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
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
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.