Spider-Man Movie Review

The only caveat that I make for this review is that it largely retains the same language as when I first wrote it several years ago. I did not try to update it to reflect any revised opinions or reflections years later, particularly after the sequels were released. That means there's going to be some odd moments here and there considering what we know now, but I wanted it to retain my honest feelings at the time of the film's original release.

Almost 30 years ago, a movie I had anticipated seeing for nearly a decade steamrolled into theaters with much ado and fanfare, only to prove to be a monumental disappointment, teaching me a bitter lession about jumping on board the Hollywood Hype Machine. That flick was Star Trek - The Motion Picture and it was the memory of "Spockalypse Now" that haunted me as I tentatively asked the young lady behind the ticket window at the movie theater in Fairlawn, Ohio for one "emotionally arrested" adult ticket for Spider-Man on the date that had been seared into my brain in a twisted infamy all of its own - May 3, 2002.

I was bracing myself for disappointment as I had been following the saga of this film for a very long time (back when Cannon Films was supposed to make it with James Cameron as the director), breathlessly awaiting each step in the long legal journey that finally unwound the rights issues (the original studio that purchased the rights went broke and sold off all of the other ancillary rights for cash) and awarded them all back to Marvel, which sold them to Sony, which promptly put the film into production.

So - was I able to walk out of the theater - head held high and able to proclaim to the world - "Yes, I am a Spidey fan and today was the best day of my life" (o.k. - allow for some hyperbole here, folks) or did I have to slink out of the theater through one of the fire exits in order to avoid the stampede out the door and the demand for refunds at the ticket counter? Was it worth the wait? Was it the movie we all hoped for? Does it live up to the hype?

(Catches breath.)

(Turns blue.)


Yes and no.

Now, don't get me wrong. I liked it. I really did, and I give it a hearty recommendation. However, I was still unable to completely embrace it after the first showing. That only came later, after the second showing and some time to ponder while I wandered (that almost rhymes). The movie certainly wasn't "perfect," (as if it could be) and it did leave me with a schizophrenic feeling at times - was I watching the movie the way a casual moviegoer would - or was I watching it from the perspective of a serious fanboy who wasn't going to just see a movie, but was expecting a religious experience? I still haven't answered that question to my satisfaction.

To revert to the Goblin Grading Scale I've used during my "Year in Review" series, I originally gave the movie a grade of B+ - but in the intervening week and two additional screenings, I upgraded it to a guarded A-. In fact, not only do I feel certain in saying that this was an extremely faithful rendition of the comic book, perhaps the MOST faithful film interpretation of any comic book character in a Hollywood film, but also that this was likely the best initial Spidey film we were going to get, at least the best combo origin/adventure film - the albatross that always hangs over the first movie of any superhero franchise - as it must inevitably spend half of its running time introducing us to the hero and detailing his origin. Only if you are the most anal retentive of Spidey fans are you going to chastise this for not being largely (although admittedly not perfectly) faithful. For example, if you look closely at the name on Peter's science award, it says "Peter B. Parker." Now, Peter's middle name (Benjamin) had been mentioned in exactly ONE comic in Spidey's 40 year history - Web of Spider-Man #19 by the time of the film's release (it has been mentioned since, most recently during Civil War). So, someone really did their homework. If anything, one of the faults of the film was that it tried to pack too many spider-lore relationships into the mere two hours that it had. The critical relationships of the film, particularly between Peter and Uncle Ben, and Peter and both Osborns, were thus a bit underdeveloped due to the necessity of bring the movie within the two hour (anything more and my butt gets real uncomfortable) limitations. Ben's "great power" speech to Peter in the car does seem a little forced (like a lot of things in the movie), but it is essential to the plot and the subsequent events.

In fact, the movie seems to be in such a hurry to get moving that it glosses over some important questions. For example, why does both the military and his own board of directors seem to have it in for Norman Osborn? Profits are up, costs are down, and the stock price is at its hightest - as Osborn states - under his management (of course, it helps when you kill a few people along the way). In fact, sometimes today's Corporate America seems to almost believe that a little murder in the pursuit of profits isn't necessarily a bad thing. Usually such success is a cause for a bonus, not a firing. Since these indignities were crucial motivating factors in Osborn's later actions, it seemed like they were glossed over too quickly, and that Norman's business opponents seemed overly two-dimensional.

There are also a number of lapses in logic, which are partially mitigated by (1) the movie's consistently steady pace, and (2) the lapses existed in the source material itself. How did Norman Osborn avoid being a suspect in the murders of Dr. Stromm and his Board of Directors - particularly when said Board voted to sell the company out from under him? And the bombing at Quest Technologies? And the fact that he couldn't account for his whereabouts? Norman would have been No. 1 on the suspect parade - maybe not as the goofball throwing the pumpkin bombs, but certainly as the one funding him. But then again, there's the glaring "spider-wrestler becomes crime-fighter after the murder of Ben Parker," and no one pieces that together either, especially the promoter, who actually saw "The Amazing Spider-Man's" face. Or the high school kids who saw Peter do incredible back flips and swat Flash Thompson away as casually as a fly. However, as I mentioned before, this is also a flaw in the source material, even more glaringly so in Ultimate Spider-Man's retelling of the origin back in 2000.

Spidey's infamous "spider sense," set up with a certain amount of fanfare - was then either inconsistently applied or ignored. For example, he sensed Flash Thompson's fist coming at him - but not the fact that something was clearly amiss with the "woman" trapped in the burning building? His spider sense should have been, as he has so often put it, "working overtime" on that one. And how about when Bone Saw cracked that chair over his head? He didn't "sense" that one coming either? And it didn't go off at Thanksgiving when Norman Osborn was clearly cognizant of being the Green Goblin as well as acting weird with the knives? Again, though, Spidey's extra sensory powers aren't consistently portrayed in the comics, either.

All concerned with this film did a commendable job of eliminating much of the camp and goofiness that still too often creeps into movies based on comic book superheroes. Some corniness still made it to the final version - most notably the Green Goblin's "We'll meet again, Spider-Man!" after the conclusion of their first battle - as well as the Goblin singing a satiric version of the "itsy bitsy spider" song (although for my daughter, who was seven at the time, that was one of her favorite parts of the film). And I really could have done without the Goblin's incessant cackling, which came close to demoting him to B movie villain status. If I were a supervillain, I certainly wouldn't waste a lot of effort trying to perfect my demonic cackle.

Speaking of the Goblin - unfortunately in the final analysis - it has to be admitted that the Green Goblin's static mask negatively impacted the character and undercut some of the drama. I really tried to give it the benefit of the doubt when I saw the first pictures, because I do think it would have been hard to faithfully duplicate the comic Goblin look without it looking absurd. Also, the movie Goblin toys are really uber cool. So, I had my fingers crossed. But the weakness of the mask was immediately apparent during a pivotal scene where Spider-Man and the Goblin are having their first conversation on the rooftop. It seems clunky and awkward because the actors, primarily DaFoe, are negotiating through cumbersome costumes. I'm thinking specifically of the shot where the Goblin smacks Spidey upside the head and tries to lean next to him. The costume makes this look a bit - well, like you're watching a Japanese movie or a Power Rangers episode. It's clear that DaFoe is doing some dramatic (and somewhat hammy) emoting under that mask when he gives Spider-Man the speech about people turning on their heroes - but since we can only see his eyes - a good part of the effect of this speech was lost. Another such moment lost is when the Goblin tells Spidey that he's now going to kill Mary Jane nice and slow. DaFoe's eyes are on fire as the Goblin's dementia and mania is reaching a fever pitch - but again - the static mask undercuts it. Maybe they should have gone for some wacky and contrived prosthetic mask. I don't think it's just a coincidence that in the final battle both characters are largely unmasked - just so you can see their expressions. However, that said, a quick read of an interview with Bernie Wrightson, an artist (and co-creator of Swamp Thing) brought in to toil on some of the original designs, reveals the complexity of trying to do anything, let alone devise a supervillain costume, in the bizarre parallel universe that is Hollywood. Wrightson described the scenario that he was assigned to the costume people - but due to all sorts of strange union rules against fraternization - costume people are not allowed to talk to make-up people or props people because they were all represented by different unions - so everyone who would have a critical piece of designing one of the movie's key characters would never be able to work together to create a functional and convincing design.

I was disappointed that Stan Lee's screen time was limited to a "blink and you missed it" shot (although his dropped line was included on the DVD). I wouldn't even have minded a Nicholas Hammond cameo. The Spider-Man TV series from the 70's was certainly not a high point of the character's existence, but there is something to be said that Hammond was the first and only actor to portray the character (I'm not counting the guy in the Electric Company who never talked) in the 40 years predating this film.

Well - after all that griping - what did I like?

A lot actually. The movie's fast pace, which admittedly made some moments a little less dramatic than they could have been, at least avoided some of the excrutiating dead spots that plagued both the original Batman (1989) and Superman (1978) films. Only once did I feel like saying "move on with it!" and that was during Peter's talk to Mary Jane during their visit to May in the hospital about what Spider-Man alledgedly said to him about her.

My favorite scene by far was the wrestling scene, which was given an extra jolt by Raimi crony and sci-fi fan fave Bruce Campbell as the ring announcer. It's funny in numerous spots, and completely true to the character as Spidey gets absolutely no respect from anyone, from the lady signing him up for the match, to the announcer, to Bone Saw's girls taunting him, to the fans pelting him with garbage. It is also the movie's most exhilirating moment as the crowd chants "Spider-Man" over and over and Maquire, even though most of his face is obscured, still conveys Peter Parker's stunned joy and burgeoning self-confidence.

And, unlike many viewers, I was genuinely moved by the post-graduation scene, in which Peter is sitting, quietly crying over Ben's absence, and May is trying to comfort both him and herself. Having been recently through such a loss myself, the moment rang true.

The final slugfest between Spidey and the Goblin was wonderfully brutal and excessive. After all, this just wasn't about the superhero trying to defeat the supervillain's evil scheme to take over the world or enrich himself or playing some head game - this was personal - which has always been a hallmark of classic Spidey/Goblin battles. They have legitimate reasons for hating one another. There was some concern that this scene was actually a bit too harsh, particularly for younger children (which is no doubt a major reason why the film ended up with a PG-13 rating). But, I tend to think that to show, even in a comic book movie, that violence is a brutal and ugly thing that does real damage and harm to people, is good. Of course, then Peter shows up at Norman's funeral without so much as a scratch or bruise on his face...

Unpopular an opinion as it may be, I think the ending was entirely appropriate given the tone of the film. For there to be a big "happy" ending would have been inconsistent with Peter's character. He has literally seen everyone he ever cared about harmed in some way by the choices he has made - it was only natural that he made the choice that he did at the conclusion of the film. The only problem, from a pure movie-geek perspective, is that this bittersweet ending seems to have precluded a thunderous ovation for the film at its conclusion, like Superman and Batman's dramatic posturing at the end of their respective films.

But to be honest, what I walked away with most from the film were a lot of the little moments, many of which, surely to no one's surprise, belonged to Norman Osborn - from his critique of Peter's housekeeping skills ("Bit of a slob, isn't he?"), to his leering at Mary Jane during the Thanksgiving dinner scene, bringing a dumb fruitcake to said dinner and the fact that as he stalked out to plot more evil, it still occurred to him to tell Aunt May that he hoped they enjoyed the fruitcake. Peter also had a couple of cute moments with Mary Jane at the hospital with saying in reference to Spider-Man "well, he is extremely cool," and his awkward beginning to the speech where he makes reference to speaking to Spider-Man. That moment's pause after he says "I said - Spider-Man" always elicited laughter in the theater, as did the moment in the high school cafeteria after saving MJ from falling on her butt, in which all he can do after she thanks him is give her a goofy grin. I also liked how his attempt to flirt with and impress Betty Brant at the Bugle met with a collosal thud.

Sam Raimi has to be credited for exercisely remarkable restraint - at no time did it seem like he actually try to "improve" things or put his own stamp on it so that the film could be called "Sam Raimi's Spider-Man." This restraint also is seen in the fact that we are spared repetitive recitations of why Peter chooses to fight crime as Spider-Man. Not once during the entire movie does Peter say anything about having to be Spider-Man because he let the Burglar get away the first time, thus allowing him to kill Uncle Ben. We saw it happen. We know why he has to be Spider-Man. We know what is going through his mind when he sits alone on the gargoyle at night, and when he cries in his bedroom after his graduation, and when he visits Ben's grave at the end of the film.

Overall, the casting was very strong. I was one of those who initially had reservations about Tobey Maguire, but that was due mostly due his age at the time of filming (25 & 26 - and when you watch interviews with him and Kirsten Dunst - it's very obvious that while Kirsten is still a kid, Tobey is much more mature - not only because there's 6 years difference - but Tobey's life experiences prior to that point were more challenging as well). I did think that a genuine teenager should have been cast as Spider-Man. Still do in some respects - but nonetheless, Tobey proved to be an excellent choice because of the simple ordinariness he brought to the role. He wasn't overly handsome, or muscular, and captured Peter Parker's shyness, awkwardness, and overall decency.

Dafoe's Norman Osborn, when we saw his face, was good. It clearly wasn't as memorable as Jack Nicholson's Joker in the original Batman film (which will probably define all screen comic villains for some time to come), but maybe that's a good thing. Dafoe doesn't try to steal the movie, nor does he appear to be simply another Academy Award nominee cashing a big paycheck until he finds something he likes better. I've never been a big fan of the "split personality" Green Goblin but it is faithful to how the Goblin was originally written in the comics. While DaFoe does get a bit hammy while playing the Goblin, he's not wildly over the top - and he does a good job of alternating between the Norman and Goblin personalities, sometimes with just his expressions. He doesn't have to say a word for the audience to know when he's going back and forth. His leering at Mary Jane in Peter and Harry's apartment, and reaction when Aunt May smacks his hands for prematurely nibbling, are classic "villain" moments. And I really felt that Norman Osborn came come alive from the comics pages when he sneered "Parker" after Harry told him that MJ was now interested in Peter.

Kirstin Dunst's Mary Jane has been maligned by some critics as being an opportunistic skank (and even by Norman Osborn during another great villain moment), and she does come across as pretty shallow at times, but then again, (here come the brickbats) this is a 17-18 year old girl, from a verbally abusive lower-middle class background. The actress does her best with a part that unfortunately came with a little bit too much "damsel in distress" and screaming. I mean, Spidey had to come to her rescue three times during the film. Two times would have been o.k., but three was too many. When Dunst admitted in an interview that after some days of shooting she would be just sick of screaming for Spider-Man, she wasn't overstating it.

I liked the casting of Aunt May and Uncle Ben as well. Rosemary Harris' Aunt May clearly adores and dotes on Peter, but we aren't given the obsessive and dim-witted mother hen that characterized her during most of her run in the comics. Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben does the best he can do with the small part and some of the awkward, forced dialogue in the car. Raimi realized that Ben had to be played by an actor with some stature so that we would clearly remember him after he was gone and that his absence would be sorely felt.

Like many have said, the highlight of the film from an acting/character perspective was J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson. Simmons lights up the screen as Jonah, and sent ripples of laughter through each audience in which I viewed the film, completely in character even when he just punched the hold button on his telephone. He made such an impact it's hard to believe that he was in only three scenes. The chaos that was the Daily Bugle with repeated interruptions by Hoffman the marketing guy (played by Raimi's ever-present brother Ted) and Betty Brant acting as the middle person between Jonah and his interior decorating obsessed wife was genuine fun. And it makes even more glaring how the relegation of Jonah to a virtually insignificant minor character in Ultimate Spider-Man is to that title's detriment.

The only actor I didn't care for was James Franco as Harry Osborn. While I didn't really expect the high-strung comics version, Franco at times seemed like he was sleepwalking through the role, as if after having played James Dean, he was either still in that mode, or he felt that a role in a comic book movie was beneath him. His delivery of the final lines where he says that Spider-Man will pay for the fate that befalls his father at the end of the film lacks any dramatic punch. Nonetheless, it still was very easy to sympathize with poor Harry throughout the film.

After all of the debate, the organic webshooters ultimately proved to be a non-event. We saw the blisters on his arm once or twice, then never again. Not only that, but their organic nature wasn't even discussed in the film. I wasn't a big fan of the organics, but that was largely based on their portrayal in James Cameron's original treatment and even some of Raimi's early comments. In the Cameron version, Peter's discovery of the organic webbing was a blatant metaphor for masturbation, which I didn't think was appropriate for the film. But my biggest concern was that the organics were going to be used to make Peter feel more like an "outsider." Raimi even said as much during initial press conferences when the movie and the casting were announced, demonstrating how Peter was going to use his long sleeves to obscure them. This "freakishness" was also a component of Cameron's original script (which frankly, I'm surprised he didn't get some kind of credit for), in which the villain, Strand, (a combination of Norman Osborn and Electro - really) appeals to Spider-Man to join him because they're "different" from everyone else. This seemed too similar to the theme running through the X-Men movies, which works for that franchise, but should not be duplicated in Spidey. Fortunately, the whole "organics make Spidey feel like a freak" angle was dropped from the final film, as well as the masturbation connotations. So, I don't have a problem with how the web shooters were handled. Yeah, I had a moment of a feeling of grossness, but that quickly disappeared.

The special effects have gotten mixed reviews. Frankly, I think they're fine - but I don't go to a movie to be mesmerized by the special effects. If that was the case, then the aforementioned Star Trek - The Motion Picture would have been the greatest movie of its time. Of course I can usually tell when it's the "real" Spidey or Green Goblin and the CGI Spidey or Goblin. Tobey Maguire's early jumping on and off of rooftops is clearly, almost clumsily CGI. So what? It sure beat pulling a stuntman up the side of a building when you could clearly see the rope as it swayed over the windows (another reference to the 70's TV show). The technology is as always, evolving. And the emphasis was put on the story, where it belonged.

The music was a disappointment. Danny Elfman's score is completely unmemorable. While I wasn't quite expecting anything on the level of John Williams' Superman theme from (gasp!) nearly a quarter of a century earlier, I expected something at least as rousing as Elfman's own Batman score. But - nothing. I can't remember one note and I've seen the film three times in the last week. And then there was my wretching at seeing Macy Gray at the Oscorp-sponsored Unity Festival. It's probably just me, but seeing the singer who completely butchered the National Anthem during the NFL Hall of Fame Game (since I live in Northeast Ohio, believe me, that was an infamous moment around here)...ah, never mind. Someone mistakenly must have thought she was hip. I would rather have seen Lucy Lawless in her punk rock get up try to sing. And at the end credits we have to endure some obnoxious rap song between the somewhat inspiring "Hero" and what we were really waiting for - the classic 60's cartoon theme song - represented in its complete, unmitigated, tacky, but wonderful glory. I always thought the credits should have started with the classic Spidey theme, and at least had people leaving the theaters humming that tune.

Nonetheless, the final verdict is that this film was a faithful, worthy re-telling of the Spider-Man mythology, emphasizing the humanity of the character over the super-powers. With the possible exception of the first Superman film, it is very likely the finest of all comics-to-film adaptions.

Sign me up for Spider-Man 2.

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Copyright 1998-2007 J.R. Fettinger. All Rights Reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment and are used here for the purpose of analysis and commentary.

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