By Joe Lozito
It seems like it's been a while since we've had a genuine honest-to-goodness comic book movie. Oh sure, some films are comic books in the derogatory sense - the way they hammer home a 'message', sugar-coat emotions and sketch cardboard characters. But we haven't had a legitimate superhero to root for in a long time. That's all going to change thanks to director Sam Raimi and "Jurassic Park" scripter David Koepp's joyous adaptation of everyone's favorite teenage wall-crawler, "Spider-man".
The film tells the story of Peter Parker, high school misfit, who after being bitten by a "genetically enhanced" ("radioactive" is just so 1960s) spider, finds himself able to scale walls and swing between buildings. Since we mostly see Spidey flying around Manhattan as a wonderfully whimsical computer-generated effect (Mr. Raimi's camera seems to fly right along side him), it is sometimes jarring to hear Tobey Maguire's voice come from behind the mask. But as Peter Parker, Mr. Maguire makes a perfect tormented adolescent. Turning off the stoicism he used to such great effect in "The Ice Storm" and cracking the occasional smile, Mr. Maguire is the epitome of teenage neuroses but with the exact wink that this film needs.
At a time of life when everyone feels like a freak, how startling to discover that you no longer need your glasses to see ("Hmm…weird", he mutters) or that, say, you can shoot webs out of your wrists. Of course, as a teenager, you don't tell anyone, you try to handle it yourself. So it makes sense that Peter flies solo, as it were. In a pitch-perfect montage, Peter tests his abilities by jumping from building to building (eventually smacking into a wall by accident) and trying to attract the girl of his dreams, Mary Jane Watson (an impossibly perky Kirsten Dunst). Later, after a traumatic event that he could have prevented, Peter buckles down and flies right (so to speak) and the movie really kicks into gear.
Willem Defoe is given a lot of room to roam as scientist-turned-Green Goblin Norman Osborn. The plot never reaches the maniacal brilliance of Lex Luthor's plan in "Superman"; the Goblin really just adopts a "join me or die" attitude (but then he is crazy). The actor uses his time out of costume to contort his already-spooky face into all sorts of knowing glances, and he is given the chance to really tear up the scenery during a few scenes of dialogue with...himself.
The film is at its best when it lets the characters interact in normal situations (graduation, Thanksgiving dinner) while playing with who knows who's secret identity and it never gets into the heavy-handed "we all wear masks" territory which plagued the "Batman" series. Only in the final act does the film falter as the Goblin picks a fairly random location for a showdown that eventually leads to some monotonous fisticuffs. Until then, however, "Spider-man" flows as smoothly from scene to scene, catching the audience in its charming web and setting us up for a sequel which, for once, will be welcome.