The anticipation for a James Cameron Spider-Man went from drool to ridicule after Titanic. Some were fearful he would use Leonardo DiCaprio (and while he is a pretty guy, I think he would have found a way to be a convincing Peter Parker-the guy can act). But ultimately, the idea of a Cameron Spider-Film faded away.
There was some surprise when it was announced that Spider-Man was in the hands now of Sam Raimi (at the time still getting recognition for critical fave a Simple Plan). Raimi, unlike Singer with the X-Men, was a fan of Spider-Man, especially the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era. Raimi held promise, based on his genre fueled past, and his films, such as the two Evil Dead sequels suggested he would be a good choice for making sure Spidey kept his wise-cracking ways.
The reaction to Tobey Maguire seemed mixed. Many thought he was an effective choice for nerdy Peter Parker, but I recall some people complaining-ironically-that he was too uh…dweebish. Kirsten Dunst of course caused nerd panic because Mary Jane Watson has red hair. Because you cannot change hair color with dye or anything.
The film itself is in the same trap as many that came before it-including X-Men. The first film is all about the beginning. It is more set up. Which is a shame, because right out of the gate, they go for Spidey’s most famous nemesis, the Green Goblin.
Spider-Man begins with a visual trick (the same trick we saw in Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed. Yeah, I saw it. SHUT UP!!!!) where we are on a bus and Peter suggests that you might not notice him…and then you see Maguire chasing the bus. We get it established pretty quick that Peter is a science nerd, with no real friends outside of Harry Osbourne (James Franco). Harry is handsome and looks like the kind of guy Peter would like to be. But Harry’s frustration is that his father, Norman Osbourne (Willem Defoe) seems prouder of Peter Parker than his own son. He thinks Peter is a gifted young scientist and wishes Harry were more like him. Peter has a huge crush on Mary Jane Watson, the girl next door. His parents are dead, so he lives with his Kindly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris).
On a field trip to the labs of Oscorp (Norman Osbourne’s company) Peter gets bitten by a genetically altered spider. Meanwhile, Norman is trying to keep his military contracts, which are slipping through his fingers. The generals are unimpressed at the pace of his program for creating elite soldiers and a combat glider.
That night, he decides to test the enhancement gas on himself-the result is super strength and insanity. The two most useful powers for a super-villain. Meanwhile, Peter Parker awakens to find himself with a more muscular body and the ability to shoot webs from his wrists. The source of great controversy, it never bothered me. For one thing? It saved us the ten minute sequence of him building web shooters.
While Peter experiments with his powers, Norman Osbourne starts wearing a mask and killing people who have “wronged him.” Peter on the other hand, puts on a mask to be a wrestler-so he can win money to buy a car-the one thing he believes is keeping him from making it with MJ.
After surviving three minutes with a massive wrestler, Peter tries to collect the prize money, only to find out that he did so well, they will not give him the entire prize. Bitter Peter walks away-just as a guy goes in to rob the promoter. As the thief runs off with his loot, the promoter calls for Peter to stop him. Peter steps aside-it is not his problem.
But of course, the decision comes back to haunt him in brutal fashion. Peter goes to get a ride home with Uncle Ben (Peter told his uncle he was going to the library). But he finds a crowd and Uncle Ben lying on the sidewalk-shot. Peter takes off after his uncle’s killer. He catches up with him to discover it is the same thief he let go. And it is then, haunted by the wisdom o his Uncle Ben, Peter understands that his gift is more than an opportunity. To whom much is given, much is required. With great power comes great responsibility.
Peter sets out to create a new identity, one where he can use his powers anonymously. He and Harry get an apartment as they start college, while Harry starts dating MJ, who is pursuing her dreams of acting. We get some scenes of Spider-Man saving people and catching criminal, and he gets a job taking Spider-Man pictures for the Daily Bugle-run by Editor in Chief J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson considers Spider-an a menace and takes every opportunity to portray Spider-Man as dangerous on the front page.
