Directed By Sam Raimi
By: Eric Greenwood
Despite the lame CGI effects, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man easily tops all of the superhero-themed films of the past two decades with a solid balance of camp, humor, and charisma. Raimi's cast is pitch-perfect. Convincing Sony that Tobey Maguire was the man for the lead role was a stroke of genius on Raimi's part. Not only does Maguire lend acting credibility to the role of the gawky Peter Parker, but he also makes Spider-Man his own, croaky voice and all. And Kirsten Dunst brings all the perky charm and malaise of her previous work to the bouncy, wrong-side of-the-tracks Mary Jane Watson character. The onscreen chemistry between them is remarkably affecting, making Spider-Man even more of a personable tale than the comics would lead you to believe.
Willem Dafoe even works as the Green Goblin. His Jeckyll and Hyde schizophrenia is seamless in front of the camera, and he brings enough comic-book cartoonishness to the role to entertain doe-eyed kids as well as jaded purists. His performance does not outshine Jack Nicholson's Joker from Tim Burton's original Batman, but it gives it a run for its money. Complaints about the Green Goblin's costume are ludicrous. An armored suit is far more believable than an extremely jaundiced goblin sporting the Jolly Green Giant's tights and a pair of green Depends. It would have made the film a laughable farce to force Dafoe into a pair of tights. No actor could make green tights scary. Not even Gary Oldman. Ugly, yes. But scary, no. Criticism of the mask itself, though, is justified because you cannot see Dafoe's expressions underneath it.
David Koepp's script pleases all demographics. Keeping the schmaltzy dialogue to a minimum, Koepp stirs up more humor than you'd expect. Watching Maguire have to utter phrases like "gee" is indeed painful, but thankfully there are only two or three cringe-worthy moments, which is an amazing feat considering the lack of substantive dialogue in action films these days. Not that Spider-Man is deep, mind you, but it's not so fluffy that you'll soon forget it. Koepp laces his words with an ominous undercurrent that makes the scenes ring true, even though we know we are watching fantasy. If you accept the premise, Spider-Man's journey is relatable. However, Koepp does step outside even the most liberal suspension of disbelief when Spider-Man is forced to suspend a train in mid-air with his web while simultaneously preventing Mary Jane from falling to her death.
Raimi focuses more on character motivation than spectacular action in this first installment of what will be an enormous franchise, and that was a smart move. I'm sure the studio balked at the dialogue to action ratio, but cluttering the film with fast-paced fight sequences would have made the film too easy to forget. Instead, Raimi builds up to the few action scenes with grace, making each one feel special. When you leave the theater you will remember each fight sequence individually. However, the CGI effects are a noticeable disappointment, as always. CGI is just a bad idea. The human brain just innately knows when something is false, and CGI effects raise the red flag every time. Again, though, Raimi utilizes such effects sparingly. And he almost makes it look graceful. The scenes where Spider-Man swings from building to building have a sort of lissome artistry to them that negate some of the fakeness.
Spider-Man is an unbelievably entertaining film. It's laugh-out-loud funny, and it's an effective coming-of-age story with the added bonus of action, to which Sam Raimi adds his patented gore-tinged touch. Peter Parker is the most down-to-earth of all the superhero alter egos. He comes from trash and struggles with his new found powers just as any geeky teenager would. (Koepp also does a great job in the script relating Peter's adjustment to his superpowers to that of a teen's struggle with puberty. Peter's testing of his organic web shooter is an hilarious play on a typical teenager's after-school masturbatory hijinks). Raimi's respect for the story's origin comes across in his faithful depiction of Peter's metamorphosis. True fans will be pleased. Only the freakish fringe purists that hang out in alt.spiderman.dork chat rooms will complain. And not that the box office take automatically foreordains a quality film, but it seems that Spider-Man has cast a wide enough web to prove its worth to the loyalists and curiosity-seekers alike.