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Reviewed by Kenn McCracken, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Sam Raimi (director)
Genre:   Superhero Action
Released:   May 3, 2002
Review Date:  
Audience Rating:   Rated PG-13
RevSF Rating:   11/10 (What Is This?)
It takes an exceptional movie to overcome two film breakages and three other very noticeable technical problems, as well as a theater full of distracting kids and adults. It's all too easy to get wrapped up in the negative experience, forgetting after its over why you went to the movie in the first place; but we can bemoan the state of American movie theaters later. For now, let's recognize Spider-Man as just such an exceptional film, the perfect kick-off to a season of big Hollywood movies. As blockbusters go, it has everything you could want: action, laughs, special effects, and romance. More than anything else, though, the movie has emotion and a human connection.

This is thanks largely to Tobey Maguire, who doesn't have to stretch much to play Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man). He's a bookworm and the school loser, picked on and needled by the school bullies. While on a school field trip, he's bitten by a genetically engineered spider, and voila—the high school science nerd finds himself with super-strength, inhuman reflexes, and the ability to shoot webs from his wrists. Thanks to Maguire (as well as director Sam Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp), there is nothing separating the hero from his alter ego but a spandex costume, and the movie becomes less a science fiction adventure about super beings than it is a film about growing up and learning responsibility.

Raimi is best known for over-the-top thrillers like Dark Man and the Evil Dead trilogy, but he's also the man behind The Gift and A Simple Plan; in Spider-Man he displays an understanding of the human touch, never allowing the film to degenerate into a series of fight scenes and choreographed silliness. Raimi tells the story not of super powers, but how those powers affect the people they touch. Make no mistake, there is plenty of action in the film—but it's a part of the film, not the point of the film. And for you Raimi fans, there are plenty of magic moments. Make sure you pay close attention to the smaller parts in the film; you might spot some familiar faces.

As a twenty-five year comic reader, I found no surprises in the film; it would have been hard to spoil the story for me. What surprised me was how faithful the film is to the comic books. Certainly, there are differences: radioactive spiders have become genetically engineered, homemade web-shooters become part of the inherited powers, and a major storyline is lifted from its place in the Spider-Man timeline and inserted in the film. But while I noticed all of these things as I watched, none of it bothered me. Everything was done for a reason, and the things that weren't changed were that much more powerful for it.

Much of Peter's motivation for becoming Spider-Man lies in protecting the people around him. His Aunt May is played perfectly by Rosemary Harris, and it's difficult to imagine a more perfect Mary Jane Watson than Kirsten Dunst. The chemistry between Dunst and Maguire is tenuous, but both are strong enough as actors to make that work in their favor. Along with Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin and James Franco as Harry Osborn, Peter's best friend, the ladies and Maguire are not only perfect for the story but a fine cast regardless of context. The absolute highlight of the movie, though, is J.K. Simmons' turn as J. Jonah Jameson, the owner of the Daily Bugle, Peter's boss, and the voice of opposition for all things arachnid. After seeing him for nearly six years on Oz, as the leader of the Aryan brotherhood, it's hard to imagine him playing anything with less menace, but his performance in Spider-Man captures the essence of the antagonism between the two characters.

While it's perfectly fair to say that I am a complete mark for comic movies (I've watched Dolph Lundgren as the Punisher more than once, for cryin' out loud), and a movie as well-done as Spider-Man is apt to have a blinding effect on me, I am aware of the movie's flaws. Fortunately, they are few and far between, and nit-picky, at that. For one, the use of CGI is mind-boggling, and so omnipresent that it's hard not to make a distinction between the human actors and their computer generated counterparts. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine CGI being used more tastefully in this context, and it's impossible to conceive of anything better than the 1977 television series without it. The changing of certain elements of the story to fit the film might be problematic for the hardcore fans, but letting such tiny details ruin this film, handled as well as they were by the crew and cast, would be a shame. It's a little long in the tooth, clocking in at just over two hours, and there are a few areas that feel like they could have been trimmed.

But in the end, a little bit of excess seems perfectly excusable—perhaps even required of a movie like Spider-Man. It is, after all, the opening salvo in the war of the Studio Summer Blockbusters. A powerful shot, too—a challenge to Star Wars and Men In Black 2 and the other contenders to the summer crown. And George Lucas might do well to worry a little. Both Star Wars and Spider-Man have years of history, hype, good casts, quirky directors, big budgets, and special effects to make David Copperfield weep like a little girl. Unlike the Star Wars factory, though, Spider-Man has heart.

Kenn McCracken is comics editor for RevolutionSF.

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