Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons
Directed by: Sam Raimi
I’m a realist. I realise that more than a few people voting in the Best Comic Book Character Ever Tournament are basing their votes on mass media presentations of characters, such as major movie releases like the Spider-Man franchise. It’s not an ideal way to experience these characters, but since is a pop culture community more than it’s a comic book community (and… thank god for that. I like comics as much as the next guy, but I don’t think I’d want to spend too much time amongst hardcore fans), it’s legitimate.
I bring this up for this review because if you are going to base your opinion on what comic book character is the best, you could do worse than basing your opinion on the presentation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in this movie and its sequel from Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire. Simply put, Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Marvel Comic’s flagship character might be the truest portrayal of a comic book character on the big screen ever. Of everything this movie does right, it’s the portrayal of Spidey that it does best.
Reviewing this movie five years after it came out is a bit unusual, because my reaction to the movie that I’ve seen several times since the release is now much different than it was originally. Obviously, this is true of a lot of movies, some you grow to appreciate more over time, some you fail to see what you ever saw in them. For Spider-Man, I was blown away when I first saw it, but have diminuished reactions to it overtime. The truth is, the movie isn’t as great as it originally seemed to be, which is probably also true of its superior sequel, which I was more than ecstatic about when I first saw it. I’m not as over the moon on Spider-Man 2 as I was then, but I still stand by my original review, because it’s the more honest reaction to a movie designed to be seen in theatres and designed to blow you away.
That’s the issue of reviewing Spider-Man now, because my original viewings of the movie left me blown away with the sense of awe and wonder Raimi and company are able to achieve. The problem is, awe and wonder don’t stand up to repeating viewings (much like shock comedy generally has a shelf life of two or three viewings). It’s hard to fault the movie for going for and relying on a sense of awe, because that’s exactly what it should be going for, and it achieved it sucessfully. Seeing Spidey in full colour swinging through the skyscrapers of New York, exchanging blows with the Green Goblin in broad daylight was a highlight, leaving me grinning ear-to-ear. I was particularly happy that they chose broad daylight for their first meeting, CGI lines be damned, in the middle of a colourful parade. Before that, most comic book movies relied on monotones and constant darkness, which works for some characters (like Batman), but is less representative of other characters (like the X-Men), and wouldn’t be representative of Spider-Man at all, he of the blue and red costume and the even more colourful rogues gallery.
The battles between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) are thrilling, and still manage to be so in subsequent viewings (albeit on a smaller scale than battles with Doc Ock in the sequel). Maguire is note-perfect as the hard-luck Peter Parker, and Dafoe is solid as the creepy Norman Osbourne, who might be creepier without the mask. Raimi managed to keep Spider-Man’s origin story interesting and credible (well, interesting for the first few viewings, it is one of the parts that drags a bit now), and nailed the driving force that keeps Parker under the mask to do good with his powers: the incredible sense of duty and guilt he feels over the death of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson).
When the movie slows down for personal moments between Peter and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) or his whiney friend Harry Osbourne (James Franco), the movie lags. These scenes effectively show the human struggle in Spider-Man’s life, how having the cool powers means that he always has to worry about letting down those he cares for, but they aren’t particularly strong scenes. Luckily, they don’t dominate the movie, and aren’t really what you judge a blockbuster by anyway.
In the end, the first Spider-Man movie was an excellent jumping off point for one of the great franchises in movie history, and at the time of its release, was probably the best comic book movie ever made. It might not be as good as I first thought it to be, but it’s still pretty good, and did the job a big blockbuster is supposed to do. So remember that if I happen to rave over Spider-Man 3 in a week or so, that I don’t feel the need to damper my enthusiasm for the movie, because if it I leave thinking that it was amazingly awesome, then it IS amazingly awesome, even if five years from now I realise that it is merely awesome.