directed by Sam Raimi
(Columbia, 2002)

Marvel Comics has not had a lot of success in translating its comic-book heroes to the big screen. Despite occasional television coups, most cinematic productions went (deservedly) straight to video (2000's X-Men being a notable exception).

Director Sam Raimi has reset the bar with Spider-Man, the movie to which the flood of upcoming comic-based movies will be compared.

The story is strong, a semi-faithful adaptation of the hero's now-legendary comic-book origins. Yes, purists will complain about some of the deviations from canon -- but, really, what is canon these days? Stan Lee's original tale, the John Byrne reboot, the Ultimate Spider-Man revisions or any of the other permutations the story has taken since the character's creation in 1962? Spider-Man distills pieces from each, with a few twists of its own.

For instance, the spider whose bite turns dweebish teen-ager Peter Parker into a high-powered hero has been genetically altered, reflecting the evolution of science since his original radiation-induced creation. Spider-Man's mechanical "web shooters" have been replaced with an organic equivalent; filmmakers argue that a high school student would not be able to invent such a device, so they substituted an additional effect of the bite. Gwen Stacy, Peter's ill-fated high school sweetheart, was deleted from the story entirely, making way for the immediate appearance of his later love, Mary Jane Watson.

Screenwriting aside, the movie remains true to the basic nature of its characters, and anyone remotely familiar with Spider-Man lore will recognize both the people and plot.

Young actor Tobey Maguire was an excellent choice to portray Peter/Spider-Man. He imbues the role with a proper blend of confusion and glee, growing into a heroic model as events unfold and tragedy strikes around him. Even in the moments of his greatest rage and sorrow, he still retains some element of his youthful innocence and optimism.

Kirsten Dunst hits all the right notes as Mary Jane, a popular girl who's just starting to look beyond the surface of the people around her. Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris step nicely into the shoes of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the people responsible for instilling in Peter his unwavering moral values. Other cast members of note include James Franco as the spoiled but insecure Harry Osborn and J.K. Simmons as irascible newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson.

Willem Dafoe is excellent as businessman/scientist Norman Osborn, whose experiments turn him into the villainous Green Goblin. He burns with believable dementia, particularly in one scene where his alter-egos argue through a mirror. Unfortunately, costume designers goofed when assembling the Goblin's unfortunate battle armor and fright mask. (Ugh.)

The movie has plenty of comic-book violence and there are several on-screen deaths, but it's never gratuitous or gory. All but the youngest children should be OK with this film.

In fact, much of the action is a bit too cartoony. Many of Spider-Man's webswinging scenes, in particular, are obvious products of computer generation; they lack mass and look decidedly unrealistic. But, every time I began thinking too critically in that vein, I reminded myself that the source material is, after all, a comic book.

Given the limitations of actual human beings, Raimi and his crew did a convincing job of making Spider-Man's powers and abilities seem real. Although the pace is slow at times, the movie maintains a high degree of excitement and is a decidedly entertaining flick. It's immensely fun. By the end, you'll believe a man can skitter.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 25 May 2002

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