I think I already went over in the X-Men review about Spider-Man’s placement in movie history blew the doors wide open for comic book movies to saturate the market, so let me open instead with my personal anecdote to break open some nostalgia.
The night of 11 May 2002, I recall clearly. My mom had brought my 9-year-old self and my siblings to the only-2-year-old shopping mall next to my elementary school and when our paths crossed the box office of the then spanking-new AMC multiplex and I saw a very very late 11 pm showtime for the already week-old release of Sam Raimi’s superhero adaptation Spider-Man, based on one of my favorite superheroes of all time*. It had already been a hard week because despite my excitement for the film, I haven’t been able to watch it yet. All the showtimes were sold out, but all my peers in school were able to watch it.
On the spot, I convince my annoyed mom to take that late showtime opportunity and I finally watch the movie I was hardcore anticipating.
Shortly after I left the theater, Spider-Man was the first experience I’ve had where I consciously had a favorite movie of all time. And while, some of the 15-year-age has knocked the dust off of it from being my idea of a perfect movie, it’s one of the few favorites of my childhood where I don’t look back and think “what the hell was I on?” On maybe a better day, I could imagine it having made the lower end of my favorite movies post.
So, if you’re expecting me to have a problem with Tobey Maguire’s portrayal as Spider-Man like the rest of the world inexplicably does, no, I’m sorry. He may not be much of an actor in his doughey pushover look and his soft-spoken two-steps-away from crying demeanor, but it’s perfect for a role like Peter Parker, a tired kid on a learning curve in the real world who has too much piling on top of him and can only hold on to his morality. Maguire doesn’t even have to try to act – this is Keanu-Reeves-in-John–Wick kind of casting for a limited actor***. When he smiles, you still feel there’s something wrong in the back of his mind (or Spider Sense), when he tries to win something that’s not a supervillain battle, you get the vibe he’s going to lose because he looks like he knows he’ll lose. It’s miraculously undepressing (Maguire sells both his casual underplayed scientific brilliance and his ability to inspire Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson no matter how low they both find themselves), but clear this kid is overwhelmed by the stuff life is throwing at him.
It would be such growing pains that writer David Koepp throws as the Queens-based hero, who finds himself quickly graduated from high school within the first hour (as would have to be, Maguire was 26 at the time of filming) and living with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of scientist Norman (Willem Dafoe). Peter is still helping his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) deal with the murder of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), the man who inspired Peter to don his costume as Spider-Man with the immortal words “With great power comes great responsibility” after being bitten by a radioactive spider in Columbia University’s lab causing him to sling organic webbing, climb up walls, and become physically enhanced in strength, speed, and all of the above except still looking like Tobey Maguire. Meanwhile, Norman himself has his own secret performance enhancers causing him to go so crazy he dresses up as a Power Rangers villain and enacts a bloodthirsty vendetta against his corporate competitors under the name of Green Goblin.
A lot of tangled web strands for the story and it’s kind of impressive that Koepp and director Raimi are able to streamline this into one great big arc of Parker’s growth as a responsible young adult while finding time to insert super battles in the skies of Manhattan, all of them with that in-your-face comic punch that Raimi supplied in spades with his Evil Dead trilogy. He, cinematographer Don Burgess, and composer Danny Elfman supply weightless enthusiasm to all of Spidey’s web-slinging (most notably in the final shot – some of the effects aged poorly, but that scene alone still dazzles and entertains me even up to the Matrix in-joke) and jazz up the energy to match with Dafoe’s expected mania at being able to embody such a cackling monster, even under the gaudy design of his robotic suit. Raimi’s the kind of filmmaker that clearly makes them for the love of being silly and young again and having the context of a comic book property to let his fan-status translate to pulp popcorn cinema is the best thing. He even gets a chance to play up his horror roots with Dafoe’s self-confrontations in the mirror, two jump scares, and a climax in dark and damp ruins (of an abandoned mental institute, Peter David’s novelization informed me because of course I was so excited I bought the book) where the action gets really violent and colors get dusty and dark against the earlier tones of episodic thwarting in bold colors and mirrors.
Now, the other big complaint I hear is that the movie is too corny or sappy because of Raimi’s eager beaver tones. Just recently, I heard somebody claim that Spider-Man had “too much heart”. Now, what a surprise from somebody like me who swears by Spielberg, but I think “too much heart” is precisely the best kind of problem to have for any work of art. If Spider-Man wants to include post-9/11 portrayals of unity and solidarity of New York helping out Spidey, why should I complain about the positive energy of these moments? Or the human honesty in having the first lines Harris and Robertson deliver give the coziest possible ways to say “Don’t fall on your ass” and “I’m already on my ass”?
Raimi’s Spider-Man may be sloppy in a sense from a lot of tangeants – I barely got through J.K. Simmons ripping Spider-Man’s newspaper boss J. Jonah Jameson right out of the comic panels or the love triangle between Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry – but it’s sincere in all of that sloppiness and that’s always the easiest way to make me fall in love with your movie. Raimi’s just as bold about his human melodrama as he is about his superhero splashes and he has a very incredible cast to help him out, including two actors I normally despise (Robertson and Franco; I had this attitude about Dunst but she’s been impressing me more and more) turning in understated and casual enough performances that when they actually have to work their big moments like Uncle Ben’s death** (including one of my favorite silence cues in all of film music) and Harry’s feeling of betrayal towards Peter and Mary Jane’s closeness, finding out I’ve actually been fond of these people and hate seeing them go is like having the rug pulled out from under me.
That’s to say nothing of Dunst as Mary Jane, pretty enough to understand exactly why Peter’s affections are fixated on her, weathered enough to understand she has her own life and problems beyond Peter’s perspective (and Koepp’s script is VERY generous to her on this front), and charged enough as a presence to sell that iconic upside-down kiss that immediately became a part of film canon like nobody’s business. Her and Maguire make terrific foils and watching their relationship grow (and especially to the script’s credit, not meeting our expectations) is a warm and comforting thing you wouldn’t expect from the same movie where Willem Dafoe has a great big green plastic suit wobbling his head wildly saying “Hello, my dear”.
The main point is Spider-Man is one of the best examples in my mind of letting people make movies because they really want to make this particular movie. There’s not a single frame of this where it feels Raimi isn’t over the moon with what he gets to do with all that Sony money and in an industry right now where comic book films almost uniformly feel more like obligations rather than any real sense of personality, Spider-Man‘s exhuberance at presenting the character kicking and swinging over the city never ceases to endear me.