In 1997, Batman & Robin nearly killed off the comic book superhero movie. It was famously reviled by critics and underperformed at the box office. Blade (1998), however, came out the next year and proved that there was still interest in the genre. It wasn’t until the phenomenal success of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), which managed to tap into the pop culture zeitgeist in a significant way, that the genre returned to prominence. Both movies were made by directors who grew up with these comic books and were fans. More importantly, they understood what made these iconic characters work and strongly identified with them.
Sam Raimi, in particular, was an inspired choice to direct Spider-Man. In many respects, his 1990 film Darkman was a comic book superhero movie not actually based on an existing title. It demonstrated that he had the innate storytelling instincts for the genre and the stylistic chops to transport the famous webslinger from page to screen. The end result was a loving homage to his humble beginnings at the hands of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko while still feeling contemporary.
Raimi immediately established Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as a pasty-faced dweeb that admires his high school crush Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) from afar. It’s not like he’s invisible as the movie makes a point of having her stick up for him while others ridicule him. He is an outcast and is friends with another outsider, Harry Osborn (James Franco), a rich kid that flunked out of private school and is tired of living in the shadow of his brilliant scientist father, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). David Koepp’s screenplay efficiently introduces all the significant people in Peter’s life and establishes the relationships between each other. Raimi has fun introducing the core supporting characters in Spider-Man’s world, like the Daily Bugle’s publisher J. Jonah Jameson played with perfect bluster by J.K. Simmons who captures the essence of the notoriously cheap yellow journalist while also taking an instant dislike to the webslinger.
The movie soon establishes a parallel between Peter and Norman as they undergo physical enhancement that also affects them mentally. With Peter it happened accidentally but Norman made the choice to do it, which drives him insane. Initially, Peter’s newfound powers make him cocky and selfish as he uses them for profit. It is only when this behavior results in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) that he learns to use his powers for the greater good.
Maguire has a memorable scene with Cliff Robertson when Uncle Ben has a heart-to-heart with Peter, telling him, “These are the years when a man changes into the man he’s gonna become for the rest of his life. Just be careful who you change into.” He then utters the movie’s most famous line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead of listening, Peter foolishly chastises Ben for telling him what to do and to stop pretending to be his father, which visibly wounds the elder man. Robertson is excellent in this scene as he makes you care about him so that you feel bad when Peter dismisses him so callously. Maguire is quite strong in this scene as well, showing how Peter has become drunk with his newfound powers, believing that no one can relate to what he’s experiencing. He is also quite affecting in the aftermath of Ben’s death. Peter is in his room quietly crying, devastated by what happened and with the knowledge that it was his fault. He could have prevented it.
Kirsten Dunst brings a fresh-faced girl-next-door vibe to the role of M.J. She’s obviously beautiful but the actor isn’t afraid to act disarmingly goofy when posing for Peter’s pictures during their school field trip. She isn’t bored by the science stuff and actually looks interested in the tour guide’s spiel. The movie wisely has the relationship between her and Peter as its heart, establishing their friendship in scenes like when they tell each other their aspirations after they graduate from high school – she wants to be an actor and he wants to be a photographer, working his way through college. It a wonderful character building moment as Peter encourages M.J. to follow her dreams.
The two actors have fantastic chemistry together. We want to see Peter and M.J. get together yet it is always tantalizingly just out of reach. The scene where he saves her from would-be muggers as Spider-Man and she rewards him with a passionate kiss is a moment of intimacy that is missing from a lot of the current crop of comic book superhero movies, which are strangely asexual. What, superheroes don’t get to have love lives? The potential romance between Peter and M.J. is one of the best things about Spider-Man.
Willem Dafoe does a great job conveying Norman’s gradual transition to the dark side and the emergence of a split personality. It allows the actor to play two separate characters – Osborn, the victim, and the Green Goblin who wants to punish those that wronged him. The movie takes the time to show what motivated a decent man like Norman to go bad, transforming himself into the Goblin. He’s not a simple, world dominating baddie but a tortured soul driven mad by self-imposed pressures and corporate machinations. It was a quite a coup getting someone of Dafoe’s caliber to play the villain. He gives the role his own distinctive spin, like the Thanksgiving dinner he attends at Peter and Harry’s place. It looks like Norman but the way Dafoe plays it you can tell that the Goblin persona has taken over in the way he leers suggestively at M.J. and threateningly at Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) when she slaps his hand for touching the food before saying Grace.
As he demonstrated with Darkman, Raimi has a knack for kinetic camerawork and editing tailor-made for a comic book superhero movie, which he demonstrates during the Green Goblin’s attack on the Oscorp Unity Day Festival in downtown New York City. While trading blows with him, Spider-Man saves several innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, most notably M.J. The CGI in this sequence is impressive, seamlessly showing off both combatants’ abilities. Technology had finally caught up to what the comic books had been doing all along and brought Spider-Man’s webslinging powers vividly to life.
At the end of Spider-Man, Peter sums up his lot in life best when he says, “No matter what I do no matter how hard I try, the ones I love will always be the ones that pay.” This movie shows the sacrifices a hero must make in order to keep the ones he loves safe. Spider-Man is about what it takes to become a hero and what it means to be one. All it takes is one fateful moment to change your life forever. For Peter it was refusing to stop and armed robber who goes on to kill Uncle Ben. At that moment Peter realizes that his actions have real consequences and that he must use his powers responsibly. Thus, Spider-Man is born. It is this moment that sets him on the path to becoming a superhero.