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"Spider-Man" Movie Review

Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst star in Columbia Pictures' action adventure/romance, "Spider-Man."
©2002 Columbia Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

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I'll lay my cards on the table right off the bat and confess what in some circles could be considered sacrilege - I'm not a fan of comic books. I've never read any, and I couldn't tell you the story behind "Superman," "Batman," or "Spider-Man" if my life depended on it. All of my knowledge of 'superheroes' comes from the movies, and I'd even label that knowledge mediocre at best. "Superman" wasn't my kind of movie, "Batman" (in his many leading actor incarnations) wasn't up my alley either, and I went into the theater for "Spider-Man" just hoping it would live up to half of its hype. Half would have been nice, but "Spider-Man" pulled off the near impossible - it lived up to a full 75% of the hoopla and was close to nudging its way 85-90% when it backed off just a smidge (smidge - such a technical term for a movie review).

Tobey Maguire, while wildly questioned and almost literally spat upon by Spidey comic book loyalists when he won the sought after role, is perfect as he brings the webslinger to life in an astounding manner. With Maguire, it's all in the eyes. He can tell a story without uttering a word. As Peter Parker, graduating high school student and the much picked upon class nerd, Maguire makes you feel every bit of ridicule he undergoes. He draws you into his world, the world where his best friend is also an outcast, the love of his life - Mary Jane - lives next door but hasn't a clue how he feels, and where he's raised in a loving home by an elderly aunt and uncle whose very embrace sets the world aright.

While on a class field trip, Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered red and blue spider. That evening alone in his bedroom his body begins undergoing changes, some of which are readily apparent when he stares at himself in the mirror the following morning. No longer the 98 lb. weakling, Peter's become ripped and his once poor eyesight has improved to beyond 20/20. Now with muscles bulging and incredible blue eyes sparkling, this new improved Peter saves Mary Jane from a nasty fall in the school cafeteria. It's the first inkling he has of his new powers and he doesn't understand what to make of them. Called out for a showdown with Mary Jane's neanderthal boyfriend, Peter's spidey sense allows him to maneuver his way out of harm's reach, while delivering some devastating blows of his own.

Beating a fast retreat from his fight at school, Peter begins exploring all of his new powers including web-slinging and scaling buildings. As he begins taking advantage of his special powers, he also begins analyzing what to do with his spidey skills. Love is the central theme that flows through the film and Peter's first public display is at a wrestling match where the winner will walk off with $3,000 - $3,000 that Peter will use to buy a car and impress Mary Jane. The wrestling match sets in motion a chain of events that changes the way Peter will forever approach his powers.

Concurrent to Peter's spidey story there runs another storyline about a wealthy scientist, Norman Osborn (father of Peter's best friend, Harry), who, fearing the loss of his government contract, injects himself with a substance that changes him into an evil psycho - eventually dubbed the Green Goblin. The Green Goblin becomes Spider-Man's archenemy and the two battle it out over the streets of New York.

Throughout the movie, Spider-Man swings from one building to another, saving babies, innocent folks who are in the wrong place at the very wrong time, and Mary Jane - repeatedly. Being scared of heights, some of the special effects had me grasping the armrests of my theater seat. I was leaning forward with Spidey as he swung between towering office buildings. Though some critics/moviegoers will label a few of the CGI effects cheesy, I can't imagine how they could have been achieved without the use of CGI.

As the Green Goblin, Willem Dafoe has the arduous task of making a green mask emote. He does, though it might have been more frightening to see facial movements accompanying some of the Green Goblin's spoken threats. Cruising the skies on a glider - every Green Goblin's preferred mode of transportation - he destroys buildings, parade floats, and breaks up a Macy Gray concert (I'm withholding comment on why that would or would not be considered an evil thing to do). Personally, the only part of the film I didn't completely feel captivated by were the scenes of the Goblin on his glider. They just seemed less human, less real, than the rest of the film - which was probably as they were intended and I'm not about to second-guess Sam Raimi.

Kirsten Dunst plays Mary Jane, the love interest of both Peter and his best friend, Harry. As MJ, Dunst does a fine job of playing the damsel in distress and an equally fine job of being the self-assured young woman. The onscreen chemistry between Dunst and Maguire is perhaps the best pairing of young actors we've seen in years.

James Franco slides into his Harry character still wearing his James Dean mask. He brings the air of the rebel to Harry, and by the end of the film, you just know the type of man Harry will grow up to become.

As the newspaper man, J. Jonah Jameson, J.K. Simmons delivers most of the film's best comedic lines. His onscreen time doesn't add up to much in comparison to the other leads, however Simmons manages to enthuse Jameson with a fully developed personality in just a matter of a few short minutes.

Director Sam Raimi has done a tremendous job of creating a movie that will appeal to a wide range of audiences - from non-comic book fans like myself to the most die-hard "Spider-Man" groupie. His deft touch, his ability to allow a film to unfold without rushing through the story, and his intuition on casting Tobey Maguire have made "Spider-Man" a movie that will touch your heart in one scene and knock your socks off in the next. At its core, "Spider-Man" is a sweet, romantic story enclosed in a campy, comic book wrapping. "Spider-Man's" a mix of love, wonderment, and heart-stopping action brought ever so cleverly to the screen by Raimi and his entire talented cast. Raimi has made a "Spider-Man" fan out of me, and that's something I never thought would happen. Bring on the sequels!

Overall Grade: A

"Spider-Man" is rated PG-13 for stylized violence and action.

Director: Sam Raimi
Producers: Laura Ziskin and Ian Bryce
Executive Producers: Avi Arad and Stan Lee
Based on the Comic Book by: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Screenplay: David Koepp
Director of Photography: Don Burgess, ASC
Production Designer: Neil Spisak
Film Editors: Bob Murawski and Arthur Coburn, ACE
Costume Designer: James Acheson
Music By: Danny Elfman
Casting: Francine Maisler and Lynn Kressel
Visual Effects: John Dykstra, ASC
Set Decorator: Karen O'Hara
Art Directors: Tony Fanning and Stella Vaccaro

Peter Parker/Spider-Man - Tobey Maguire
Mary Jane Watson - Kirsten Dunst
Green Goblin/Norman Osborn - Willem Dafoe
Harry Osborn - James Franco
Ben Parker - Cliff Robertson
May Parker - Rosemary Harris
J. Jonah Jameson - JK Simmons
Flash Thompson - Joe Manganiello
Maximilian Fargas - Gerry Becker
Bone Saw McGraw - Randy Savage
Ring Announcer - Bruce Campbell
General Slocum - Stanley Anderson
Dr. Mendel Stromm - Ron Perkins

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