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Movie Review: Spider-Man

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Released by: Columbia Pictures

Running Time: ~ 120 minutes

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, and Kirsten Dunst

Directed by: Sam Raimi


"This, like any story worth telling, is about a girl."

Remember that. Tobey Maguire says it in a voiceover at the beginning of the movie. It will be important later, I promise.

This was a movie a decade in the making. Everyone knew Spider-Man needed a movie; no one who should be involved in it. James Cameron led the charge for a while, even writing a full script (and a pretty good one, naturally) that can still be found on the 'net if you're industrious enough. Eventually, though, Cameron left the project. His script was completely replaced with one by David Koepp (whose recent credits include Panic Room and Stir of Echoes), and Sam Raimi was brought on board to direct.

The end result is an incredibly watchable film that should satisfy both comic book fanboys and casual fans alike.

Who doesn't know the tale of Spider-Man? Geeky high school senior Peter Parker is the BUTT of almost every joke his class makes. They don't respect him at all, and taunt him verbally and physically. He accompanies his class on a field trip, and one of the exhibits is a genetics lab where super-spiders are bred. One species is bred for leaping ability, one for incredibly strong webs, and one for amazing speed and reflexes. Its reflexes are so good, in fact, that they border on precognition . . . a spider-sense, so to speak. These three carefully-bred species are then genetically engineered into one, which has the traits of all three.

One of the spiders turns up missing, but not for long. It soon finds it way to Peter Parker's hand, and delivers a bite that will change his body and his life forever. After going home and crashing for about sixteen hours, Peter awakens to find he no longer needs glasses, and his wimpy frame has yielded to a wiry, better-defined musculature. The newfound confidence this instills in him is perfectly captured by Maguire, who is excellent in the role.

When he gets to school, Peter accidentally discovers he can shoot webs from his wrists. This leads to a cafeteria mishap, and causes the school's star jock, Flash Thompson, to come gunning for him. With his newfound speed and reflexes, though, Flash can't lay a hand on our hero, who dodges everything thrown at him. A double backflip later, and Peter connects with a solid right, sending Flash sliding down the hallway. Once again, Peter Parker is the outcast.

He decides to use his newfound powers to make money. Answering an ad in the paper, Peter defeats wrestler Bonesaw McGraw (Randy "Macho Man" Savage, who looks BAD) in a cage match. The promoter stiffs him on the promised fee, however, so Peter doesn't bother interfering when the promoter is soon robbed. After he leaves the building, though, he wishes he had. Peter's uncle Ben was shot and killed by a carjacker. After chasing the criminal down, Peter finds it was the burglar he let run past him in the hallway. One of his uncle's lessons is hammered home into Peter for life: with great power, there comes great responsibility.

After graduation, Peter moves in with his best friend, Harry Osborn. Harry's father is Norman Osborn, the president of a large company that supplies weapons to the US government. Peter is also smitten with the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (played true to form by the always gorgeous Kirsten Dunst), but has never found the nerve to tell her how he feels, even after a dozen years. Her life is as bad as his in many ways, and she ends up dating Harry. Peter still pines for her, though, and even manages to save her life twice as Spider-Man. Yes, she's the girl this story is about, and she figures prominently in several important scenes.

I'm sure you can fill in the rest: Norman Osborn is secretly the insane Green Goblin, and he and Spider-Man spend much of the movie's second half fighting. Our hero gets the better end of it, of course. The ending of the movie is not Hollywood; instead, it is very consistent to the character and history of Spider-Man. They had an easy chance to do a Hollywood ending, and kept it true to the story instead. I won't spoil it anymore than that, but if you're a Spidey fan, you'll know what I'm talking about.

This movie will appeal to a lot of people because the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man appeals to a lot of people. Spider-Man is the people's superhero. Superman is the invincible alien ubermensch who can only be harmed by rare green rocks and sales-driven Doomsday monsters. Batman, while human, is a world-class detective, an amazing athlete, a superb martial artist, a genius in many fields, and a billionaire playboy to boot. People just can't relate to that. Spider-Man, especially early in his career, is all about teenage angst. It is the story of one young man ostracized even more by the abilities he hoped would make him popular, whose life is a rats' nest of sorrow, pain, and loss. We've all been there, especially during that time in our lives, and that gives Spider-Man the universal appeal other superheroes lack.

