Why don't they ever think to trap him between a giant tumbler and a massive playing card? Villains these days...

Released in 2002, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 11 Feb 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Surely everybody knows the story of Spider-Man already? Peter Parker, angst-ridden adolescent nerd working as photographer for a New York daily, gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Man; crimefighter extraordinaire. An extremely silly notion indeed, but one that has sold millions of comic books and other assorted merchandise since Stan Lee first devised the character back in the day. It's amazing that it took so long for a big-screen outing to materialise, and indeed although the idea has been mooted many times in the past, and tossed like a hot potato from studio to studio and director to director, the buck has only now stopped with Sam Raimi and Columbia. A fortunate turn of events? Hell yes.

Sticking fairly closely to the events surrounding the inception of the character, Spider-Man proves satisfying to either the comic nerd or the casual punter alike. Essentially it's a Young Bloke's Primer For Adulthood; a lesson in dealing with the adolescent processes we all had to face at one time. Fortunately, the metaphor of Parker's changing of physical state and responsibilities thereafter also prove to be a bloody good action/romance romp of the highest and most entertaining order.

Peter (Tobey Maguire) is your average geeky city kid, leaving high school and heading into the metropolis to pursue his dream of becoming a photographer, whilst secretly lusting after girl-next-door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). However, Peter has an incredible secret he's keeping from the world. Whilst on a school trip he was bitten by a genetically engineered 'super-spider', and in the finest comic-book traditions became imbued with superhuman powers (although presumably he now has great difficulty climbing out of the bath). He keeps his secret from his aunt and uncle with whom he lives, and also from his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) with whom he's going to be flat-sharing, but soon realises the problems of juggling crime-fighting with socialising.

Meanwhile, Harry's dad Norman (Willem Dafoe), head of the scientific research company Oscorp, is undergoing some changes of his own. His genetic research for the military is way behind schedule, and there's only one solution to get his formula finished on time; use himself as a test subject. People in films really don't learn, do they? No sooner has he guzzled his serum than he becomes psychotic schizophrenic evil-doer Green Goblin. This wold be bad enough in itself, but when the rest of the company board vote Norman out of his own company he really flips his lid and decides to go for the global domination/general mischief thing.

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The metaphors are really quite blatant, with the 'angry teen body angst' and 'commerce= evil insanity' cards being particularly well signposted. It's also fair to say the old 'superhero chases dolly-bird whilst trying to keep his identity secret' routine has been done to death already. Where the movie scores big, though, is in Raimi's treatment of his characters.

Summer blockbusters are hardly notable for their depth of scripting, but Spider-Man pretty much traps the rule book in it's web and eats it for breakfast. In choosing to concentrate more on his leads than huge action setpieces (although there are still plenty of those), Sam Raimi has produced something that's actually quite radical for such a mainstream popcorn deal. It's a sad indictment of the current state of modern movie-making that Spiderman's tired themes actually seem so refreshingly different. The balance here between character exposition and ass-kicking is spot on. The director explores his leads as much as he can, or rather as much as he should given the material, and only then do the pyrotechnics start.

It's also due to some fine turns by the entire cast that we actually care so much as to what happens to Peter and co., and even the Green Goblin manages to generate some level of sympathy thanks to the expert treatment by Dafoe. Maguire plays his part to a tee, managing a convincing evolution from high school nerd to responsible adult with amazing abilities. His anger after his uncle's murder (for which he feels indirectly responsible) is extremely well emoted, and the balance between teenager enjoying his new-found powers and man on a mission of vengeance is found perfectly.

Kirsten Dunst does a good job of what is still, disappointingly, a fairly token role, and there's no denying it's very difficult to take one's eyes off her whenever she's on screen. It's easy too see why Maguire fell for her on set and the pair briefly became an item. Does she suit the red hair? Ooooooh yes. James Franco, with perhaps reason to be the film's most frustrated character, is also slightly under-written, but again the young fella makes a damn fine go of it and manages to impress suitably.

As important and well-handled as all this character nonsense is, Spider-Man was always going to be a summer event movie, and event movies mean effects and action. Somehow Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp manage to shoehorn a truckload of both into the mix with hugely satisfying results. The show-stopping action sequences are consummately orchestrated, as you would expect of a man who cut his teeth on slapstick and horror (both in the same movies). The attack by the Green Goblin on his ex-colleagues during the parade is a particular standout, showcasing some superb choreography and stunning effects work. Oh, and Dunst in a gorgeous red dress. Mmmmmm, chocolate. Similarly the grand finale betwixt goblin and spider is spot-on, making sure Maguire is beaten to within an inch of his life before the green one gets his comeuppance. very intense indeed.

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The odds have been stacked against Spider-Man. It's lengthy journey from page to cine has been turmoiled and tumultuous to say the least. Hell, even James Cameron couldn't handle it. It has proven foolish, however, to doubt the mad-skillz of Mr. Raimi, and we really shouldn't have questioned his abilities. From Parker's arachnid beginnings to his final confrontation with his arch nemesis, this film delivers characters, action and suspense in spades. It has transcended it's pulp origins to become something quite magnificent; a summer blockbuster that comes good on it's promises, and is accessible to everyone.

A couple of the effects are a little ropey, but it's nothing unforgivable. Danny Elfman's score deserves a special mention, and it must surely rank amongst his finest to date, bringing a real sense of grandeur to the proceedings. The cast are outstanding, with Raimi obviously having coaxed the best out of everyone involved, which surely stands as testimony to his skills and the respect he earns from his players, and there are enough cameos from regulars like Bruce Campbell and Lucy Lawless to keep you spotting for ages. Even "Macho Man" Randy Savage gets a role, and yes, Raimi fans, the director's car manages it's usual appearance too.

It's safe to say Spider-Man is as close to a flawless blockbuster as we have come so far. Fans of the comic book will no doubt pick fault with various moments of artistic licence, but by and large I challenge any of them not to admit massive satisfaction at the effort expended by everyone involved in making this as close to the source material as is feasible. Even if you're not generally interested in that sort of thing there's plenty to enjoy elsewhere and everyone's pretty much guaranteed to find something to enjoy, such is the strength of the production. You can pretty much bet your bottom dollar there'll be more to come too, as the main cast members have all signed on for further installments, and given the cash this has taken and the wealth of material available they'd be mad not to indulge in another.

At a time when our faith is becoming increasingly tested by the consistent failure of Hollywood studios to deliver something both grand in scale and immensely satisfying, along comes the partnership of Columbia and Raimi to give us back our belief. Note to other productions; it has now been proven that you can mix depth and quality with mass-market value and visual spectacle. Please take appropriate action to follow suit.

Craig Disko has seen fit to reward the efforts of Raimi, Maguire, Dunst and co. with a fly-catching, web-spinning five out of five Arbitrary Disko units.

Sam Raimi
Cast list:
Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker / Spider-Man)
Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane)
Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn / Green Goblin)