Screw the “Star Wars” prequels, this is the movie I’ve been waiting for nearly all my life! I actually remember the time some 7 or 8 years ago when, as a comic book reading and drawing geek, I read somewhere that James Cameron wanted to follow-up True Lies with a Spidey movie, which had me thinking “This is gonna be the coolest flick ever!” You see, I’ve loved old Web Head for as long as I can remember, starting with when I watched the old cartoon as a kid (“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can…”). Did the appeal come from how, unlike Superman or Batman, Spidey isn’t an alien or a rich playboy but a regular young dude in way over his head? Nah, back then I probably just dug the red, black and blue suit, those big white eyes and the web-shooters, but it IS a character one can relate to.
More recently, Spidey came back into my day-to-day existence as I started buying comics again. I used to live for them as a teen, until my increasing interest in writing outside of dialogue balloons, girls, movies, beer, music and the such made me put that passion aside. Five years later, though, it started coming back little by little. Bryan Singer’s great X-Men movie made me pick up a few X books. My respect for Kevin Smith’s writing got me into “Green Arrow”. But the series that really got me hooked again was “Ultimate Spider-Man”, Brian Michael Bendis’ awesome reinvention of Peter Parker’s story. Each month, reading it reminds me of why he’s such a compelling character (issue 22 just hit the stands, check it out, it’s a great jump-aboard issue).
Ok, so I love the amazing one, but what made me think that his big screen debut wouldn’t be a waste of celluloid? Two words: Sam Raimi. From the over the top horror antics of the Evil Dead trilogy to the noirish thrills of A Simple Plan and The Gift, by the way of his sped up spaghetti western The Quick and the Dead, Raimi has wowed me again and again (let’s pretend CrimeWave and “For Love of the Game” never happened). Yet what really makes Raimi the ideal man to tackle this project is one of his lesser known but arguably his best movie, Darkman. It’s not actually adapted from a comic book, but here’s a movie that perfectly captured both the drama and the silliness of super heroes, focusing as much on character development as on explosive action. Hence, you’ll understand how psyched I was that Raimi would take another shot at making a comic book movie, but this time with a widely known and beloved character and nearly five times more money and resources. The third of May couldn’t come fast enough!
(and now, on with my REVIEW)
The most striking thing about “Spider-Man” is that it’s hardly what you expect from a comic book flick. Raimi’s film is actually closer in spirit to a coming-of-age story like Almost Famous than to a flashy noisy mess like Batman and Robin. Nearly half the movie is devoted to Peter Parker before he becomes a super-hero. Some might resent it, but I loved how the movie takes its time to introduce its cast of characters. As Parker tells us in the first scene, it’s really a story about the girl-next-door, dreamy Mary Jane Watson, and the timid geek who loves her. When we meet Peter, he’s an unpopular misfit always good for mockery whose only friend, Harry Osborn, mostly hangs out with him so he can help him with his school work. At least Peter’s got his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who’ve been raising him since his parents died. All this is nicely presented, with simple but effective characterisation, and the actors do the rest.
I don’t think the film would work half as well if anyone but Tobey Maguire had been cast as Peter. He’s got just the right balance of nerdiness and cool, shyness and charisma. We can identify with him right away, and the way he relates with his few friends makes us care for the whole bunch, except maybe James Franco, who sulks a bit too much as rich kid Harry. Then there’s the spunky, gorgeous wonder that is Kirsten Dunst. Who better then to portray MJ Watson, the ultimate teenage boy’s wet dream? Face it, Tiger, you’ve just hit the jackpot!
Things get more complicated when, during a school trip to a science laboratory, Peter is bit by a genetically enhanced spider. In some of the best scenes in the film, we witness how he gradually acquires arachnid characteristics. His vision improves, he’s suddenly fit and strong, his reflexes become swifter and swifter, and most astonishing, he finds out that he can climb walls and shoot webs from his wrists! The movie has Parker marvelling at these changes along with us, and Maguire’s giddy enthusiasm when he goes from powerless to powerful is just intoxicating! Peter gets cocky about his new prowess though, finally beating up the school bully and trying to squeeze a few bucks out of it by taking part in wrestling matches (watch for funny cameos by Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Bruce Campbell). But before long, the empowered Parker is brought back to harsh reality when his beloved uncle and father figure Ben is killed by a car-jacker. Worse, Peter had just carelessly let that very crook escape from a crime scene when he could have easily stopped him. Thus he learns a most important lesson: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
That sequence is surprisingly powerful, moving even, and that’s because the film set it up so carefully. We’ve seen Peter with Ben, we know they had a very special bond, so for him to die somehow at his nephew’s fault, it’s wrenching. It makes Parker’s subsequent vow to fight crime and help people as Spider-Man all the more involving. Now the action can kick in! In a montage reminiscent of Do the Right Thing (!), we see Spidey bringing some justice to the New York Streets and we see the rescued victims commenting to the camera. Also reacting to this masked vigilante is Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (hilariously played by JK Simmons), a loudmouth who doesn’t have a nice word for anyone, Spidey included. Nonetheless, he continues fighting thieves… Petty thieves. What a super-hero needs is a super-villain, and Spider-Man will get a worthy foe in the Green Goblin. He looks pretty badass with his metal body armour, riding on his flying glider and throwing pumpkin bombs, but most intriguing is the man behind the mask, Norman Osborn, Harry’s father.
Played by Willem Dafoe with over the top but effective creepiness, Osborn is a ruthless business man who likes to have things go his way, whether it’s his company or his son. Add to that an unstable strength-enhancing serum he tests on himself and growing rage over how his corporate board of directors are trying to railroad him out of his company and you’ve got yourself a superhuman madman out for blood. Good thing your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man is on the watch. This leads to a bunch of explosive confrontations between the two. These action scenes are a bit CGI heavy, but they look cool anyway. It’s quite a thrill to swing around skyscrapers along with Spidey, and the fights are intensely crafted by Raimi, especially the almost shockingly violent climactic one.
Overall, “Spider-Man” is pretty much all you’d want out of a summer blockbuster, and sometimes a little more. Sure, it has flaws, like how it tries to hit a few too many notes, or how the dialogue can be corny or too “written” (like in a comic book actually!). I also wish that, since it so clearly lifts its storyline from “The Amazing Spider-Man” #121-122, it would have gone all the way and have Dunst play Gwen Stacy. Showing that character’s fate at the hand of the Green Goblin and the effect it has on Peter Parker would have made the film something extraordinary. But hey, it is what it is, and despite my fanboyish nit-picking, I liked the film a lot. The “coolest flick ever” it might not be, but I have a feeling the already announced sequel might just go that extra mile between good and great.