Out of all the comic book characters ever created by DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment, only 3 superheroes bare the most recognizable across the board of casual fans to the most hardcore comic book collectors and appreciators. Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, the former already have been adapted for the big screen dating back a few decades. The latter has made its mark in animation but never in live action, until now, with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Peter Parker and his alter ego Spider-Man bring around since the early 60’s thanks to creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gives an opportunity for limitless storytelling options. And since this is the first big screen adaptation for Spidey, an origin story is fitting for his introduction to the masses that don’t necessarily know his name.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) starts the film asking if we’re sure we want to know his name. Maguire’s monotonous tone suggests he’s not entirely sure he wants to make the introduction. He’s a high schooler attending Midtown High that lives with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). His best and only friend Harry Osborne (James Franco) is the son of a wealthy businessman and scientist Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), and Peter just so happens to be secretly in love with his neighbor Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).
All of which is true to the comic books including Norman’s own double life as Spider-Man’s arch nemesis the Green Goblin – a pumpkin bomb loving psychopath torn between citywide destruction and a personal vendetta.
Certain elements of a Spider-Man story must be included to get the character of Peter Parker to be easily identifiable with a viewer who is discovering this film for the first time. Peter must be nerdy – check, he lives with his aunt and uncle who suffer through the tragedy of losing his Uncle Ben – check, he has power thrust onto his shoulder not grasping the true purpose of that responsibility – check, he has a bully at school named Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello) that loves nothing more than to make Peter’s life miserable- check, and he has to be an underdog – check.
Tobey Maguire only gets half of the character – the Peter Parker aspect, he’s a fantastic Peter Parker, channeling his inner nerdy loner who cannot catch a break. When the mask is put on, however it’s a completely different person, losing all personality however little there may be.
But even when Peter is down on his luck, getting the short end of the stick for his photography by Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) or losing out on the chance to ask out MJ to Harry, you still want to root for Maguire’s Peter Parker.
Spider-Man succeeds in its story written by David Koepp following Peter from high school graduation trying to figure out life with a new set of responsibility. The biggest theme is responsibility and how those with the power to do something go about it. Peter learns this the hard way. Even though he has the power, he didn’t necessarily want the responsibility until it closely affected him.
The problem I have with Spider-Man is with the lifeless on-screen chemistry between Tobey and Kirsten. Dialogue between the two is hard to get through let alone wish for them to be together. They’re both flat, uninspired, and toneless together – the mood shifts downward for the most part but when they need to land a moment, they do, swinging for the fences (no pun intended). That moment will forever be iconic in comic book movie history.
Aside from the negatives including a questionable plot hole, the fact that Tobey looks like he’s in his mid-thirties playing a high school aged student, strong overused special effects that don’t age well whatsoever, a Green Goblin costume that shows no expression or any familiar facial features and a misdirection that almost makes the film look like a low-budget horror movie, Spider-Man gets one character right from the moment the film starts – New York.
New York is to Spider-Man is what Gotham is to Batman. Raimi brings the borough of Manhattan to life, full of opinioned people that when tested come together as one. It’s a living breathing character that represents the best of Parker. “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us” one pedestrian shout’s while distracting Goblin from Spider-Man trying to save MJ and a bunch of kids from certain death.
Spider-Man’s entire existence is based on struggling to survive. He sure learns how to adapt to his new 6-pack abs and his heightened senses rather quickly without getting to frustrated or surprised by the change. He accepts it and moves on, using it as an opportunity for selfish reasons. For a character who is basically a scientific genius, the science is almost non-existent – toned down to possibly cast a wider net. That also leads to civil liberties being taken with the character including the organic webs.
Overall, Spider-Man has a great story held down by weak chemistry, horribly aged effects, and questionable choices. J.K Simmons steals every scene he’s in – one that includes both hero and villain. Without Spider-Man the modern-day comic book movie wouldn’t exist (yes, I know X-Men, 4 batman films and 4 Superman films existed prior) but Sam Raimi changed the landscape that comic book fans and casual fans alike can be grateful for. Full of emotion, heart and suspense, Tobey is perfect choice to play Peter Parker, a lovable loser who is thrust into greatness but as Spider-Man he falls short.
Written By: David Koepp
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Music By: Danny Elfman
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kristen Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons
Release Date: May 3, 2002
Running Time: 2 Hours 1 Minute
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
My Score: 4 out of 5
Based On: Spider-Man by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko