***.6 GM
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, "Macho Man" Randy Savage


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BIAS ALERT: Once again, I must state that I am a comic geek, and therefore I am either predisposed to absolutely loving or virulently hating any comic-book based movie like this, much more than is rational for the average Larry Ordinary. As such, ratings I give to these movies may be skewed in either direction to reflect how much they mean to me, personally, since rating "Spider-Man" in the same range as most Oscar-caliber films might tend to undermine the ol' credibility without such a warning. Oh, and by the way, Spider-Man was my best set of Underoos and pretty much my personal favorite for a long time, neck-and-neck with the Hulk these days.

I'd long stated that if this movie were to suck, I would cry for a week. This is how much I had invested in the film. Normally, when faced with a media blitz of these proportions leading up to the opening of a film, I get rather disgusted with the glut and start forming negative preconceptions based solely on the undigestible omnipresence of it. However, "Spider-Man" is a special case. In the months leading up to its release, I would still get excited at every sign I saw on the side of a bus. I would still do doubletakes at the billboards, thinking "Oh, cool! They're making a Spider-Man movie! That will, to use local parlance, 'rock!'" as if this was new information every time. I had my doubts going in, too, as I desperately tried to keep my expectations at a manageable level. This WAS the same studio that produced Godzilla 98 for pete's sake, and most of these huge studios don't learn their lessons easily. Something about Kirsten Dunst was threatening to put me off. The CGI seemed a bit off in some of these commercials. Could Tobey Maguire pull off the necessary joie de vivre and actually make his one-liners as Spidey funny (I had no doubts he could pull of the quiet nerd aspect of Peter Parker)? These questions and more rolled around in my skull for a while, yet my expectations remained high, if for no other reason that I didn't really want to spend the next seven days in tears.

Teetering on the brink of extremes, I was wonderfully pleased with how it turned out. Good ol' Pete Parker is a totally ostracized nerd and target of constant harassment, and he's also in love with the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson, but she's popular and he's terrified of speaking to her. He lives with his beloved Uncle Ben and Aunt May in a New York neighborhood and his only friend is Harry, the son of zillionaire biotech entrepreneur Norman Osborn, who happens to be a bit creepy. At a tour of a science facility, Peter is bitten by a stray lab spider that's gotten away from its confinements, and the next day, he awakens to find he's buff, doesn't need glasses and has some funky powers that he's gotta get used to. He also realizes he needs cash, so he tries out as an amateur wrestler (although, as I'm a pro wrasslin' geek, I know that sorta thing wouldn't happen without training and choreography, so let's call it an Ultimate Fighting championship or something) and makes surprisingly short work of "MACHO MAN" RANDY SAVAGE, ladies and gentlemen. But he gets the shaft from the promoter and is pissed about it, and understandably, when an armed punk makes off with the promoter's cash, Pete doesn't lift a finger to help, out of spite. Problem is, that same son of a bitch later carjacks and murders his Uncle Ben - and right after they'd had a little snit, too, without the chance for smoothing it over. This helps Peter realize the gravity of Ben's last words to him, which happened to include this nugget of wisdom: "With great power comes great responsibility." So he whips up a costume (where he got the materials and the know-how to make this fancy thing, we never know) and starts to fight crime, winning over most of the hearts of New Yorkers, save for Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, who thinks he's a menace and spreads the word through his paper. Unfortunately for him, Norman Osborn went nuts in the meantime after experimenting on himself and is parading around as a mentalcase in a scary green costume and an incredible personal glider to make Pete's life crappier, but also to make for a climactic ending.

This is pretty much the nuts and bolts of the Spider-Man saga, any fan will tell you. All the key elements are there - the costume is surprisingly faithful, the web-stunts are breathtaking at times (often obviously fake, but still done well enough to create a semi-reality surrealism that gave me a charge), and the characters are well represented. Maguire plays a really good Peter, as I expected he would. He's a quiet, withdrawn kid that explodes with glee when he gets these powers, only to screw around with them enough to find himself in trouble and angst. His one-liners, while amusing and well-delivered, were not on the howlingly funny level, and I'd like to see that ante upped a bit next time around. Dunst, who'd I'd expected to be a bit annoyed by, surprised me with a more low-key performance to match Tobey's. Franco's Harry, while a bit uneven in spots, is also subdued and interestingly torn. In fact, I was pleased in general by the way everyone was restrained and a bit more brooding, rather than hamming it up because they're "in a comic book movie" like "Batman & Robin" or something. The only guy who SHOULD be over the top is Jameson, played to goddamned perfection by J.K. Simmons. Jameson has been one of my favorite characters for a long time because he's a complete asshole that you can't help but enjoy, and I was really hoping he'd be translated properly to the screen... and that he was, ladies and germs.

