It long last, Marvel Comics impresarios Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's modern myth has made it to the movies: Spider-Man luckily arrives at a time when filmmakers can do justice to its impossible and iconic imagery. Recent advancements in computer animation were obviously necessary to create a believable -- or, at least, not laughable -- model of the original comic book's action. Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy in 1962, and the intervening 40 years were needed in order for Hollywood's special-effects wizards to catch up with Ditko's imagination, making 2002 the earliest possible time to make this movie right. Or try to make it right.
One thing Spider-Man has going for it is impeccable casting. Director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Darkman, A Simple Plan) did well to fight for his choices for the central characters. Tobey Maguire is indeed a surprisingly good fit for Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, the unassuming teenager who gets bitten by a genetically engineered "superspider" (a Noughts twist on the comic's irradiated spider). Kirsten Dunst is sexy and sweetly sincere as Peter's longtime crush and girl next door Mary Jane Watson. And Willem Dafoe is positively perfectly sinister as Norman Osborn aka the Green Goblin. The chemistry between Maguire and Dunst, the spot-on Jekyll-and-Hyde performance by Dafoe, and James Franco's turn as Peter's best friend and Osborn's son Harry serve to fill out the somewhat wanting script.
A retrofitted amalgamation of several story lines from the Silver Age Amazing Spider-Man comics of the '60s, David Koepp's screenplay provides a souped-up origin and maturation for Peter: Within two days of gaining his powers (great strength, the ability to adhere to most surfaces, a sixth sense, natural webs -- unlike the comic's chemical contraptions -- spun from the wrists, of all places) and figuring them out, Peter loses his Uncle Ben, who is murdered by a thief whom Peter allows to escape. This is, of course, before Spider-Man's crime-fighting conscience comes into being. It is also the impetus for that change. But the thief just happens to rob a wrestling promoter who has just swindled Peter out of $3,000, which he was to win for defeating pro wrestler Bone Saw McGraw (hilariously played by ex-Memphian "Macho Man" Randy Savage), and Peter gladly lets him pass, unwittingly dooming his uncle to die.
Soon Spider-Man appears in full regalia, dropping from the skies to thwart injustice time and time again. Thankfully, Raimi has honored and hewn closely to the panels of the comic for the film's general mise-en-scène. We see the first unforgettable images of Spider-Man jump from the panels of the comic book. Imaginative camera angles abound, though not to the point of inducing nausea. In the great scene in which Peter discovers his wall-crawling ability in a shadowy alley, we watch him through a spider's web spun high between the coils of a razor-wire fence. Missing, though, are some of the more iconic web-swinging acrobatics for which Spidey is known; what with the superhuman strength and all, he's supposed to be able to easily defy gravity and contort himself into any and all the stylized positions dreamed up by his illustrators over the years. Oh, well, I guess computer animation can only do so much.
As for the plot, much of the pleasure derived from it is in the simple discourse between Peter and Mary Jane, whom he so shyly pines for. The story is straightforward and a little comic-book campy at times. Maguire falters in his voice-over at the film's beginning, rendering his lines somewhat apprehensively and with odd inflection. Dunst shines throughout. But it is Dafoe who steals the show. In possibly the film's greatest moment, he grapples with his dual nature in a mirror, shifting seamlessly from the dark madness of the Goblin to the stammering, uncomprehending scientist and father Osborn, his expressive face in the end twisting into the dominant visage of the Goblin.
The plot, though, seems merely a means to exhibit the cool costumes (though Spidey's is vintage, the Goblin's is not) and sometimes delirious action sequences, but Raimi has worked very hard to bring the characters to life, and the film is much better for it. Fleshing out characters is more important in the long run, though the plot could have used some tricks to break up the A-B-C story line. Viewers may want more than the origin of both Spider-Man and the Green Goblin and the battle to the end between them, but this time around, it's what you get.
The most troubling aspect of the film is in its translation from the comic book. In the comics, there is always an informative inner monologue floating above each character's head, yet the film does little to fill in the gaps. In the comics, people are flabbergasted and talk excitedly about the amazing, otherworldly things they see: superhumans in colorful tights, close calls with death, etc. The film treats it all like a walk in the park in a world where anything can happen and does quite frequently. And Spider-Man, as he goes about his heroic deeds, comes off as omniscient, whereas the comic always makes a logical progression from tingling spider sense to a good idea of what's happening to intervention. Is it Raimi's idea of a new, improved spider sense, or is it sloppy scripting?
As with most films, missteps of detail and inconsistencies in logic are revealed upon repeated viewing. But this is a comic book. So who really cares? Well, not me, not really. I complain as a fan who wants it perfect. It ain't, but I still loved every minute of it.