It should be no surprise that I would like the Spider-Man film given my enjoyment of Spider-Man: The Animated Series.
According to The New York Times review:
The first thing you see, after the house lights dim and before the credits begin, is a flurry of comic book panels accompanied by the Marvel logo. These inky, pulpy images are followed by the glossy, silvery letters of the title, and the contrast suggests that comic books and large-scale Hollywood blockbusters may not be as compatible as the movie studios would have us believe. Traditional comic books are cheap, stubbornly low-tech and sometimes slow moving.
For their part, the movies that lumber into the multiplexes every summer tend to be stratospherically expensive, loaded with the latest special effects and stuffed with ear-splitting and eye-straining action sequences designed to leave you glutted with sensation, if not always satisfied.
”Spider-Man,” which opens today nationwide, is, inevitably, all of these things, but the director, Sam Raimi, and the screenwriter, David Koepp, have not lost track of the deeper, simpler satisfactions of superhero worship, chief among which is identification. The original Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for Marvel Comics in 1962, was not, under the costume, an interplanetary exile like Superman or a reclusive millionaire like Batman, but an ordinary, disaffected urban adolescent. As he swooped through the skyscraper canyons of New York (not Gotham City or Metropolis), the web slinger spun self-mocking, self-pitying soliloquies that mirrored the thoughts of his likely readers. Referring to himself as ”your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” he seemed aware of the absurdity inherent in being a freelance big-city crime fighter.
This conceit has grown tired over the years, and Marvel’s cachet as the hipper of the two comic book giants has long since waned. But the filmmakers have succeeded in rejuvenating the character while staying faithful to his roots.
They have been helped by the inspired casting of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, a high school senior from Woodhaven, Queens, who is bitten by a spider on a class field trip to Columbia University. (In 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis, the spider was radioactive. Now, to reflect more contemporary technological anxieties, it is a genetically altered superspecies.)
With his wide eyes and soft, mobile mouth, Mr. Maguire seems at once knowing and vulnerable; more than any other actor in his 20’s, he embodies the generational trait of expressing irony and earnestness as if there were no difference between them. He sometimes appears too smart for his own good, observing his own performance with skeptical cool; but here this detachment is consistent with his character’s predicament. Peter himself, after all, is something of an actor, forced to improvise a performance that is both dangerous and ridiculous.
The best part of ”Spider-Man” comes between the spider bite and Peter’s discovery of his calling, when the movie asks us to imagine what a retiring, middle-class teenager would do with superhuman powers. Admire his new muscles, for one thing, and then figure out how to impress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the flame-haired beauty next door.
And so Peter, in a crude prototype of the Spidey costume (complete with red low-rise canvas sneakers), enters a wrestling competition, hoping to win enough money to buy a used sports car that will make Mary Jane take notice. Such childish indulgence is quickly put aside when Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is killed in a carjacking, and the young man’s new talents are turned to a higher purpose.
Meanwhile — if I may borrow a time-honored comic book formulation — an ambitious scientist named Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is undergoing a similar identity crisis. Osborn’s company, which develops ”human performance enhancement” applications for the military, is about to lose a big contract, so Osborn performs an experiment on himself and becomes the Green Goblin, flying through the city on a rocket-powered surfboard and wreaking all manner of havoc.
To complicate matters for our hero, Osborn’s son, Harry (James Franco), is Peter’s best friend and his rival for Mary Jane’s affections. Soon Spider-Man and his nemesis are fighting it out in the skies while their alter egos negotiate their increasingly knotty emotional lives on the ground.
Oddly enough, the ground-level action in ”Spider-Man” is much more entertaining than the explosive, computer-enhanced acrobatics overhead, most of which looks thin and unreal. (An exception is the climactic battle on the girders of the Queensboro Bridge, though part of the thrill comes from seeing this sturdy structure given a star turn after years of neglect in favor of its more photogenic siblings.)
When Spider-Man somersaults and ricochets amid the tall buildings, you are supposed to feel a rush of excitement, but instead you feel pushed out of the movie. Comic book panels, like old-fashioned movies, function by sleight of hand, suggesting more than they show. By allowing us to see continuous motion, the computer-generated images superimposed on real backgrounds diminish the magic rather than enhancing it.
It’s not that these effects look cheap. Quite the opposite: they look like a waste of money.
But if the scenes of fighting and flying don’t add to the fun of ”Spider-Man,” they don’t manage to spoil it either. Mr. Raimi is a master of pop realism, unafraid of easy jokes and corny sentiment and willing to give the actors room to find moments of offhand wit and genuine tenderness.
Mr. Robertson and Rosemary Harris, who plays Peter’s kindly Aunt May, are modest and decent without descending into egregious saintliness. As J. Jonah Jameson, the volcanic newspaper editor (who also, in a worrisome breach of journalistic ethics, appears to be in charge of ad sales), J. K. Simmons explodes into the picture like a cartoon Edward G. Robinson, stealing all his scenes, of which there are too few. (One hopes there will be more in the sequel, scheduled for 2004.)
Mr. Dafoe is the exception to the rule that the villains in this kind of movie are generally more interesting than the heroes; his performance is uninspired and secondhand. His Green Goblin voice sounds like Phil Hartman doing a Jack Nicholson impression, and his hollowed-out face conveys not ravenous evil so much as deep fatigue.
Fatigue is, more often than not, what one feels emerging from a movie like this, having been buffeted by hype and assaulted by commercial gimmickry. ”Spider-Man,” while hardly immune to these vices, is, like Mr. Maguire, disarmingly likable, and touching in unexpected ways. The last scene between Peter and Mary Jane, whose romance gives the movie an old-Hollywood ache, is like something out of a Henry James novel, if you can imagine a Henry James novel with lots of special effects and a sequel already in the works.