.  Of course, that kind of dies down when he puts on the costume and has to cackle his lines and so forth, but as Norman Osborn battling his inner demons, Dafoe is magnificent.

Spider-Man is currently the all-time comic book champ with over $400 million (the only adaptation to do that so far; even the sequel didn’t make it).  It ranks seventh on the all-time list and once was fifth.  And it was easily the top film of 2002, actually soundly beating Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Next: Spider-Man 2

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