Directed by Sam Raimi
Spinning a web of cinematic magic, Spider-Man leaps off the pages of Marvel's comic books and comes to life on the big screen in a highly entertaining romp. More than just a brainless entertainment, Spider-Man offers a lot of heart and ends on a solid note of good old-fashioned patriotism.
The Peter Principle
For those who avoid pop culture, Spider-Man tells the story of a high school dork named Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire, Pleasantville). He's a science whiz, a dutiful nephew, and every bully's favorite punching bag. The love of his life is the girl next door, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst, The Cat's Meow), but he might as well be the Invisible Man for all the attention she pays him.
During a field trip to a high-tech lab, Peter is bitten by a new breed of spider – a red and blue radioactive one, no less. After going home feeling a little faint, he wakes up the next morning as a new man. His vision improved, he no longer needs his glasses. And even his 98-pound-weakling physique is lost under pecs and a washboard stomach.
Peter quickly discovers he has new powers, strengths, and speedy reflexes. Seizing the opportunity, he does what any teenage boy would do: He puts his new-found skills to use and tries to earn $3,000 for a used car that would be sure to impress Mary Jane.
Donned in a red long-sleeve T-shirt, red ski mask, and blue sweatpants, he enters the free-for-all that is the New York Wrestling League. Still wrestling with his anal tendencies, he's irked when the ringmaster announces him as the Amazing Spider-Man instead of his preferred name, the Human Spider.
From there, fate takes over and Peter learns the importance of what he can do and the impact it can have on society.
On the flip side is a man whose work Peter previously studied in science classes, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe, The English Patient).
The founder of Oscorp, a high-tech company that feeds off of contracts with the military, Norman eventually finds himself at the wrong end of one of his experiments and begins to suffer from split personalities. On the one hand, he's Norman, an ambitious Corporate American ousted from his own company by its board of directors. On the other, he's the Green Goblin, a devilish man out to wreak havoc and make those who fired him pay dearly.
It's not long before the red and blue spider dukes it out with the green meanie.
Origins of the Web
This incarnation of Spider-Man offers the best that this type of material has to offer. There's the far-fetched storyline, sure, but there's also the sweetly romantic side, the gee-whiz fun element, and the patriotic "good guys will win" theme. It's all wrapped up in the messages, "Don't be ashamed of who you are" and "With great power comes great responsibility."
Part of the fun is in seeing the familiar origins of Spider-Man played out with the benefit of incredible special effects that (almost) seamlessly blend live action with computer-generated imagery.
Along the way are the obligatory scenes of Spider-Man experiencing the joy of discovery as he tests the limits of his abilities. There's also the requisite baby in a burning apartment, multi-car pileups as the Green Goblin seeks his vengeance, and one miraculous feat after another as the web-slinger rights wrongs.
Happily, it's all done with a keen sense of fun and the screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park) successfully walks the tightrope of not taking the material too seriously, but not throwing it away as mindless tripe either.
Using the same casting against type logic that put Michael Keaton in Batman's pec-implanted bat suit, Maguire turns out to be a terrific choice as the Webbed One. Immensely likable, particularly after his self-esteem picks up, Maguire provides heart, smarts, and a youthful sense of wonder to Peter's unlikely odyssey.
Dunst is equally appealing as the unattainable girl next door. Dafoe deftly toggles between the well meaning tycoon and the hell bent Goblin.
But stealing the show when he's on screen is J.K. Simmons (The Mexican) as J. Jonah Jameson, Editor of the Daily Bugle. His portrayal of the gung-ho and relentless journalist is hilarious and over the top.
Over all, Spider-Man offers director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) his most accomplished work. Raimi dabbled in the superhero world before with Darkman. That concept had a lot to offer, but the end result failed to take advantage of all the possibilities. Here, Raimi allows the larger than life characters to take center stage and lets the sparks fly in a high-spirited (although sometimes dark) escapade.
To that end, Peter is allowed to enjoy his abilities, a trait that makes him easier to relate to than his more stoic superhero counterparts, Superman and Batman in particular. Peter's just a kid, after all, and when he's swingin' through the streets of Manhattan, he can't help but yell out, "Woo-hoo!"
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.