During my youth I read comics like many children do. I was never a collector, but had subscriptions to a few series. I recall Rom the SpaceKnight, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Micronauts, Spidergirl and my favorite, Spider Man. Sure I read some of the others like Batman, Superman, The Fantastic 4, and so on, but Spider Man was always the one I enjoyed the most. The reason for this was simple. Sure Spiderman had powers that are unrealistic for a human being, but unlike most comic heroes, he was a real person. Spidermans alter ego Peter Parker, had to deal with real-life issues such as money, taking care of his Aunt, his job, his friends, school, and of course women. This was not a person who had all the answers; he was a regular person who fate selected to possess extraordinary skills, and to use them for the good of others.
Following the success of the Superman and Batman series on the silver screen, it seemed only natural that Spiderman would be slinging webs on the big screen in no time, but a tangled web of lawsuits delayed the debut for over a decade. In the late 80s Cannon films planned to release a film based on Spiderman only to see their company fold before it could get off the ground. The years passed, and eventually 20th Century Fox and James Cameron started production on a Spiderman film, and unleashed a fury of lawsuits. It seemed that 21st Century films founded after the breakup of Cannon claimed they still had the rights to the character, and since they sold the rights to various companies for television, video, and other media outside of film, there were several parties who had a claim to the property. When one lawsuit was resolved, another would arise, as with Cameron onboard, the series was a veritable gold mine. Cameron eventually left the project to do Titanic, but after the lawsuits were finally resolved, a slew of writers working from the Cameron outline went to work bringing Spiderman to the screen. Director Sam Raimi who was best known for his Evil Dead films as well as producing the Hercules and Xena series was tapped to bring the film to life despite never helming a film with a big budget.
The task of bringing Spiderman and his alter ego fell to Toby Maguire who was Raimis choice from the start despite the studio wanting a more bankable lead such as Leonardo Di Caprio or Heath Ledger. With the star in place the task of finding a leading lady, and a person to play the villain was a bit harder. John Malkovich was the lead choice to play the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn, but he passed on the role in order to devote more time to independent films. The role eventually went to Willem Dafoe who has had a solid career playing characters with a dark edge such as his Oscar nominated role in Shadows of the Vampire.
With production about to start, Raimi went to Europe to audition Kirstin Dunst for the role of Mary Jane Watson. She was a natural in the role and the chemistry between her and Maguire was obvious. With the cast finally in place, the crew began filming in New York, only to have the tragic events of September 11th cast a pall on the film as the trailer and posters for the film had to be recalled due to the prominate placement of the World Trade Center Towers in them.
With all of the turmoil behind them, the cast and crew signed on for a sequel before the first film had made its debut thus ensuring future screen adventures for the wall crawler.
The film is faithful to the comics and tells of how kind but nerdy Peter Parker (Maguire), is bitten by a radioactive spider during a school visit to a lab. At first it goes unnoticed by Peter, but he starts to display increased strength, agility, and the ability to climb walls. Wanting to exploit his new abilities, Peter becomes a professional wrestler and dressed in a homemade costume, he starts to make a name for himself in the ring. Once again fate steps in, and an action Peter does not take comes back to haunt him, and causes him to rethink the gift he has been given and the best way to use it.
The fate in question is the radioactive spider bite that transforms peter into a strong and athletic individual who becomes intoxicated with his new abilities to the exclusion of his work and chores. He still has an eye for the lovely Mary Jane Watson, but is uneasy about approaching her due to his shyness. The mask he wears as Spiderman gives him the confidence to do and say the things that he has always wanted to as Peter, but was unable to do so.
The film stays very close to the comic series that inspired it, as the origins of the characters and their relationships to one another, as well as outcomes are faithful to their natural origins. Peter finds himself battling all manner of criminals and soon is pitted against his deadliest foe, The Green Goblin. The Goblin is a very dynamic and interesting villain, as he is a good man, who becomes a modern day Jeckyl and Hyde due to an experiment gone wrong. The Goblin is bent on revenge for all those who oppose him or have wronged his alter ego. His goal is to gain Spiderman as an ally or to destroy him outright. What makes the Goblin so interesting is not his armor, air glider or weapons, it is the performance given by Da Foe. His portrayal of both Osborn and the Goblin is riveting. Da foe walks the fine line between madness and sanity, evilness and compassion without being campy, and invokes a sense of compassion about his character that is sadly lacking in most film villains. The performance of Da Foe is every bit as gripping as his Oscar nominated role in Shadows of the Vampire, and might just be rewarded with a supporting actor nod.
Naturally Peter has to save the girl, the day, and defeat the Goblin, all the while earning money from his job selling Spiderman photos to the crusty J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who is the editor of the Daily Bugle. Maguire and Dunst are fantastic as the chemistry between them is obvious and I look forward to seeing their characters develop in future films. Dunst is great as the pretty girl from the troubled family who is misunderstood but never loses sight of her goal. She plays Mary Jane as a strong, and caring woman without being a typical damsel in distress. She comes across as a real person, and is perfect as the girl next door whom Peter has admired from afar since they were in the first grade. The film does a great job in showing the transition that Peter, Mary Jane, and his friend Harry Osborn (John Franco), (Yes, the Goblins son), as they move from High school to the job market and college over the course of the film and in doing so, shows how people change roles when they get into the real world. Peter is getting away from the shy bookworm, and Mary Jane is leaving the popular girl role to that of struggling actress and waitress. The real star of the picture is Maguire, as he gives a very realistic and sympathetic portrayal of Peter. You can share the joy he has as he explores his new powers, and you can feel the pain and isolation he endures as he is unable to tell the ones he loves about his alter ego and learns that his powers make those he care for a target for those he battles. There are some very tender moments in the film and Maquire and Dunst carry them off with a maturity that is beyond their years and leaves little doubt that they are on their way to stardom. Director Sam Raimi does a great job of getting the most out of his cast while staying faithful to his material. The special effects are great, but never get in the way of the story. The scenes of Spiderman slinging his webs as he travels the city are exciting and well crafted. As Superman many years ago made audiences believe a man could fly, Spiderman takes you along on the wild ride, complete with some outstanding effects. I could go on forever praising this film but I will summarize it as follows. Not only is Spiderman a true classic, and a great film, it is easily the best film adaptation of a comic book character ever. The wait was well worth it.
5 stars out of 5
Gareth Von Kallenbach
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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