After years of starts and stops, various legal wranglings, and an extended flirt with an Oscar-winning, self-professed “king of the world,” the “Spider-Man” feature film has finally come to pass, and the long and winding path to the big screen has led to the right hands: those of director Sam Raimi, who has set the bar unusually high for the rest of the summer film season with this exciting and exhilarating adventure.
Raimi has gone on record as being a longtime fan of the character, and it shows in the film’s remarkable fidelity not only to the source material but also the spirit of it. While the costumed alter ego that can do “whatever a spider can” gives the film and the comic its name, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp have wisely focused what has made the character such an enduring icon: the man behind the mask, Peter Parker. Unlike the alien-born Superman or the genetically evolved X-Men, Peter is just an average guy by nature; the amazing powers were thrust upon him by the fateful bite of an arachnid. The changes in him are more physical than anything else, a fact that comes out clearly in the casting of and the performance by Tobey Maguire; much like how everyman Maguire doesn’t match the prototype of a screen action star, geeky and insecure Peter makes for a most unlikely superhero.
And is Peter ever the socially awkward teenage wallflower when the audience is introduced to him, running after a school bus that has left him behind. He pines for comely girl next door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who only has eyes for school jock Flash Thompson. On a field trip to a museum, Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered spider (an update from the dated radioactive one of comic lore) and wakes up the next morning finding that his eyesight is improved, his physique is massively pumped up, and that objects suddenly have a nasty tendency to stick to his hands. That proves to be just the tip of the iceberg, for later he discovers those famous wall-crawling abilities and — in a controversial deviation that will prove to be much less so when those most critical of comic fans see the film–that he can naturally shoot webs from his wrists.
The film’s first act traces Spider-Man’s origins fairly closely to what was laid out back in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in “Amazing Fantasy” #15, and despite how familiar the sequence of events may be to the Spidey faithful, Raimi and crew have enacted them with such care and flair that no one will be bored. Slightly adding to the interest are some small but no less notable alterations to details. For instance, the spider that bites Peter is red and blue, which better explains why he adopts such a color scheme for his costume; and the tragedy that teaches Peter the lesson that “with great power comes great responsibility” comes about in a more contemporary way. However, one change in particular — the motivation behind one of Peter’s most fateful choices — would’ve been better left unmade, but it isn’t too much of a distraction.
Peter and his double life firmly established, it is then time to establish some supervillainy, and in this screen venture he does battle against the Green Goblin, a.k.a. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), father to Peter’s best friend Harry (James Franco, the weak link in an otherwise fine cast). Norman, an ærospace company head, is driven to insanity and evil after experimenting with a performance-enhancing serum. The corporate politics that further contribute to Norman’s insanity are definitely one of the least interesting parts of the story, but Dafoe is never less than riveting — particularly when out of the Goblin’s armored suit, which proves to be as constricting to his performance as it must have been to his body. Had the audience no gotten just the random glimpse of Dafoe’s eyes and mouth and a fuller view of his expressive face, the costumed character probably would’ve been more menacing, for the fixed mouth-agape expression on his metal mask certainly isn’t.
Raimi resists the easy jokiness that is the pitfall of the comic-to-screen territory, and the film is the better for it. However, certainly a number of cynical viewers will deem as camp some of the admittedly overripe emotional moments and dialogue exchanges, but it’s all completely in line with the old-fashioned, Silver Age of Comics æsthetic Raimi so lovingly recreates. Heart-on-sleeve confessionals may be a bit jarring to jaded, contemporary ears, but with gifted actors such as Maguire, Dunst, and Rosemary Harris (as Peter’s aunt May) sell the material with such genuine sincerity–and refreshingly without irony — that it’s fairly easy to buy.
Such forays into sentimentality doesn’t mean that Raimi doesn’t have fun with “Spider-Man”, however. The inventive visual style he honed on his early, down-and-dirty genre pieces serves the superhero world perfectly (as it did in his previous foray into the realm, 1990’s “Darkman”), and many sequences are like panels on a printed page brought to life, such as a brilliantly done montage of layered images in which Peter designs his Spider-Man costume, and a spider-emblem wipe. Raimi also brings his Evil Dead-bred edge to the well-done, if a bit overly CG and Matrix-reminiscent, action and fight scenes; while not overly violent, they are a little rougher than one would expect. The film is also certainly not without his unique sense of humor, from an early sequence where a jubilant Peter runs and jumps across a number of New York City rooftops (making clever and amusing use of that tired cliché) and tests out his webbing to the hilarious machine gun of zingers that is Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, in a scene-stealing turn).
Touches like those make “Spider-Man” deliver as the summer popcorn fare it’s been hyped as being, but what elevates the film above most aspiring blockbusters — and what makes the character one of the most beloved creations in all of comicdom — is the human core of melancholy in Peter Parker’s story, which is quite affectingly reinforced in the film’s unusually serious and somber (for Hollywood superhero films, that is) wrap-up. For all the little quibbles Spider-Fans such as myself may have with this film (e.g., Flash Thompson having dark hair instead of blond; Mary Jane never delivering her signature “Face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!” come-on), and for all the many things that Raimi did get right, that he nailed down that most important element so precisely would alone make “Spider-Man” just about the truest and most satisfying screen adaptation most anyone could have ever hoped for. That Raimi also has the smarts and finely attuned fanboy instincts to play the classic theme song to the 1960s Spidey TV cartoon series at the tail end of the film’s closing credits is just icing on the cake.