The man is better company than the spider in “Spider-Man.” The long-awaited bigscreen incarnation of the 40-year-old Marvel Comics superhero emerges as a perfectly serviceable early-summer popcorn picture that will satisfy its core teen constituency and not displease general viewers looking for some disposable entertainment. In a perfectly competent film that’s critically lacking in true inspiration or a poetic imagination that would take it to an exciting level, pic’s happiest surprise is Tobey Maguire in the title role, as the young actor provides an emotional openness and vulnerability that gives this $120 million production its most distinctive flavor. With a May 3 opening, this Sony release will spin a huge B.O. web during the two weeks before the “Clones” arrive, and then hang in nicely for some time thereafter. Ancillary prospects and public want-see for projected sequels look very strong.
From his first appearance in “Amazing Fantasy” in 1962, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s arachnid crime fighter stood out from the pack of other comic do-gooders by virtue of his humble background. Quite unlike the otherworldly Superman/Clark Kent and the millionaire Batman/Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker was a bashful, clumsy, ultra-straight, 98-pound weakling from working-class Queens. And so he remains in Sam Raimi’s picture, the orphaned, bespectacled high school senior mercilessly picked on by class jocks as he moons over pretty redhead Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), whom he can’t work up the nerve to talk to even though they’ve lived next door to one another since diaper days.
Pic’s first, and better, half is devoted to Peter’s makeover from campus dweeb to physically unique righter-of-wrongs. While visiting a Columbia U. science lab, Peter is bitten by a mutant blue-and-red spider. Next day, his vision is perfect and he’s newly buff, and it isn’t long before he discovers he’s capable of spinning industrial-strength webs and walking up buildings.
He first uses his new strength and acrobatic skills to dispatch Mary Jane’s a-hole b.f. in a school fight, then thinks to impress her by earning money in a wrestling challenge matched against a monster named Bone Saw. This entire apprenticeship section was always going to live or die on the charm and appeal of the actor playing Peter, and the initial sweet sensitivity Maguire conveys, followed by the growing thrill of self-discovery of his new superhuman abilities, proves captivating.
Peter’s strictly larky use of his powers comes to an unwelcome end when his uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), who with wife May (Rosemary Harris) has raised the boy, is killed in a Manhattan carjacking. Donning Spider-Man gear and swinging via self-generated threads from building to building like an urban Tarzan, he dispatches the culprit while deftly eluding police seizure. Already in this early major action sequence, though, something feels a bit off; the movement seems herky-jerky, the pursuit unnecessarily hurried, so that while the sight of the young crime-buster gallivanting through the nocturnal canyons of New York City is impressive, it lacks the desired visceral thrill.
Naturally, Spider-Man requires an adversary, and he gets one in the form of the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), an armor-plated fiend who zips around like a rabid snowboarder on a heavily armed glider dropping pumpkin bombs on uncomprehending foes. Like Spider-Man, the Goblin has a human identity, that of Norman Osborn, an ousted corporate arms manufacturer who becomes a Jekyll-and-Hyde upon consuming an experimental formula of his own devising. Unlike Peter, Norman can’t control when he slips into his alternate self, and Dafoe’s best moments come when the two sides of his personality argue with one another and flip back and forth as quickly as a light switch.
Unfortunately, when “Spider-Man” settles into full superhero mode an hour in, the conventional contours of David Koepp’s script come fully to the fore. With the Green Goblin committing such heinous acts as blitzing a World Unity Festival in Times Square toplining Macy Gray and threatening to drop Mary Jane and a Roosevelt Island tram loaded with kids into the East River, he and Spider-Man face off in increasingly standard-issue good guy/bad guy fashion, with no bigger issues to give their rivalry special import. Further deflating the balloon is an abundance of over-cranked digital physical action that’s singularly lacking in grace or the feel of real movement, human or animal.
Welcome compensation comes in the form of Peter’s continued pursuit of Mary Jane, who remains oblivious to his dual personality for some time but eventually warms to his newfound confidence. For many teenage boys, pic’s highlight will not be found among the action interludes but rather in the scene of Mary Jane, her flimsy shirt drenched by rain, peeling back the lower part of Spider-Man’s facemask in order to kiss him while he’s hanging upside down in a dark street.
Ironically, it’s when “Spider-Man” sticks to simple human interaction that the film breathes and ingratiates itself. Chemistry between Maguire and the winning Dunst is excellent, and there are good moments, too, between Maguire and James Franco, who plays Norman’s unhappy son and Peter’s only friend at school, as well as with Robertson and Harris as Peter’s doting substitute parents. Cackling behind his armored Goblin costume, Dafoe is stuck with routine villainy when not writhing through his transformations, while standout supporting turn is served up by J.K. Simmons, who brilliantly catches his piece’s comicbook origins while snapping out funny one-liners as a cynical newspaper editor.
Physically imposing production is notable for Neil Spisak’s production design, which involves considerable invention but also allows New York City to play itself without Gotham City-like stylization. James Acheson’s costumes, beginning with the terrific ribbed Spider-Man outfit, are splendid, Danny Elfman’s score punches things up in customary form, and Don Burgess’ lensing, while accommodating the countless effects, makes the actors look great.