There is no doubt about it... the 2002 summer moviegoing season has finally arrived. The 40-year old Marvel Comics wall-crawling superhero finally leapt onto the big screen this past weekend in the long-anticipated "Spider-Man". Though the Stan Lee-created comic book character has been a hit since appearing in the pages of "Amazing Fantasy #15" in 1962, helping Marvel Comics gain market-share dominance during the 1970s, translating Spider-Man's success into other media has been a largely hit-and-miss affair.
The first attempt was the crudely animated "Spider-Man" television series that aired on ABC from 1967 to 1969, which introduced the iconic theme song, "Spider-Man/ Spider-Man/ Does whatever a spider can" into the pantheon of contemporary pop culture. Ten years later, rival network CBS aired an ill-conceived and fan-reviled live-action series "The Amazing Spider-Man", in which the wooden Nicholas Hammond slept-walked through the titular role in his best pair of pajamas, all to a disco soundtrack. However, this short-lived television series was tolerable compared to a Japanese live-action show created by Toei in 1978, which eschewed the traditional mythology of Spider-Man in favor of incomprehensible "Power Rangers"-style action. During this time, Spider-Man also made a more respectable appearance as a live-action character on the education series "The Electric Company", where his dialogue bubbles would encourage children to read. The 1980s saw a return to the animated realm, with two successful Spider-Man series, with the best animated "Spider-Man" series of them all airing between 1994 and 1998.
Spurred by the success of the "Superman" and "Batman" films, Stan Lee had tried for many years to bring Spider-Man to the big screen. During the late 1990s, an attempt by director James Cameron ("Titanic") to bring the web-crawler to life fell through as a result of legal entanglements with the film rights. A couple of years later, after looking at other big-name directors, including Jan De Bont ("Speed"), David Fincher ("Fight Club"), and Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Sony Pictures settled on cult-turned-mainstream director Sam Raimi ("The Gift"), who has crafted a summer blockbuster with the spectacle and depth befitting of the webbed wall-crawler.
With "Spider-Man", Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp ("Panic Room") have remained faithful to the spirit of the comic book while taking appropriate liberties with the technical details. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire of "The Cider House Rules") is a smart but geeky high school senior who lives with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson of "Escape from L.A.") and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris of "The Gift"). He is constantly picked on by peers, and his only friend is Harry (James Franco of "Whatever It Takes", who was initially in the running for the role of Peter Parker), the shiftless son of stuck-up scientist Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe of "American Psycho"). And though he has lives next door to the girl he is in love with, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst of "Bring It On"), she hardly acknowledges his existence as she goes from one bad relationship to the next.
However, Peter's life is turned upside down after a class field trip to Columbia University where he is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider. The next morning, Peter finds that a number of changes have occurred (and we're not talking about puberty). In addition to possessing greater strength and no longer requiring eyeglasses, Peter has developed a 'spider sense' that warns him of imminent danger, the ability to cling to walls, and can shoot spider webs from glands in his wrists. At first, Peter has fun exploring his newfound abilities, such as leaping across city rooftops. However, when a preventable tragedy strikes close to home, Peter decides to use his new powers to fight crime, and Spider-Man is born.
Meanwhile, Norman evolves into Spider-Man's first arch-nemesis when he uses himself as a guinea pig to test a new performance-enhancing serum that he has designed for the military. Thought the serum gives him superhuman strength, it also drives him mad. With the use of an armor-plated flight suit and a one-man glider, Norman becomes the Green Goblin and initiates a reign of terror that only Spider-Man can stop. Unfortunately, Peter's fight for justice is complicated by crusty newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons of "The Mexican"), whose smear campaign is turning the tide of public opinion against the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
What made the "Spider-Man" comic book so unique back in the early Sixties was that the hero was a fallible person, an awkward teenager burdened with very human problems, instead of the ideal of perfection embodied by the likes of Superman. Likewise, Maguire, who is no stranger to playing the underdog, such as in "Pleasantville" or "Wonder Boys", is right at home as the nerdy protagonist, and his earnest performance gives the film, particularly its first half, much of its emotional pull. The best scenes of the film feature the newly transformed Peter coming to grips with his new abilities, which Maguire pulls of with flair, including a battle with a school bully, a hilarious bit where Peter figures out how to shoot webs (note: shouting "up, up, and away" or "Shazam!" don't work), or a brief stint as a professional wrestler (including his initial crappy home-made costume).
However, in addition to the superhero antics, "Spider-Man" is grounded by Peter's unrequited love for Mary Jane. Dunst, as Peter's love interest, is appealing, and though she is given relatively little to do, she clicks with Maguire in the scenes they share. Furthermore, much of the emotional resonance of this romantic subplot comes from how Maguire portrays Peter's disposition and reactions to Mary Jane, which are both credible and moving.
Though his turn as the Green Goblin is passable and doesn't descend into camp, Dafoe's performance is nowhere near as memorable as Jack Nicholson's Joker in the first "Batman" film. Other performances that are somewhat lacking include Franco's flat performance as Peter's rival for Mary Jane's affection, Robertson and Harris as Peter's aunt and uncle (who utter some of the most banal dialogue in the film), and Simmon's one-dimensional shot at comic relief. Raimi fans will also recognize some of the director's regulars among the cast, including brother Ted ("The Man Who Wasn't There") as one of Jameson's underlings and Bruce Campbell (seen recently in "The Majestic") as a wrestling announcer.
The other star of "Spider-Man" is the CGI-heavy special effects. Just as "Superman" made audiences believe that 'a man can fly', "Spider-Man" helps suspend disbelief as it helps visualize Spider-Man climbing walls, bagging bad guys, and swinging precariously between skyscrapers. Though some of the special effects are a little too obvious (particularly when Peter leaps from building to building for the very first time), rarely do they become intrusive or detract from the story. Such technical proficiency, along with Raimi's penchant for making his films visually distinct (including the use of odd camera angles and montage) and Danny Elfman's rousing orchestrations, makes watching "Spider-Man" feel like the very first time you saw "Superman" or "Batman".
After its opening weekend, "Spider-Man" has far exceeded expectations with a $114 million take after only three days in release, beating the old three-day record of $90.3 million set by "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" late last year. This should come as no surprise, as Raimi has combined a good script, two strong leads, and top-notch special effects to create a thoroughly exhilarating piece of escapist entertainment that will appeal to all, whether they are fans of the comic book or not. In a time when the admission price for two people to go to the movies is more expensive than buying a DVD, it is gratifying to see a film worth every penny.