Movie Information

Genre: Action Adventure
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons
Rated: PG-13

Spider-Man is one of those slightly unfortunate films that was all the rage when it came out, garnered a lot of critical praise, and then was subsumed by a more elaborate and even more highly regarded sequel. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Spider-Man, which, in many ways, is actually superior to its much-lauded sequel. On the downside, yes, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin outfit is (to be kind about it) unfortunate — more funny than menacing. For that matter, the Green Goblin character looks pretty anemic up against Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus in the sequel.

But the original Spider-Man is a tighter, better structured film than the follow-up. While it can be argued that characters and even plot threads get lost for long stretches in both films, only in Spider-Man 2 is it possible to actually forget about the plot involving the principle villain! See Spider-Man again and remember how much fun it was — and what good, solid entertainment it was — all the way back in 2002. What you’ll find is that it’s still that much fun.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

Original review by Ken Hanke

This isn’t the first time that Evil Dead auteur Sam Raimi has had a go at the superhero market, but this is a lot nearer taking the brass-ring than was his earlier Dark Man. Don’t get me wrong, Spider-Man is no instant classic, but as summer blockbuster entertainment, you’re not apt to find much better — especially after the relatively lacklustre “events” of last summer like The Mummy Returns, Jurassic Park III, and Planet of the Apes. It may lack the resonance of the first two Tim Burton Batman films — in fact, it does — but it’s streets ahead of the Joel Schumacher Batman efforts, as well as the badly dated Superman series. I can’t really speak to its faithfulness in terms of the comic book, since I’m not sure I ever read a Spider-Man comic, but I can certainly endorse the film as solid, sometimes campy, good-natured fun with its heart and brains in the right places. It does admittedly achieve a degree of emotional weight by affording the main characters at least the illusion of reality — not that any of them are exactly all that deep, but at least the effort was made. The Spider-Man characters may actually be no less fully-formed than those of the Burton Batman films, but the impression is somehow that they are. Perhaps it’s the fact that they aren’t as dark, or it’s simply that Raimi doesn’t come to the project with a highly public personal subtext to add to the sense of character as a reflection of himself and his own personality and concerns. Whatever the case, it’s still refreshing to find an action movie where the characterizations are at least on an even-footing with the spectacular set-pieces. It helps that Raimi was blessed with Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Maguire, who already distinguished himself in such films as Lasse Halstrom’s The Cider House Rules, was an inspired choice — perhaps the best choice ever for a super hero. And that’s even more important here because David Koepp’s screenplay isn’t always helpful in terms of character development. There are too many instances — especially, Peter’s reaction to suddenly being transformed into a web-spinning super-hero thanks to the bite of a genetically engineered spider — where the character as written takes things just too much in his stride. (I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d be just a tad concerned if I found myself shooting spider webs out of my wrists.) Maguire is so good that you’re willing to overlook these lapses. Kirsten Dunst is very nearly as good as Mary Jane Watson. The rest of the cast is similarly fine, though not always in the same key. Willem Dafoe makes a splendidly complex villain in his more human incarnation as Norman Osborn, while pulling out all the stops once he takes on his Green Goblin persona. The latter characterization is fun, but somewhat out of synch with the more sober playing in the rest of the film. Perhaps this was Dafoe’s attempt to overcome playing the part behind an immobile mask that looks like what you’d end up with if you genetically mutated the robot from the Bela Lugosi serial, The Phantom Creeps, the headpiece worn by George Zucco’s high priest in Tarzan and the Mermaids, and the grille from a 1937 Cord. J.K. Simmons (who appeared in Raimi’s The Gift) is a sheer delight as newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, and one of the disappointments of the film is that this preposterous character vanishes somewhere around the halfway point. A similar problem exists throughout Koepp’s script, which is anything but a model of structure, since characters — even main charaters — disappear from the plot for such long stretches that you almost forget they’re in the film. Danny Elfman’s score – a development of his Batman scores and the more percussive approach of his work on Planet of the Apes — helps to smooth over some of the rougher edges. The occasional problems to one side, Spider-Man is first-rate entertainment.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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