No super-villain that Spider-Man will face in his film career, however many movies that eventually involves, will ever pose the degree of danger to which he was exposed by the law of the Hollywood jungle. The character was in development hell for more than a decade, with rights claimed by a variety of studios over the years and scores of writers and directors–including, at one point, James Cameron–implicated in the squabbles. Finally all the litigation and negotiation have ended, and Old Spidey has made it to the screen as the opening salvo in the summer season of 2002. The question that both fans and non-devotees will ask, after all the tumult, is simply whether it was worth the wait.
The answer is a qualified yes. “Spider-Man” is by no means a classic, but it’s colorful, energetic and reasonably engaging, though uneven. It maintains a comic-book sensibility while featuring performers who also manage to bring a touch of emotional heft to their characters. And in Sam Raimi it boasts a director whose slightly adolescent verve and penchant for the cartoonish mesh nicely with David Koepp’s faithful-to-its-source script. The result is a roller-coaster ride that one will enjoy while it’s in process and then promptly forget, a bit of fun, fast-paced fluff (though with a few sour notes) that evaporates quickly but is reasonably tasty while it lasts.
The character of Spider-Man doesn’t have quite the iconic status of Superman, but in a red-and-blue outfit that mimics that of the Man of Steel in color if not in design, he’s as close as the Marvel Comics group gets to such status. And so it’s somehow appropriate that the earlier film this one most closely resembles is Richard Donner’s sprightly 1978 first installment of the series featuring the DC mainstay. Like “Superman,” Raimi’s film deftly lays out its hero’s background story; it’s basically the obligatory “origin issue,” to speak in comic terms. It also puts a good deal of emphasis on the title character’s great, unrequited love for an unattainable girl, as well as setting up a major battle between him and one of his most famous foes, in this case the Green Goblin. It even shares with Donner’s picture lots of flying–or, in this case, swinging–sequences that, while impressive demonstrations of state-of-the-art effects, remain a trifle unconvincing. (But then who really wants pure realism in a movie made from a comic book?) To be sure, the tone of Raimi’s picture, while exuberant, isn’t quite as jokey as Donner’s was, and it has darker undercurrents (though never to the extent of Tim Burton’s “Batman”) in its second half, but its tongue is still firmly in cheek.
Most importantly, though, “Spider-Man” is reminiscent of “Superman” in that it benefits from very acute casting. Christopher Reeve wasn’t a great actor, but he seemed perfect as Clark Kent’s alter-ego; even his stiffness was just right, and his overplaying of Clark’s bumbling persona had considerable charm. The choice of Toby Maguire was controversial; he’s already shown himself a better actor than Reeve ever was, but as a somewhat dour, recessive type he seemed as likely a choice for Peter Parker and Spidey as the ordinarily frantic Michael Keaton was as The Dark Knight in Burton’s films. Happily, Raimi’s unorthodox selection proves uncannily apt. Maguire gives genuine weight to Parker, making him a figure a viewer easily empathizes with; and he’s buffed up well enough to be convincing in the obligatory tights, too. He’s also fortunate to be paired with Kirsten Dunst as his would-be sweetheart Mary Jane Watson. Dunst is one of the few child actors who’ve grown into a performer of undeniable stature; her recent turns have shown her capable of both light comedy and serious drama, and here she brings winning grace and style to a part that could easily have been a simpering cliche. Willem Dafoe sinks his chops into the dual role of Norman Osborn and the nefarious Goblin with gusto; there isn’t the opportunity for humor in the part that Lex Luthor afforded to Gene Hackman, but Dafoe savors a few quirky moments. Cliff Robertson plays Peter’s uncle Ben with the same air of calm, soothing gravitas that Glenn Ford brought to Jonathan Kent in “Superman,” and Rosemary Harris is all fluttery sweetness as Aunt May. James Franco is adequate as Peter’s friend, and rival, Harry Osborn.
Technically “Spider-Man” is first-rate. As already mentioned, the swinging sequences aren’t entirely convincing, but that actually makes them more amusing than they would otherwise have been. The production design is bright and sumptuous in the first half and gloomier and more ominous in the second–a shift noticeable in other ways as well: the editing keeps things moving nicely in hour one, always in tune with Raimi’s rapid-fire style (there’s more than a hint of the pizzazz of “The Evil Dead” movies and the visual panache of “The Quick and the Dead” on display in this section), but gets choppier in the last sixty minutes. That’s in line with the fact that the director’s touch is less secure in the final hour too: Raimi lets a few scenes get unpleasantly mean, and the big confrontation at the close becomes much too brutal. Danny Elfman contributes a characteristically supportive score, if not a terribly distinctive one.
It’s said that two more “Spider-Man” movies are already being planned–though, unlike the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, they weren’t simultaneously shot with this one. As a result, they’ll probably take a considerable time to reach theatres, but if they measure up to the initial installment, they’ll be worth the wait, too.