Friday, July 13, 2012

"Spider-Man" (2002)

Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Willem Dafoe
Written by David Koepp
Directed by Sam Raimi
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 121 Minutes

In 2002, not long after "Blade" and "X-Men" had blasted open the comic book superhero movie genre, Sam Raimi brought Marvel's beloved Spider-Man to the screen.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a mild-mannered high school senior, put down upon and laughed at by pretty much everyone in his school.  He's had a crush on the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) since forever, and lives with his kindly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson).  His best and only friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco) tries to help him be more confident, but Peter's just too shy.

One day, while on a field trip to a local science lab, Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered "super-spider." Peter develops fantastic powers, including the ability to stick to walls, increased agility and strength, and he can shoot super-strong webs out of his wrists.  He quickly realizes that he can use these gifts to make money in order to impress Mary Jane, and lies to his uncle about going to the library to study.  Instead, he enters an amateur wrestling match, where the announcer dubs him "the amazing Spider-Man!"  After the match, he's stiffed on the money he's won, and a robber gets the rest.  Peter lets him go, thinking that it's not his problem.

Unfortunately, the robber runs outside and carjacks Uncle Ben, killing him.  In a rage, Peter hunts him down and the robber is accidentally killed.  Peter remembers his uncle's advice to him - that with great power comes great responsibility, and he decides to dedicate using his powers to doing good.

Meanwhile, Harry's father, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is desperate to prove that his company's performance enhancing drugs will work, and secure a contract with the United States military. So desperate, in fact, that he tests it on himself.  And while the drug does in fact make him stronger, it also fractures his personality and Norman becomes the Green Goblin.  When Spider-Man interferes with Goblin's attempt to murder the company's board of directors, Goblin realizes Spider-Man will have to be destroyed before he can continue with his plans.

It's interesting watching this film again with the release of 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man," a take on the same material that feels vastly different in its tone and execution.  Watching it now, it feels so much sillier and flawed.  It's still a fantastically entertaining film, but even its own sequel buried it when it came around.

Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker isn't a kid who has a lot going for him.  He's mopey and angst-ridden, perhaps even more so than Andrew Garfield's take on the character.  He does have a few joyous moments - he truly and dearly loves his powers; the rush he gets from learning how to use them, swinging through the city,  is better than any drug he could get.  Maguire plays these scenes with an appropriate sense of glee, and they're really his best scenes.

As Spider-Man, Maguire isn't very talkative.  He gets a few sarcastic jabs in during the wrestling scene, but for the most part, this web-slinger isn't the joker that he is in the comics - or in the 2012 version.  I hate to keep comparing the two, but now it seems almost impossible.

As for the rest of the cast, they're all doing their best. Whether that's much to talk about is a different matter.  Kirsten Dunst is pretty, but her Mary Jane isn't all that interesting.  Also, watching the film on blu-ray, I noted for the first time that you can see her blonde roots in several scenes.  On the other hand, James Franco is excellent as Harry Osborn.  Harry feels oppressed by the long shadow his father casts, even though his father is often a grating or even absent presence in his life.  He resents the praise that Norman piles upon Peter, and stealing Mary Jane strains the relationship between the two friends.  It's all very well written and played by both parties.

Rosemary Harris is also excellent as Aunt May.  She gets more to do here than Sally Field does in "Amazing Spider-Man," showering Peter with maternal concern, and prodding him to tell Mary Jane how he feels.

Willem Dafoe chews the scenery like it's made out of nachos.  Almost all of his dialog is shouted or growled, and while this lends a sort of intensity to it, it's also fairly one-note.  He's definitely having fun, and the audience can tell, which is really what saves it.  His performance reminds me a great deal of Jack Nicholson's Joker in terms of being manic and over-the-top, but still threatening.

In technical terms, "Spider-Man" still looks quite good.  A good many of the CGI effects haven't aged all that well, but to be honest, some of them weren't all that great to begin with.  The webswinging sequences mostly shine, especially the triumphant final moments of the film as Spider-Man soars high above the city.  Some of the action sequences are a little awkward, the mix of live-action and CGI not quite working out.  But when the film works, it really does work.

The world owes "Spider-Man" a great debt.  Without its massive success, the flourishing (or perhaps oversaturated, depending on your views) genre may not be where it is today.  While ten years later, it hasn't aged all that well, it is still a solid film with good performances and lots of entertainment value.  With a bigger, better sequel and even a new reboot, the film's flaws seem more apparent, but they don't ruin the film, not at all.

See Also
The Amazing Spider-Man