This isn’t the way people are supposed to make summer blockbusters. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the rule is supposed to be “bigger, faster, more.” If there isn’t an explosion every 10 minutes, you’re going to lose ‘em. If it’s not “edgy” enough, you’re going to lose ‘em. A director looking to turn a comic book hero—a potential cash cow for sequels—into background for an unsmirking character piece is a director looking to get his ass fired.
In the much-anticipated Spider-Man, director Sam Raimi doesn’t worry about delivering mile-a-minute pacing and pyrotechnic spectacle. He doesn’t worry that his leading man is hardly an action stud. He doesn’t even worry that the dialogue and situations are sometimes unabashedly schmaltzy. All he wants to do is tell the Spider-Man story with absolute devotion and sincerity.
And let me tell you, True Believers: He makes the whole thing swing.
Spider-Man spins its tale from the original story familiar to three generations of comic book readers. High school senior Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a social misfit living with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), gets nipped by an out-of-the-ordinary arachnid during a class field trip to a lab—in a 21st century twist, it’s genetically modified rather than radioactive. Soon, strange abilities begin to manifest themselves: unusual strength and agility, the ability to cling to any surface and webs that issue forth from his wrists (yes, organic web shooters, which will irritate purists but actually makes a lot more sense). Will young Parker use his talents for personal gain, including winning the affections of unrequited love Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)? Or will he become the kind of selfless hero who does battle with industrialist Norman Osborn-turned-madman Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe)?
We know the answer to that question already, but that’s not really the point. Spider-Man spends time on Peter Parker’s education in what it means to be a good man, inspired by his uncle’s lesson that “With great power comes great responsibility.” The scenes of Parker experimenting with his newfound powers are exuberantly staged, a perfect portrait of the class geek suddenly finding himself a step ahead of everyone. And as Spider-Man takes its protagonist from adolescent to nascent hero, it gives his experience an ironic twist: Gaining the power that makes him a somebody is also what may keep him from what he wants most. Raimi takes us on that journey with energy, good humor and a surprising level of emotion.
That’s not exactly the kind of content your typical blockbuster moviegoer may expect, and it’s hard to know what audiences will make of it. Raimi remains true enough to the mythology—the wrestling match that earns Spider-Man his name, the subsequent family tragedy—that it will satisfy the comic books’ hard-core fan base. But like Richard Donner’s first Superman film, Spider-Man takes its time getting to the money shots. The battle sequences, though sharply choreographed, are limited to a couple of big set pieces in the final hour. “Thrill ride” is one expression you won’t see thrown Spider-Man’s way too much, at least by anyone who’s paying attention.
But it would be a tragic mistake to equate the film’s lack of kinetic firepower to a lack of pure cinema fun. Spider-Man charms in a way few films bother to charm anymore, allowing the fundamental appeal of its story to carry it in satisfying directions (like J.K. Simmons’ scene-stealing bits as newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson). If anything, Spider-Man feels like it loses momentum when it shifts the focus to Dafoe’s Osborn/Goblin, trying to find a place to inject the large-scale conflict. Nothing soars quite so effortlessly as Spider-Man’s first solo flights—that’s popcorn filmmaking with real pop.
Raimi took some heat initially for casting Maguire as Spider-Man, but the grousers were missing the point: He didn’t cast Maguire as Spider-Man. He cast Maguire as Peter Parker, and it’s hard to imagine a more inspired choice for the insecure young man. What made Spider-Man a landmark comic book creation was the idea that what happened to him when the mask was off was perhaps more important than the super-villain du jour. By showing that he understands that simple reality—and taking a chance on a smaller scale—Sam Raimi has turned Spider-Man into an old-fashioned entertainment where the man matters as much as the spider.