Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 121 mins
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe
Genre: Comic Book, Superhero, Action
Country: USA

If Batman & Robin set the caped crusader back a decade with its overtly campness then it could be argued that it set the comic book genre back by at least half that.  Arriving right on cue to save the day is Tobey Maguire in Evil Dead director, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

It is said by some comic historians that Spider-Man was born out of a countermove to DC’s Batman.  There is some credence to be given to that argument.  Both characters had adopted animal totems, both have origin stories involving the death of a loved one, and the swearing of an oath but what always drew me to Batman was what’s always held me at a distance with Spider-Man.  Where Bruce Wayne trains, Peter Parker has his abilities gifted to his DNA.  That, and the wisecracking nature of Web Head, always had me at odds with his origin; being that it was born out of grief.

Raimi’s Spidey goes a long way to addressing a lot of these issues.  Yes, there’s not a lot he can do about the origins, Peter still gets bit and (pre-Ben death) spends some time enjoying his new abilities the way any teenage boy would but when Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is senselessly killed[1], Peter finds himself falling into a dark emotional pit of anger, dispair and desperation as he looks for a way to vent the venom building up inside of him.  Though this opens up the narrative to allow for a couple of cameos (Bruce Campbell and Macho Man Randy Savage to name but two) it also introduces the audience to the darker side of Peter Parker.  It is a side that the duality of his hero will struggle to keep balanced throughout the course of the trilogy.  Raimi’s film has a strong emotional core.  It helps to ground the audience in a world that is about to get more than a little fantastic very quickly.  That earthy narrative set up, the weighty tones of “great power” and “great responsibility” coupled with the loose, free swinging use of camera work and CGI to take the audience along on Spider-Man’s adventures and suddenly there’s a chance for the comic book movie to recover from it’s greatest villain to date –Joel Schumacher.

I like Tobey Maguire.  Like Robert Downey Jr, he gave a powerfully subtle performance in Wonder Boys and has been putting out seriously accomplished performances for years.  If there were any doubts about his age[2], they were put to rest extremely quickly.  Not only is Maguire a youthful looking performer but he is one that has an impressive understanding of mannerism, gesturality and presence.  You buy his nerdy kid as much as you buy his supercharged cool kid (post spider bite) and you do it because of how he uses his body on screen.  Kirsten Dunst (as Mary Jane) doesn’t just give a good performance but demonstrates artistic restraint.  Her character is one that is central is just about every story arc in Peter’s life and several from Spider-Man’s.  She is the centerpiece of the love triangle between Peter, Harry Osborn (James Franco) and herself but most of all she is the personification of sacrifice.  Unlike Betty Ross (Hulk) who is, arguably, controlled by her father and Pepper Potts (Iron Man) poorly fleshed out; Mary Jane is an obtainable and a logical love interest.  A love interest that Peter chooses not to pursue in order to keep her safe.  Ultimately he will push her into the arms of his best friend and danger[3] but in that instant, his motives and actions towards MJ are as pure as his love.

Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin) has a lot of fun in what is essentially a very two dimensional role.  Historically the villains of superhero movies have been more interesting than the heroes[4] and I don’t know whether this is Raimi’s attempt to re-address that balance but as The Amazing Spider-Man[5] would show by its problems in 2012 it takes an extraordinary actor to take on the “mad scientist” role and have it come off as anything other than hammy.

The issues with Spider-Man are minimal.  It doesn’t attempt to do anything overtly extraordinary but delivers a comic book origin story that gives the audience enough of the hero (in costume) so that they don’t feel cheated.  It is a true balancing act.  Raimi does this and in doing this delivers Marvel’s first major motion picture success story.

[1] By a criminal Peter could have stopped earlier but didn’t.
[2] See Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge review, and in particular the section relating to Nicholas Hammond.
[3] When Harry Osborn becomes Son of Green Goblin.
[4] The Batman franchise has always carried villains which have garnered more interesting back stories than that of Batman himself.  Similarly, Loki is motivationally more interesting than Thor.
[5] With its casting of Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard in a very similar role.


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