The anticipation for a James Cameron Spider-Man went from drool to ridicule after Titanic. Some were fearful he would use Leonardo DiCaprio (and while he is a pretty guy, I think he would have found a way to be a convincing Peter Parker-the guy can act). But ultimately, the idea of a Cameron Spider-Film faded away.
There was some surprise when it was announced that Spider-Man was in the hands of Sam Raimi (at the time he was still getting recognition for critical fave a Simple Plan). Raimi, unlike Singer with the X-Men, was a fan of Spider-Man, especially the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era. Raimi held promise, based on his genre fueled past, and his films, such as the two Evil Dead sequels suggested he would be a good choice for making sure Spidey kept his wise-cracking ways.
The reaction to Tobey Maguire seemed mixed. Many thought he was an effective choice for nerdy Peter Parker, but I recall some people complaining-ironically enough-that he was too uh…dweebish. Kirsten Dunst of course caused nerd panic because Mary Jane Watson has red hair. Because you cannot change hair color with dye or anything.
The film itself is in the same trap as many that came before it-including X-Men. The first film is all about the beginning. It is more set up. Which is a shame, because right out of the gate, they go for Spidey’s most famous nemesis, the Green Goblin.
Spider-Man begins with a visual trick (the same trick we saw in Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed. Yeah, I saw it. SHUT UP!!!!) where we are on a bus and Peter suggests that you might not notice him…and then you see Maguire chasing the bus. We get it established pretty quick that Peter is a science nerd, with no real friends outside of Harry Osbourne (James Franco). Harry is handsome and looks like the kind of guy Peter would like to be. But Harry’s frustration is that his father, Norman Osbourne (Willem Defoe) seems prouder of Peter Parker than his own son. He thinks Peter is a gifted young scientist and wishes Harry were more like him. Peter has a huge crush on Mary Jane Watson, the girl next door. His parents are dead, so he lives with his Kindly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris).
On a field trip to the labs of Oscorp (Norman Osbourne’s company) Peter gets bitten by a genetically altered spider. Meanwhile, Norman is trying to keep his military contracts, which are slipping through his fingers. The generals are unimpressed at the pace of his program for creating elite soldiers and a combat glider.
That night, he decides to test the enhancement gas on himself-the result is super strength and insanity. The two most useful powers for a super-villain. Meanwhile, Peter Parker awakens to find himself with a more muscular body and the ability to shoot webs from his wrists. The source of great controversy, it never bothered me. For one thing? It saved us the ten minute sequence of him building web shooters.
The film is full of montages showing Peter experimenting with his powers and such, which shortcuts plenty of potentially long scenes. The film stays quite true to the Spider-Man origin from the comics, with Peter feeling guilt when Uncle Ben is killed by a robber Peter allowed to go free.
Peter sets out to create a new identity, one where he can use his powers anonymously and live out Uncle Ben’s advice that with great power, comes great responsibility. The film rushes the timeline, getting Peter out of high school and into college. He and Harry are roommate in a pretty large apartment (but Harry is a rich kid, so this is not entirely implausible.
Norman, of course, works out that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same person and starts using that against him, endangering those Peter loves. In a sequence borrowed from the comics, Peter is forced to choose between a trolley car full of kids and MJ. Unlike the comic, which ends tragically (and with a character other than MJ), Peter successfully saves both. This undermines the lesson of the original story, that Spider-Man cannot save everyone, all the time. People on the Brooklyn bridge start hurling things at the Goblin, who seems shocked that people are made at him. But in case you are missing the point, someone yells, “You mess with one New Yorker, you mess with all of us.” (or something like that). It was that post 9/11 solidarity that just feels…hokey in the film. It has no context or depth.
In the end, Peter decides he must be alone, to protect those he cares about most. This is rather tired as a trope, and to make matters worse, it feels like nerd fantasy. MJ realizes she loves Peter, kisses him passionately and he gets to shoot her down, walking away all self righteous about how he must deny himself the girl.
In a lot of ways, this is a pretty good movie. They get to the spider bite fairly fast. It has a terrific cast (J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson looks like he stepped directly out of the comic book-as does Elizabeth Bank’s Betty Brant). Rosemary Harris makes a great Aunt May, physically frail, yet strong of heart, she is wise, generous and loving. Willem Defoe is a terrific bad guy, playing a well meaning but flawed science guy who cracks under pressure. Who loves his kid, but fails to show it, and often impedes it by fawning over Peter. Mary Jane seems to lack the spark and confidence of the comics. She is a little to down all the time, and the Mary Jane Watson of the comics is vivacious and full of life. Mary Jane in the film seems sad and generally miserable. Maguire is pretty solid as Peter, bringing both heartache and humor to the role (especially his excitement over his new found powers).
The film’s effects range from impressive to really obvious CGI-especially when Spidey is swinging through the city on his webs. Overall, though, they work well enough to sell the film.
The writing ranges from good…the Uncle Ben sequences are strong…Raimi and the writers really get how important this is to “who Spider-Man is.” Peter Parker can be a bit of a selfish jerk, and it is that loss that propels him to look beyond himself. Chris Sims at Comics Alliance addressed this incredibly well in his column on why Spider-Man is the best character ever.
On the other end, the writing can get hokey…see the Brooklyn Bridge scene.
The other thing that just does not work is the Green Goblin costume. Frankly? It is terrible. The character in the comic could look kind of goofy in his purple costume, but he had an expressive face. You have Willem Defoe-a distinctive face that is full of character…and instead of makeup that would be let us see his eyes and mouth we are given an emotionless, frozen helmet. Terrible idea. And speaking of that helmet…this was a military project…why are you offering the military a helmet that says “a super villain might wear this”? That Goblin outfit is just a huge miss, and surprising to boot. Raimi clearly loves the Ditko era Spider-Man, but his Green Goblin screams 90’s EXTREME COMICS. The only thing missing is big shoulder pads and 70 pouches.
The story is kind of dull, Green Goblin really has few motives…first revenge and then to hassle Spider-Man…it is not that Spidey is getting in his way…he just wants to hassle Spidey since he is the good guy. And then, when Spider-Man is gone…he…uh…well…uh…
Like I said, it is decent enough entertainment, with some really strong moments, but overall not terribly great. It gives us a rough idea of who is who our leads are, but feels more like set up than a story being told for it’s own sake.