The usual breakdown:


The Good:


The casting was superb all the way around. Peter Parker was angst-ridden, tormented, and vulnerable all at once; May Jane was carefree on the outside to conceal her inner pain; Norman Osborn was appropriately psychotic; and Aunt May was kindly and not as naïve as she appeared.

The movie was faithful to the story. Even at the expense of the Happy Hollywood Ending ©, they stayed true to the core of Spider-Man. It's rare to see that, and I must give the creative team props for it. I would have hated the whole movie had they gotten the ending wrong, no matter how good it was until that point.

The characters were written well, and true to how they are in the comics. The one character I thought was a little flat was Harry Osborn, even though his relationship with his father was brought across well. There are a lot of characters in this movie, though, so I can live with one of them being a little duller than the rest; besides, Harry doesn't become really important until later.

The dialog was strong most of the time, and certainly better than what is found in a lot of comic books. A lot of the exchanges between Peter and Mary Jane – yes, even the sappier ones – were well-written.


The Bad:


The special effects could have been better. There were a few times it was obvious Spider-Man was completely CGI. I don't know why Columbia didn't just pony up the extra couple million and get Industrial Light and Magic to do the FX. Unless Lucas' company didn't want to do it because of a perceived competition with Episode II; if you can get ILM, you get ILM. It's not like Spider-Man isn’t going to make money hand over fist. I hope Columbia doesn't get cheap again with the sequels.


The Ugly:


Nothing to see here. Move along.


Bonus: Fanboy Section


As something of a fanboy myself (though I really haven't followed comics since about 1994, I'm very familiar with Spidey until then), I listed the differences between the story as presented in the movie, and the one first told by Stan Lee in the comics. Note that none of these discrepancies with the legend bothered me, and I think the film was still faithful to the Spider-Man lore in spite of them.

1. The spider that bites Peter is genetically engineered, not radioactive. Remember that Spider-Man is a creation of the 1960's, when the Cold War was in full swing and nuclear radiation was everyone's big fear. Now, the Great Unknown is genetic engineering.

2. Uncle Ben is killed during a carjacking, not a home break-in. This one makes a lot more sense. The movie had established Uncle Ben would be in the area, and after holding up the promoter's office, the thug would need a getaway vehicle. This eliminates the randomness of his picking the Parkers' house to burglarize in the comics.

3. Peter naturally develops web shooters in his wrists instead of making mechanical ones. I thought I would have a problem with this, but I didn't. The mechanical web shooters have the advantage of showing off Spider-Man's genius, though, making him more than just brawn. There's also the limiting factor that he could run out of web fluid. In the Cameron script, Peter drank a lot of milk after web-swinging to replace the protein; the new script does not include that.

4. Norman Osborn's company in the comics was Osborn Chemical, and they were basically a chemical company. In the movie, it's Oscorp, and they make weapons for the federal government (in addition to doing some chemistry). A small change, and it does help explain where the Green Goblin got his costume and glider.

5. There is no Gwen Stacy. It's a rich and important part of Peter Parker's past (and psyche), but there's only so much story you can tell in two hours. Spider-Man has a long and painful history when it comes to his loved ones suffering and his friends going after him, and it doesn't all need to be covered in the first film. The scenario in which Gwen died is in the movie, though.

Continuing the fanboy theme, this movie got a lot of the little details right. It's obvious the creative team did their homework; they made a movie that will still be appealing to casual fans and fans of action films, as well as hardcore devotees of the Spider-Man mythos. There are a few little details worth mentioning, mainly because they might become important in successive movies:

1. Peter mentions being fired for tardiness by a "Dr Connors." This is Curt Connors, aka The Lizard, one of the villains rumored for the second film.

2. The character of Eddie Brock is credited on IMDB, but not in the movie. There is supposedly a line about Peter scooping Brock on the photos of Spider-Man, but I didn't hear it. Brock is, of course, Venom, a character that would be VERY hard to introduce to the movies.


Doing The Math:

This was so good, I saw it twice on opening weekend. A lot of people agree with me, as evidenced by the box office records lying in ash right now. Biggest Friday gross, biggest one-day gross (Saturday), and biggest weekend gross all belong to Spider-Man. Join the rush and buy a ticket; you certainly won't regret it. 8.5/10


Dr. Tom

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