In the meantime, Osbourne-calling himself the Green Goblin continues his rampage. He takes it to a big Thanksgiving parade, forcing Spider-Man to to try and fight the Goblin and save civilians from the debris. While saving MJ, the Goblin escapes. There is a terrific moment where Peter races to get back to the apartment for Thanksgiving dinner with MJ, Aunt May, Harry and Norman Osbourne. They think they hear Peter in his room, but open the door to find it empty. Then we see that Peter is hiding on the ceiling in his sliced up Spider-Suit. As everyone turns and leaves the room, a drop of blood falls. This causes Norman to stop and look to the now empty ceiling.
Norman works out that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same person and starts using that against him, endangering those Peter loves. In a sequence borrowered from the comics, Peter is forced to choose between a trolley car full of kids and MJ. Unlike the comic, which ends tragically (and with a character other than MJ), Peter successfully saves both. People on the Brooklyn bridge starthurling things at the Goblin, who seems shocked that people are made at him. But in case you are missing the point, someone yells, “You mess with one New Yorker, you mess with all of us.” (or something like that). It was that post 9/11 solidarity that just feels…hokey in the film. It has no context or depth.
The Goblin and Spider-Man have a big showdown-resulting in the death of the Goblin (by his own hand-this is something that happens a lot in super hero films). Norman begs Peter to not let Harry know he is the Goblin. Peter complies, but Harry witnesses Peter carrying the dead body of Norman.
In the end, Peter decides he must be alone, to protect those he cares about most.
In a lot of ways, this is a pretty good movie. They get to the spider bite fairly fast. It has a terrific cast (J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson looks like he stepped directly out of the comic book-as does Elizabeth Bank’s Betty Brant). Rosemary Harris makes a great Aunt May, physically frail, yet strong of heart, she is wise, generous and loving. Willem Defoe is a terrific bad guy, playing a well meaning but flawed science guy who cracks under pressure. Who loves his kid, but fails to show it, and often impedes it by fawning over Peter. Mary Jane seems to lack the spark and confidence of the comics. She is a little to down all the time, and the Mary Jane Watson of the comics is vivacious and full of life. Mary Jane in the film seems sad and generally miserable.
Maguire is pretty solid as Peter, bringing both heartache and humor to the role (especially his excitement over his new found powers).
The film’s effects range from impressive to really obvious CGI-especially when Spidey is swinging through the city on his webs. Overall, though, they work well enough to sell the film.
The writing ranges from good…the Uncle Ben sequences are strong…Raimi and the writers really get how important this is to “who Spider-Man is.” Peter Parker can be a bit of a selfish jerk, and it is that loss that propels him to look beyond himself. Chris Sims at Comics Alliance addressed this incredibly well in his column on why Spider-Man is the best character ever.
On the other end, the writing can get hokey…see the Brooklyn Bridge scene.
The other thing that just does not work is the Green Goblin costume. Frankly? It is terrible. The character in the comic could look kind of goofy in his purple costume, but he had an expressive face. You have Willem Defoe-a distinctive face that is full of character…and instead of makeup that would be let us see his eyes and mouth we are given an emotionless, frozen helmet. Terrible idea. And speaking of that helmet…this was a military project…why are you offering the military a helmet that says “a super villain might wear this”? That Goblin outfit is just a huge miss, and surprising to boot. Raimi clearly loves the Ditko era Spider-Man, but his Green Goblinn screams 90’s EXTREME COMICS. The only thing missing is big shoulder pads and 70 pouches.
The story is kind of dull, Green Goblin really has few motives…first revenge and then to hassle Spider-Man…it is not that Spidey is getting in his way…he just wants to hassle Spidey since he is the good guy.
Like I said, it is passable entertainment, with some really strong moments, but overall not terribly memorable. It gives us a rough idea of who is who our leads our, but feels more like set up than a story being told for it’s own sake.