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"SPIDER-MAN"
(2002) (Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Adventure: After being bitten by a genetically altered spider, a young man develops arachnid-based superpowers that allow him to fight crime and battle his archenemy, the Green Goblin.
PLOT:
Peter Parker (TOBEY MAGUIRE) is a high school senior who's been raised by his aunt May (ROSEMARY HARRIS) and uncle Ben (CLIFF ROBERTSON) and is considered something of a geek by other students at his school. That is, except for his friend, Harry Osborn (JAMES FRANCO), and next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Watson (KIRSTEN DUNST), who doesn't realize he's had a crush on her since they were kids.

While on a field trip to a university science department where researchers have created genetically altered spiders, Peter is bit by one, but doesn't think much of it. The next morning, however, he awakens with a new, muscular body and no further need for his glasses. At school, he then discovers that he has incredibly quick reflexes and heightened senses, as well as the ability to shoot webs from his wrists.

At the same time, Harry's wealthy industrialist father, Norman Osborn (WILLEM DAFOE), has decided to test an unproven human performance enhancer on himself so that his company, Oscorp, will win a lucrative contract with the military. Although he's aware of the potential side effects of violence, aggression and insanity, he doesn't realize that it will turn him into a homicidal lunatic. It, of course, does, and gives him a split personality where Norman is unaware of his new and powerful alter ego, the Green Goblin.

Meanwhile, Peter has adapted to his newfound skills - that include swinging through the city from building to building via his webs - and has even adopted the name, "Spider-Man," for a wrestling match to earn some money. Yet, when tragedy strikes his family at the hands of a criminal, Peter decides he must use his powers to fight crime.

From that point on, and after taking a freelance job shooting photographs for Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. SIMMONS) while still trying to get up the nerve to tell Mary Jane how he feels about her, Peter must keep his superhero identity secret all while battling various criminals, including the Green Goblin who sets out to destroy him.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
The allure of comic books and their characters is unquestionable, has withstood the tests of time, and can be explained in several ways. For one, most are escapist forms of entertainment where the reader is transported to a different world for a short while. Many comics also contain characters that readers can either look up to as heroes - or, in some cases, anti-heroes.

What kid hasn't imagined being a superhero and saving the world? Many that do just that in comic books are outsiders of some sort and also have mild-mannered, geeky or at least somewhat normal alter egos with which kids can also identify.

Finally, there's the whole fantastical element where characters fly, turn into other beings or possess powers or weapons that are, or at least were back in their day, beyond the scope of contemporary science and technology.

That last fact has prevented some superheroes from appearing on the big screen for fear of not being able to present them realistically or at least believably from a visual standpoint. Sure, Superman and Batman appeared on low-tech TV shows and movies long, long ago, and Wonder Woman and the Incredible Hulk similarly made weekly appearances in viewers' family rooms, yet all of them looked cheesy, even at the time. With the advent of progressively better special effects, however, many of the previously un-filmable characters are now finally making it to the big screen, such as occurred with "X-Men" in 2000.

All of which brings us to "Spider-Man," the long awaited and long in pre-production adaptation of the popular and beloved Marvel Comics character who first appeared in print back in 1962. Simply put, and notwithstanding the legal battle over property rights that has gone on for a long time, it would have been near impossible to have the web-slinger swinging from building to building without him looking like a second-rate Tarzan on the vine impersonation.

Now, thanks to the work of John Dykstra ("Stuart Little," "Star Wars") and his visual effects crew, the amazing Spidey is able to do all of that and much more in this visually impressive, big budget production.

As written by David Koepp ("Panic Room," "Jurassic Park") and directed by Sam Raimi ("For Love of the Game," "The Gift"), the first thing many viewers will note is the character doing his thing as well as the film's overall, highly visual style. Of course, for those familiar with Raimi's earlier work on the "Evil Dead" films and the original comic book hero picture, "Darkman," the visual razzmatazz won't come as a shock. It should, however, entertain them as well as those new to the director's world.

Although a few of the visuals don't quite look perfect (particularly an early, building jumping sequence), they're otherwise a blast to watch and their accelerated pace certainly keeps the film moving along at a good clip.

Visuals will only carry a picture so far, however, so it's up to the story and its characters to handle the rest. For the most part, the cast and crew do a good job picking up the slack. Like most comic book adaptations, this one delves in the origin of the superhero material and then follows that with the standard plot of the character taking on one of his traditional archenemies.

Here, those particulars fall on the shoulders of Tobey Maguire ("Wonder Boys," "The Cider House Rules") as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Willem Dafoe ("Shadow of the Vampire," "Clear and Present Danger") as the antagonistic villain who just so happens to be his best friend's industrialist father. Although some may question the casting of the soft-spoken and less than strapping Maguire for the part - much like they did with Michael Keaton in the first "Batman" film - the actor more than adequately manages to pull off the dual role with relative ease and creates a likeable fellow and credible superhero.

While Dafoe's character, the Green Goblin, isn't as much fun as, say, the Joker in "Batman," Lex Luther in "Superman" or Big Boy Caprice in "Dick Tracy," the actor does a decent job with him, particularly on the "normal" side. The villain, outfitted and hidden within a hard, insect-like shell, isn't as much fun.

That's partly because we can't see much of the actor beneath the exterior, but is also due to the character not being terribly interesting (at least as portrayed in this film). The resultant battle between the two pretty much ends up being each just taking turns smashing the other around and through objects, but that gets a bit old rather quickly.

Kirsten Dunst ("Get Over It," "Bring It On") makes for a good Mary Jane, and the moments between her and Maguire's character are nicely handled. Thankfully, they also add a bit of depth to their relationship beyond the rest of the far less demanding or satisfying damsel in distress moments.

James Franco ("Deuces Wild," "Whatever It Takes") is decent as Peter's friend and the villain's son (with the appropriate setup for sequel #2, 3 or 4 when they decide to bring back the Green Goblin), and Cliff Robertson ("Escape from L.A." "Charly") and Rosemary Harris ("Tom & Viv," "Sunshine") are good as Peter's caring uncle and aunt.

The best, or at least most entertaining supporting performance, though comes from J.K. Simmons ("The Mexican," "The Gift") playing Daily Bugle editor Mr. Jameson, a loud, obnoxious and quite funny character who steals every scene in which he appears.

If there's a major complaint about the film - beyond the fanatics probably objecting to Spider-Man's mechanical web delivery devices of the comic book being replaced by organic ones here -- it's that the main story isn't terribly exciting. While it's nice that the filmmakers have captured the comic book feel with the film, the story isn't as interesting, engaging or entertaining as that found in the original "Superman" (which is still the best adaptation of a comic book).

In addition, the basic story seems to borrow a great many elements from Superman the comic and movie. There's the outsider kid -- raised by surrogate and otherwise childless parents -- who decides to do good with his superpowers after a family death serves as the catalyst for that.

Although the pretty girl initially overlooks him, he eventually gets her both as himself and as his alter ego, but must keep his dual identity secret from her. There's more - including the newspaper angle and bombastic boss - and while I don't know how much of that stems from the original comic and/or is just something of a universal element of superhero stories, the similarities somewhat steal the thunder, or stickiness if you will, of this character and his debut movie.

Even so, and beyond the blatant product placement and odd inclusion of singer Macy Gray performing in one scene (I can only guess that she's on the soundtrack, much like Prince - or at least his song - appeared in the first "Batman" film and on the soundtrack), the film is generally enjoyable and delivers its quota of big budget, "summer" entertainment (even if it's only the beginning of May). Fun, but not in the same league as "Superman," "Spider-Man" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 30, 2002 / Posted May 3, 2002


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