You might say "Shouldn't Willem Dafoe be a bit over the top as The Green Goblin? How can you have a guy called The Green Goblin and NOT have him chewing up the screen?" You can when he's not your average psychotic maniac, but a split personality, driven mad by chemicals and pressure, struggling with his own conscience about his unspeakably evil deeds that he hides from his own alter ego. Sure, he's got the darkly insane moments of whimsy, but people have got to stop thinking that every comic movie villain has to be Jack Nicholson's Joker. Dafoe makes a good villain here, especially with the unwieldy helmet and armor he has to work with. It's an acceptable look-change for the Goblin, who really can't be expected to just be wearing a silly Halloween mask these days. It's all the more impressive when Dafoe can bring across his character with only his eyes behind the mask. The scene where he's talking rather disturbingly to his mirror image is very well done, and the guy knows how to cackle. Something about him bellowing "We'll meet again, Spider-Man!" is endlessly pleasing in that it didn't sound as cheesy as it should have.

This paragraph is for the comic freaks: We all need to understand that some changes REALLY need to be made for movies based on comic books to work. Does anyone really think the X-Men movie would have been better if Wolverine was wearing bright yellow spandex with a flaring mask and boots, cute little tiger stripes on his sides and blue underpants? No. That doesn't really make sense for who Logan is as a character, anyway. There was a lot of jibba-jabba about Peter having these organic web-shooters in his arms as a side effect of the spider-bite, rather than as it was established in the comic - that Peter INVENTED the miracle webbing substance and then created an incredible little contraption around his wrist with a neat little trigger pad on his palm to make 'em shoot, and he had to carry spare webbing with him everywhere in case he ran out. I think we can see how this wouldn't really be all that plausible, especially on Peter's budget. Any more plausible than getting spider-powers from a genetically-engineered arachnid bite, you may ask? Nay, I shan't say 'touche' just yet, my fine freckled friends. These movies ask us to suspend some disbelief in order to tell a fantastical story, yes. However, it is also relatively rooted in reality, especially with Marvel stories. The miraculous spider-bite is the necessary impossibility to push the story forward. Slathering on the unbelievability with Peter's insanely advanced inventions only serves to heighten the cheese factor and lower the relatability of the character. He's no longer a regular, down-on-his-luck joe who won a crazy cosmic lottery to become a superhero, but he becomes that ubernerd scientific prodigy with an advanced intelligence none of us could ever hope to have, and it opens the floodgates for more pseudo-science and too-convenient super-technology to further buffer us from the core emotional involvement in the story (not that the comic version of Spidey is unrelatable, but it would have made much more sense to do it this way in the first place). Besides, it's a nod to Spider-Man 2099, and I loved that series. Just be happy with the Stan Lee cameo, the mentions of Curt Connors and Eddie Brock and the appearance of Betty Brant and try not to bitch about the Osborns not having that ridiculous hair. I would like to see Gwen Stacy introduced, though. Good thing we got us some sequels!

I left this movie with a bit of a tingle, which is generally a sign that I really like something. The marks were hit, the points were brought home without being force-fed to us (I don't doubt many people left the theater scratching their heads about that last scene between MJ and Peter, even though the motivation for it was explained in the sentence before the conversation started), my buttons were pressed, and everything I noticed as taken directly from the comics made me applaud with glee. Peter is left with a good amount of self-torturing angst to make us really hope the poor schmuck gets a handle on things, but we're also left with a little cliffhanger as to what MJ might've just realized. The last shot may be a bit much, but we care about these people. Plus RANDY "MACHO MAN" SAVAGE, for pete's sake.

Bravo, Mr. Raimi, and thank you. Look forward to Dr. Octopus, and maybe even the Black Cat. Hot damn, Spidey's good.

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