SPIDER-MAN 

(2002)
With Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J. K. Simmons
Directed by Sam Raimi
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Steve Bailey
Previously published at the time of the film's original release in 2002.  Used by permission. 

"Raindrops keep falling on my breasts... er... chin.. er head.."     For months, I've been agonizing over having to endure the movie version of SPIDER-MAN. Another comic-book movie? With wimpy Tobey Maguire as the superhero?? Having seen it, I've never been happier to have my expectations shattered.

    Spider-Man is the first comic-book adaptation that feels fully fleshed out. Superman had a winking-at-the-audience style (especially with Gene Hackman camping it up as the villain), and the title character in Batman seemed a fully-formed freak who was offbeat because the script called for it.

    But SPIDER-MAN's screenplay by David Koepp (another winner, following Panic Room) takes the time to show us Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as a real person--a lonesome, troubled high schooler, nerdy perhaps, but not in a stock-character way. When a spider's bite gives Peter superpowers in spite of himself, it fits, because he doesn't feel any less out-of-place as an arachnic wallcrawler than he did as a social outcast. And who can't identify with that?

    And the movie shows Peter grappling with real, human issues. When the world keeps treating him contemptuously even when he's Spider-Man, Peter tries to become as callous as the people who sneer at him. But when this detached attitude results in a tragedy for Peter's family, you can't help but feel for this poor kid.

    SPIDER-MAN has an outsized villain, of course, but he too has conflicts. After doing his best to appease his financiers, scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) has his work yanked out from under him. He also has a son, Harry (James Franco), whom he's held at arm's distance in order to further his career. Harry, despite his family's wealth, relates to Peter's sense of alienation and is Peter's best friend in school. And I haven't even mentioned Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the next-door neighbor on whom Peter has had a crush since he was a kid.

    All of this resonates like no other comic-book movie I've seen. You get the sense that if you took away the movie's (richly realized) special effects, you could still have an interesting movie just following these people around New York. So when the inevitable hero/villain showdowns occur, it only adds another layer of richness to the story.

    And never mind the special effects--the movie's casting director should get an Oscar. All of those listed above are just wonderful, as is Cliff Robertson as Peter's befuddled but well-meaning uncle and J.K. Simmons as an insult-spitting newspaper editor.

    This movie really has it all--comedy, action, romance, and a startling sense of humanism. I feel a bit guilty recommending a movie that got made because of its fan base of comic-book readers, but any movie as oddly touching as SPIDER-MAN deserves any kudos it gets.  - SB

Copyright © 2010 Steve Bailey.  All Rights Reserved.  Used by special permission.

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