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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Spider-Man

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe
Director: Sam Raimi
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 111 Minutes
Release Date: May 2002
Genres: Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Joe Manganiello, Ted Raimi, Randy Savage, Bill Nunn, Elizabeth Banks, Cliff Robertson

Review by Jerry Saravia
3½ stars out of 4

The Spider-Man comics were always my favorite comics in my childhood. The reason was because it dealt with a superhero who was more nerdy than Clark Kent, and less adept socially, even with dearest Mary Jane Watson. The fact that he lived with his aunt and uncle, practiced web-shooting at night, and paraded around New York City fighting crime only to return to his bedroom is what made it click with me on a personal level. I have been waiting for many years for a real movie about good old Spidey, and finally it has come. So how is it? "Spider-Man" is one of the best superhero movies since the original "Superman" with Christopher Reeve. Yes, it is loud and frenetic but so were the comics, and it never loses sight of its human dimension.

The central human dimension is in the character of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the socially inept high-school senior who is always bullied and tormented by his peers. He has a special fascination with arachnids and with his next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), a red-haired beauty with sunny smiles who slowly becomes attracted to Peter. One day, on a class trip to a lab, Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider. He gets pale and collapses once he gets home to his Uncle and Aunt Parker (both played by Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris). The next day, he notices he has rippling muscles, an ability to scale walls and jump from one rooftop to another, and to shoot spider-web from his skin. Naturally, he keeps these superhuman abilities secret, and hopes that they may increase his chances with Mary Jane. Of course, she is interested in Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of the troubled tycoon Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe).

While Peter discovers his powers and obtains them accidentally, Norman Osborn is about to lose his corporation and subjects himself to dangerous green vapors that split his identity. Hence, the Green Goblin is born, a maniacal sociopath intent on exploding half of New York City with his gizmos and bombs. Outside of losing a corporation he created, I was never clear why Norman was so willing to destroy everything in his path. Now that Spider-Man is known in the news for his heroics, Spidey has to fight the Green Goblin and stop his menace to society.

I cannot resist discussing this film in light of September 11th, but in a strange manner, "Spider-Man" is almost a heroic nod to that horrible tragedy in New York, establishing the hero who must save New York from a terrorist, and what else could Green Goblin be? A thrilling sequence where Spider-Man tries to save a cable car full of children and Mary Jane at the same time is followed by New Yorkers on a bridge chanting and raving to the Green Goblin, literally saying, "We are all New Yorkers and will stick together. You fight one of us, you fight all of us!" Well, it is not verbatim but you get the idea. I have a feeling this scene was shot post-September 11th. And there is the last shot of good old Spidey swinging through New York past a prominently displayed American flag. The "Superman" movies focused on these patriotic images because they dealt with a superhero of the world, not just of a metropolitan city. Spider-Man has always been a New York hero, but enough digressions.

"Spider-Man" has lots of goodies in store for the audience. I really sensed (a spidey sense?) that Peter Parker, as played by the perfectly cast Tobey Maguire, enjoyed his newly discovered powers and has fun with them as if he was a kid who got a brand new toy. Maguire shows the feckless and determined charisma of Peter Parker and how he shapes himself into being strong and devoted to saving others, not to mention his love for Mary Jane. If there is one problem with the character, it is when he dons the red and blue costume. Spider-Man can't possibly show emotion behind that mask. We hear him talk and we imagine he is horrified during many horrifying sequences where the people of New York are put in harm's way, but there is little sense of individua lity. He swings through the streets with such lightning speed that it may well be a video game or an animated cartoon. If nothing else, this has always concerned me about a big-screen adaptation because we all know what Spider-Man can do, so how do you show him in action if it doesn't necessarily look plausible? Maguire is at his best without the costume, sharing his complete sincerity and love for everyone else he meets (he is so sincere that he makes Tom Cruise blush).

We begin to understand how Mary Jane takes a liking to Peter as well, and how can she not? Kirsten Dunst is breezy and sweet as Mary Jane, exuding all the giggles and loving smiles one expects from the character. I would have loved if there was more of her character's home life (she lives with parents who are always shouting at each other) but it is a genuine pleasure seeing her onscreen (she has certainly matured since "Interview With a Vampire" - an actress I never thought could tackle Mary Jane but she delivers here).

Willem Dafoe is as menacing and sorrowful as he can be in the best tradition of Jekyll and Hyde as Green Goblin. The mask is also fearsome to look at, and could easily give the Joker a run for his money. His cackle and brooding mannerisms are really something to behold. I also loved a mirror sequence where Norman switches from Green Goblin to his normal self, aiming to stop himself from doing more harm.

"Spider-Man" is not as good as "Superman" if only because it is not as richly layered or as complex with its human characters (compare how many scenes there are of newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson to Perry White, and you will get a rough idea). However, this Spidey is superior and more fun than "Batman" or "X-Men" and is consistenly entertaining and expertly staged and acted. Director Sam Raimi is having lots of fun here, as he did with another comic-book type character, Darkman. All I can say is that I am glad Spidey finally made it to the big screen.

Copyright 2002 Jerry Saravia

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