Spider-Man proves that putting a comic book geek in charge of your major Marvel superhero franchise is a very good thing.
Director Sam Raimi actively campaigned for the job to direct Spidey’s first foray into big-screen action, a job that seemed destined for James Cameron at one time. Raimi got the gig, and his film is a snappy, zippy take on the web-slinger that will delight comic fanatics and those less acclimated as well. The film owes a large percentage of its success to Raimi’s whiplash style and a wonderful performance in the title role.
Tobey Maguire, who cut his teeth in decidedly non-action films like The Ice Storm and Cider House Rules, is nonetheless perfectly cast as Peter Parker, the high school nerd who’s bitten by a super-spider and given arachnid sensibilities. Maguire creates a character of great dimensions, and the ability to fly around via webs sprouting out of his wrists is just one of those dimensions. Maguire joins the company of Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton, actors who hit all the right notes in portraying a beloved superhero. (When considering Keaton, you have to dismiss that first time he said, “I’m Batman.” That sucked.)
This first film, in what will likely be a series, works as a nice setup, telling the story of how Parker attained his powers and how Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) became Spidey’s arch nemesis, the Green Goblin. Dafoe puts forth remarkable work, showing Osborn’s descent into deranged schizophrenia through wonderfully staged conversations with himself. Unlike past comic book villains, Dafoe’s Green Goblin is a sympathetic character, with Osborn literally held captive within his body by his monster personality. It’s a great, sick twist, and Dafoe makes it fascinating.
The film also features a cute love story, with Maguire’s Parker admiring Mary Jane (a sweet Kirsten Dunst) from afar. Some of the love story stuff is a bit goofy, but when it’s remembered that this is a comic book film, the cheese is often forgivable. A love triangle (or square, actually) among Parker, Spider-Man, Mary Jane and Harry Osborn (James Franco), Norman’s son and Parker’s best friend, gets a little more attention than the story needed.
The special effects looked a bit extreme in the television commercials, but taken within the context of the film and Raimi’s style, Spider-Man’s cartoonish, sleek motion fits nicely. Spider-Man in flight bends and floats in ways that seem physically impossible, but it’s acceptable given the film’s overall presentation. The film is set in Manhattan, but it clearly is a comic book world.
Huge praise is deserved for the designer of the Spidey suit, a look that is faithful to the comic books, with a newly toned Maguire filling the thing with authority. In fact, any of the naysayers who thought Maguire would be a softy in an action hero role are in for a big surprise at the way he has transformed himself for the part. He’s retained that same sad puppy aura, but now he looks like he can kick major ass, and he does.
I don’t know if there was a better director for this film than Raimi, the man responsible for the Evil Dead films, which were brilliant examples of comic horror and action. In a moment where Parker’s Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is attacked by the Goblin in a windstorm, you know this film was made by the guy who did Army of Darkness (Evil Dead 3).
With the release of Spider-Man, a stellar start for a promising series, this summer’s blockbuster season is already off to a better start than last year’s. With Maguire and Raimi already secured for a sequel, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man seems to be in very good hands.