Wednesday, May 8, 2002


by David Robinson


Spider-Man swung into town this weekend and, judging from the buzz of anticipation in the theater beforehand, not a minute too soon. Some carpers might say that the film's producers have pushed the summer blockbuster envelope too far: school won't be out for nearly a month and we've already got a "must see several times" comic book hero adventure to deal with. Maybe it was the (finally!) vernal weather tricking people into thinking that Memorial Day was just around the corner. Or maybe it was the free comic book being given out at the premiere showing. In any case, this one sets the bar pretty high for those that trail it through the actual vacation months.
Stan Lee, the co-creator of the original Marvel Comics hero, serves as executive producer, insuring that it retains the look and feel of its model. Director Sam Raimi has also hewed a fine line, giving us enough special effects to provide the "oh, wow!" factor, while sufficiently humanizing the hero to engage us in what becomes of him. And screenwriter David Koeppa keeps us guessing what folks are going to say and do next, right up to and through the ending, which at once satisfies and tantalizes.
The set-up will be familiar to anyone who's been aware of pop culture. High school dweeb Peter Parker (Toby Maguire) is a literal fall guy, being tripped on the bus, shoved around, and generally intimidated by jocks and bullies. He's been sweet on the row-house girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) since he was six, but her head looks to be turned in distinctly different directions. An orphan, Peter has been reared by his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, in a rare return to the screen) and his aunt (Rosemary Harris), who dote on him and take pride in his scientific interests.
On a field trip to Columbia University, Peter gets bitten by a genetically engineered spider and soon takes on the agility and web-producing abilities of the species. (He can also dodge punches a la The Matrix and kick like a mule, but, hey, the fiction makes the science fun.) To impress Mary Jane, he figures he has to get a car, so to earn the money he enters a "stay in the cage" wrestling match and, voila!, Spider-Man is born. That same night, his uncle dies, and he turns to life as a masked crime fighter, swooshing about the city on gossamer but steely webs, scaling buildings, leaping from roof to roof. (Credit a legion of special effects folks for making the illusion work and even getting some comic moments out of his superhuman skills.)
One of the numerous people he saves is, of course, Mary Jane, who is dating Peter's best friend, rich boy Harry (James Franco), the son of defense industry millionaire Norman Osburn (Willem Dafoe). He's also, just to make things stickier, Peter's best, perhaps only friend. When Norman turns himself into a monster whom the papers dub "The Green Goblin," Spidey gets his very own archenemy, and -- for my money -- the movie turns rather more ordinary. His costume and his flying contraption are pretty hokey, especially next to our hero's nifty moves, and Dafoe plays it so far over the top that Maguire looks almost comatose by comparison.
Still, it's nice to have a conflicted superhero -- your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man-- in town, and the Raimi/Lee combo have a hit and (no doubt) the first number of a successful series on their hands. (I understand it set a new box office record for an opening weekend.) The violence may be "stylized," but it's still graphic and frequent enough to earn the film a "PG-13" rating; I'd advice against taking the smaller fry to see it. But teens and adults, nostalgic and otherwise, will enjoy it.

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