"With great power comes great responsibility." As enshrined in the lore of Marvel Comics, those words are taken to heart by high-schooler Peter Parker who fights evil as Spider-Man.
Director Sam Raimi and Columbia Pictures took on their own great responsibility in bringing the character to life in the long-awaited Spider-Man feature film. Spider-Man is a beloved character -- the film's $114 million opening weekend testifies to his popularity -- and the blockbuster mentality has the power to destroy pop icons. Raimi's Spider-Man, if not quite amazing, engagingly puts the wall-crawler on the big screen, although the film's marketing undermines the superhero's integrity.
Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp are especially engaging in the early "origin" scenes, when Peter (Tobey Maguire) gets bitten by a genetically modified arachnid and discovers that he can climb walls and shoot webbing from his wrists. At first he seeks to cash in on his superpowers in the wrestling ring, and in a splashy, playful montage of Peter scribbling costume designs, the film suggests that Peter is the author of his own comic book.
Though intended for laughs, Spider-Man's wrestling debut provides the film's most effective action scene. We share Peter's nervousness and Raimi builds suspense gradually while scarcely using any special effects. But computer-generated imagery drives the later scenes, as Spider-Man swings from building-to-building like Tarzan. These moments have such speed you can practically feel the wind whip through your hair, but frequently Spider-Man looks phony, like the star of a really good PlayStation game.
Good super-hero stories rely on metaphors as much as fight scenes, and Spider-Man works surprisingly well as a coming-of-age story. Peter's bonding with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) spells out the parallels between superpowers and puberty. And we see Peter grow to manhood, graduate from high school and enter the workforce as a Daily Bugle photographer.
Peter has a polar opposite in Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), scientist, industrialist and father of his best friend Harry (James Franco). Financial pressures inspire Osborn to experiment on himself with "performance enhancers," which give him super-strength and a deranged second personality. Flying on a bat-like glider and throwing bombs, Osborn strikes out at his corporate rivals in the guise of the Green Goblin. By using his powers for selfish ends, Osborn could be Peter gone wrong.
Dafoe admirably commits himself to the role, zestfully playing Osborn as both Jekyll and Hyde. But The Green Goblin, with his blankly grinning helmet and bogus "villain" laughter, is neither cool nor frightening, and looks more like his own action figure than a true villain.
Raimi has trouble finding a consistent tone. Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, as girl-next-door Mary Jane, strike pleasingly realistic notes in their quiet scenes. At the other extreme, J.K. Simmons' spot-on scenery chewing brings newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson hilariously to life. But frequently the film can't decide between playing it straight and going for camp, or whether it's showing an operatic battle of good and evil or just gee-whiz escapism.
These are minor transgressions measured against the promotional decisions, which cheapen Spider-Man as a symbol of heroism. Weeks before the film's release, the web-slinger turned up in commercials for Cingular and Hardee's, and the film itself features conspicuous product placement for Dr. Pepper, Cingular again and Macy Gray. It's like seeing what would have happened if Spider-Man had taken his "great power" and turned pitchman.
Apart from the crassness of its marketing, Spider-Man shows enthusiasm and good intentions, with some of its narrative problems reflecting the limitations of special effects technology, and not the sincerity of Raimi or his cast. Spider-Man's sheer velocity and sense of humor live up to its comic book source material, and it refreshingly takes place in a realistic New York City instead of a dark, overly designed metropolis. After the brooding, gothic Batman series and its imitators, it's nice to have a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.