Spider-Man is directed by Sam Raimi and stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Cliff Robertson, and Willem Dafoe.
This film, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, tells the story of high school zero turned hero, Peter Parker (Maguire). When Peter is bitten by a genetically modified spider, he undergoes a number of changes and develops spider-like superhuman abilities. After a personal tragedy befalls Peter, he vows to fight evil and assumes the identity of the masked hero: Spider-Man. As the villainous Green Goblin (Dafoe) suddenly rises, threatening the safety of those he loves, Peter must race to stop the Goblin, all the while realizing what it truly means to be a hero, and that with great power comes great responsibility.
Superhero movies, to say the very least, have come quite a long way in quite a short time. Not too long ago, the idea of a mega-blockbuster team-up like The Avengers or a gritty, R-rated drama like Logan wasn’t only unheard of, it was damn near impossible. In order for superhero films to become the cultural phenomenon they are today, there had to first be a trailblazer. A trendsetter. A stepping-off point.
For many, myself included, this film was that stepping-off point.
Not only is this film largely responsible for the modern progression of the superhero genre as a whole, but it also manages to prove itself as a tremendously entertaining and incredibly powerful comic book adventure. It isn’t flawless and tends to flop quite spectacularly every now and again due largely in part to the passage of time, but none of that can even slightly change what a special flick this truly is.
Seeing as though this film is one of three, I can’t make any full judgments or statements about Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man as a whole just yet. For his first go-around, however, Maguire is actually quite the force to be reckoned with as the titular hero, bringing a familiar and likable charm all his own. Similarly to Peter’s journey and development, it’s quite evident that Maguire becomes more and more comfortable with the role as the film progresses, and seeing this covert development on both sides of the same coin brings a sheer authenticity to the role that I only think someone like Maguire would be capable of.
Something I’ve come to note about this film, as well as this trilogy as a whole, is that there’s never any real consistency in terms of the rest of the performances. Some are passable, others are phenomenal, and some are throwaway side characters with shockingly terrible line delivery. You quite literally never know what you’re going to get from one scene to the next.
In the case of this particular film, the performances are largely satisfying across the board. Soon-to-be franchise regulars such as Franco and Dunst do enough to set their respective arcs in motion as well as distinguish their portrayals of some of Spidey’s most famous companions. A very notable standout is J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, whose brilliant charisma and witty split-second delivery steals every second within the handful of minutes he’s on screen.
The late Randy Savage also makes a cameo in this film. I don’t have anything to really say in that regard other than “that’s wicked awesome.” Gonna give this flick a brownie point or three for The Macho Man.
Dafoe mostly shines in the first real attempt at a cinematic Spidey adversary, and rightfully brings a rigid yet unstable poise to a number of instances when he (and his split personality) have to carry the scene. His performance isn’t perfect and he unfortunately can’t overcome a few campy lines and moments that haven’t aged phenomenally (more on that in a bit), but Dafoe overall is one of the biggest stars of this whole show.
This film’s true heart and soul, however, are found directly within Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Ben and May are quintessential staples of any Peter Parker Spider-story, and the pure emotionality and heart that Robertson and Harris bring to their roles showcase that tenfold. Robertson especially manages to take the meager amount of time he’s given and not only solidifies himself as the best performance in the film, but also sets a number of thematic and emotional wheels in motion not just for this film, but the Raimi trilogy as a whole.
In addition to the vast number of things this film does properly, one area where it shines especially is undoubtedly in its score. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, as Danny Elfman consistently produces gold standard work no matter the project, but I would wholeheartedly state that this film’s score is one of the most influential of its decade. Elfman has a full and complete understanding of how to properly supplement each moment after the next by using the entire weight of his arsenal. Whether it be the proper accompaniment of one of the film’s more somber moments or an intensely mighty pairing for the film’s masterfully framed swinging sequences, there’s quite simply no denying the sheer brilliance of Spider-Man’s OST.
The peculiar aspect of reviewing a film such as this would be the fact that it has grown quite old. Nearly twenty years can be a long time in the realm of cinema and, if nothing else, it’s interesting to see if various elements of this film, while effective in 2002, still hold up for a modern audience. That said, there are unfortunately a few elements of this film that haven’t aged very well.
The costume design, while noticeably creative and largely comic-accurate, can tend to come off as slightly cheesy at first. In fear of Raimi purists coming to burn my site to the ground, I’d like to clarify that I personally feel most of the production cheese can be attributed to the Goblin’s costume and various facets of the set design. I have nothing against the Raimi Spider-Man Suit, despite the fact that it makes Peter’s head look a little small when he doesn’t have his mask on.
A number of odds and ends haven’t stood the test of time either, such as strangely poor lines of unnecessary dialogue or what are far and beyond some of the strangest scene transitions these eyes have ever seen. These various holes in the movie are never frequent or prominent enough to compromise the film altogether, but it’s more often than not quite clear that this issue is simply a product of time.
Also, for as much as I’ll soon praise how emotionally poignant and resonant this film is, there’s a fair share of instances where things can tend to get pretty confused, tonally speaking. A number of moments, especially around the middle and toward the last third, can never quite seem to find a balance between overtly melodramatic to the point of being funny or inappropriately humorous to the point of being unsettling. Again, this imbalance doesn’t bog down the film as a whole, but it’s definitely worth noting, especially to someone whose first viewing of this film takes place in the current superhero climate.
But beyond the specific components that make this a good or bad film, where this flick really shines is in its awareness of what makes a good Spider-Man film. Raimi and writer David Koepp have a true understanding of not only what makes Spider-Man so appealing and iconic to his legions of fans worldwide, but also how much the fans love the hero behind the mask, Peter Parker. This film contains an immeasurable sense of heart, adventure, and true heroism manifested in many of its most powerful and emotional moments. This film has a true grasp on every single one of its thematic purposes and objectives and, in doing so, crafts a genuinely authentic Spider-Man world and mythos. In other words, those responsible for this film know the true power behind what it means to be a hero.
Despite some painfully clear signs of its age and the occasionally jarring dose of superhero melodrama, in no way could anyone ever challenge just how significantly momentous this film is for superhero culture, geek culture, and cinema as a whole. Not only does it serve as a cultural pioneer for its genre, but it’s also a wildly fun and powerfully triumphant superhero origin adventure that will continue to entertain and inspire for years to come. I’m very happy to give Spider-Man a B.