Kick a boy enough times, and he'll become a man. The question is: A man of what sort? In his long-awaited feature portrait of the comic-book hero Spider-Man, director Sam Raimi brings forth a kaleidoscopic answer full of hope and verve. Flashy enough for kids yet insightful enough to engage adults, the movie will line 'em up at the multiplex and send 'em home with a few rudimentary but vital life lessons. Pretty snazzy for big-studio product.
The keenest lesson many fans will take away from this first major Spidey feature is that patience is rewarded. Global legions who obsess over the 40-year-old Marvel Comics creation of writer Stan Lee and designer Steve Ditko have had plenty of time to absorb all the particulars of Spider-Man, his family and friends, and especially his enemies: Dr. Octopus, Lizard, Venom, and my freaky fave, Typeface, to name but a few. Here, however, screenwriter David Koepp wisely sticks to only one major villain -- the Green Goblin -- and tells the origin of the great web-slinger thoughtfully, as if for the first time. Thus, unlike in the fairly rapid-fire segments of Bryan Singer's equally successful Marvel adaptation X-Men, we get one focused, old-fashioned story, which unfolds more like the latter-day cinematic introductions of DC Comics' Superman, Swamp Thing and Batman franchises.
Commencing with an appropriately webby title sequence and the familiar syncopations of composer Danny Elfman (who knows from superheroes, including Batman and Raimi's inventive Darkman), we get straight to business. The kicked boy in question is 17-year-old Peter Parker (26-year-old Tobey Maguire), a dweeby schlub -- or, if you prefer, a schlubby dweeb -- who resides with his sweet, elderly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, perfect) and compassionate Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, likewise) in a cookie-cutter house in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. Though he's already entered adulthood, Maguire imbues Peter with enough wide-eyed innocence to make the previous crop of Hollywood soft boys -- say, the late River Phoenix or the MIA Andrew McCarthy -- look like Hannibal Lecter by comparison. Somehow, it works.
Introducing himself via voice-over with the appropriate tone of a boy-man who still takes himself entirely seriously, Parker explains, somewhat misleadingly, that "this, like any story worth telling, is about a girl." Indeed, although eventually the proverbial tiger hits something akin to the proverbial jackpot, there's an inner mountain to climb in order to reach Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst in a fetching red wig), who is, in this telling, literally the girl next door. (There's no apparent sign of Parker's other pulp-panel squeeze, Gwen Stacy, although the horror of her untimely demise is suggested by this story's climactic set piece.)
Mary Jane -- or MJ -- is everything a science geek-cum-photographer-cum-graphic artist could desire and, refreshingly, she's content to be engaging and pleasant rather than running around kicking arbitrary ass. For most of the film, however, the nymph's reply to the nerd is (paraphrased): "um . . . like . . . um . . ." It's the nice way of saying no.
Life for bumbling, bespectacled Peter seems to be a great big bang-up, his true parents dead, his presence mocked by mean kids on the bus and his thunder consistently stolen by MJ's dumb-ass boyfriend, Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello). All this changes when his high school class is invited to Columbia University to explore, you know, one of those exhibits dedicated to nanotechnology and genetically mutated spiders. Even though the teacher (Shan Omar Huey) tries to keep order, the barbaric Flash steals Peter's technical observations to impress MJ. In turn, Peter takes glamour shots of MJ with the arachnids. ("Don't make me look ugly," she requests, sure to elicit titters from the sharper lads in the audience.) And then fate strikes.
Utilizing the loudest set of fangs imaginable, an escaped über-spider -- blithely and quite hilariously dismissed by the Columbia guide -- descends onto Peter's hand and seals his destiny. Peter excuses himself, returns home, declines dinner ("No thanks, I had a bite") and collapses to his bedroom floor, the better to transmogrify into a human-spider hybrid. (This is not altogether unlike being licked by a weirdly bred cat and turning into an insane, screeching furball, but in a comic-book universe, you gotta roll with what they give you.) The next morn, Peter's got a brand-new bag, from (possibly computer-generated) cut abs to perfect vision (no more specs) to surprising powers that play out in splendidly directed action scenes at school. The homoerotic subtext of the superhero genre is minimized (except for a funny pro-wrestling sequence), and the boy's on his way to herohood.
This is where it gets mythic, as the birth of any hero immediately summons the presence of a suitable nemesis. Early on, Koepp and Raimi introduce us to Peter's friend Harry Osborn (James Franco, star of TNT's James Dean) and to Harry's military-industrialist father, Norman (a very game Willem Dafoe). Although Harry is friendly enough, another of the movie's lessons is never to trust the wealthy. Not only does Harry try to put the moves on MJ, his mega-tycoon father has the sheer audacity to turn himself into a flying, homicidal maniac in peculiarly stupid-looking armor. This process involves career tension at the family biz, Oscorp; the assistance of well-intentioned scientist Dr. Mendel Stromm (Ron Perkins); wicked military experiments; and a scary lab accident. Thanks to milky contact lenses and some shock edits -- one of them sensationally cheap -- the nasty Green Goblin is born.
Raimi's Evil Dead films -- especially the utterly charming Army of Darkness -- allowed him to explore the struggles of a lone hero in a world gone mad. With these wild horrors, as well as the Hercules and Xena series he developed and produced, Raimi gave himself carte blanche to strip-mine mythology, lace it with yuks and serve it up in outlandishly cinematic terms. None of his trademark style is lost on Spider-Man, which allows the director to play with all sorts of knockout visuals (effects by John Dykstra and scores of animators; costumes by the brilliant James Acheson) while telling a universal story. (In interviews, Dunst has emphasized how "really relatable" Spidey truly is.) The effects are smashing, yet there's a heart behind them.
Peter Parker's heart keeps Spider-Man from becoming a mere effects showcase -- though much of the web-slinging, especially the early, trial-and-error stuff, is a hoot -- and the movie is grounded in intelligent characters and performances. Maguire is ideal for the role, working through vulnerability, smugness and guilt after he inadvertently allows the murder of a loved one. Dunst is equally suited to MJ, filling her role with stunning veracity (and conveying yet another lesson: Girls from abusive homes move to big cities to become actress-waitresses). She reveals so much potential here that one hopes she's allowed, in the sequels, to be less distressed and more proactive. As for Dafoe, though he sometimes channels Jack Nicholson's ill-cast Joker, his supernatural turn in Shadow of the Vampire prepped him well; he definitely doesn't need the silly Goblin helmet to be scary (although the foppish purple cap is sorely missed).
Spider-Man amounts to a very strange amalgam -- part Raimi movie (it happens to include cameos by his brother, Ted Raimi, and Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell), part marketing blitz for Marvel and Sony (singer Macy Gray shows up), and part nostalgia trip. Many of the elements -- including J.K. Simmons as bombastic Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (whose action figure features "Desk Pounding Action") -- seem transplanted from a bygone era. Clinching this sense of timelessness, the end credits feature the requisite contemporary rage-core and rap cuts; but stick around and you'll hear the awesome 1960s Spider-Man theme in all its hissy, unremixed glory.
Indeed, Spider-Man spins like a dream, yet its fantasy has limitations. There's a little too much manipulation in a few elements, such as a gang of baddie cholos or a conspicuous moment of flesh to keep fan sites buzzing. Furthermore, MJ becomes all too quickly enamored of Spidey's organic web-shooter, if you know what I'm saying. Such quibbles aside, however, it's unlikely that too many romantic, coming-of-age, family-oriented, stridently patriotic, big-studio superhero movies will launch this year. If such a feature sounds appealing, swing by and marvel.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.