Kick a boy enough times, and he'll become a man. The question is, of what sort? In Spider-Man, the long-awaited feature portrait of the comic book hero, director Sam Raimi brings forth a kaleidoscopic answer full of hope and verve. Flashy enough for kids and insightful enough for 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 a big-studio product.
The keenest lesson a lot of 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 have had plenty of time to absorb all the particulars of Spider-Man, his family, friends, and especially his enemies. 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.
Commencing with an appropriately webby title sequence and the overtly familiar syncopations of composer Danny Elfman, we get straight to business. The kicked boy in question is 17-year-old Peter Parker (26-year-old Tobey Maguire), a dweeby schlub who resides with his sweet Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, perfect) and compassionate Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, likewise) in a cookie-cutter house in Queens.
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." But there's an inner mountain to climb to reach Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst in a fetching red wig), who is, in this telling, literally the girl next door. 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 just running around, kicking arbitrary ass.
Life for bumbling, bespectacled Peter seems to be a great big bang-up: his true parents dead, his presence mocked by the 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 one of those exhibits dedicated to nanotechnology and genetically mutated spiders. Though the class's teacher 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. And then fate strikes: An escaped über-spider descends onto Peter's hand and seals his destiny. The next morn, Peter's got a brand-new bag, from the cut abs to the perfect vision to surprising powers, which play out in splendidly directed action scenes at his school.
And here's 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) and to Harry's military-industrialist father, Norman (a very game Willem Dafoe). Another of the movie's lessons is never trust the wealthy. Not only does Harry try to put the moves on MJ; his tycoon father has the audacity to turn himself into a flying homicidal maniac in stupid-looking armor. This process involves career tension at the family biz and a scary lab accident. Thus, the Green Goblin is born.
Raimi's Evil Dead films 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, he 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 in Spider-Man, which allows the director to play with knockout visuals while telling a universal story. The effects are smashing, yet there's a heart behind them.
Peter Parker's heart keeps Spider-Man from becoming a mere effects showcase, and the movie is grounded in intelligent characters and performances. Maguire's 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 Dafoe's supernatural turn in Shadow of the Vampire has prepped him well; he definitely doesn't need the silly Goblin helmet to be scary.
Spider-Man amounts to a very strange amalgam: part Raimi movie, part marketing blitz for Marvel and Sony (singer Macy Gray shows up), and part nostalgia trip. Many of the elements seem transplanted from a bygone era. Stick around after the end credits, and you'll hear the awesome 1960s "Spider-Man" theme in all its hissy glory.
Indeed, Spider-Man spins like a dream, yet its fantasy has its limitations. There's a little too much manipulation in elements, like 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 we're saying. Such quibbles aside, however, it's unlikely that many romantic, coming-of-age, family-oriented, stridently patriotic, big-studio superhero movies will launch this year. If suchlike sounds appealing, swing by and marvel.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.