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With: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Joe Manganiello, Bill Nunn, Gary Becker, Jack Betts, Stanley Anderson, Ron Perkins, Ted Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Elizabeth Perkins
Written by: David Koepp, based on characters created by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko
Directed by: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for stylized violence and action
Running Time: 121
Date: 30/04/2002

Spider-Man (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Dream Weaver

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

My four favorite comic books growing up were Batman, The Uncanny X-Men, The Amazing Spider-Man and Superman. Of all the movies based on those heroes, Sam Raimi's new Spider-Man is the best.

For starters, the movie stays very faithful to the ideas behind the Marvel Comics -- that superheroes are people too. Superman and Batman lead interesting lives, but Peter Parker, Spider-Man's alter ego, has more than his share of problems, which makes him probably the most interesting super-hero around, both in costume and in civvies.

Peter (Tobey Maguire) is the class nerd. He lives with his kindly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and is constantly picked on by bullies and thugs, even when he's trying to photograph a genetically enhanced spider for the school paper. His true love, Mary Jane "M.J." Watson (Kirsten Dunst), poses for a few shots, but largely ignores his existence.

That all changes when one of the spiders gets loose and bites Peter on the hand. When he wakes up in the morning, his scrawny nerd body is gone, replaced with cool new muscles. He can also crawl on walls and shoot webs out of his wrists. (This is the only major change from the comic book. As a science nerd, the comic book Peter had to invent his own mechanical web-shooters.)

Unlike other superheroes, Spider-Man doesn't know what to do with his powers at first. He enters a wrestling match to earn money. But a burglar whom Peter had a chance to stop but didn't ends up fatally shooting his Uncle Ben.

Time passes and school ends. M.J., Peter and Peter's best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) move into Manhattan. Harry and M.J. start dating and try to keep it a secret from Peter, which only adds to his troubles. On top of everything, Harry's father Norman (Willem Dafoe) has turned into the Green Goblin and has begun terrorizing the city.

I was worried that Maguire wouldn't have the stuff to pull of the complex double life of Peter Parker and Spider-Man. His charming blandness worked in Wonder Boys, but he's just awful in The Cider House Rules and Ride With the Devil. But I was more surprised and pleased than anyone that he succeeds -- he brings a sensitivity to the role and latches on to the universal nerd aspect of the hero.

I shouldn't even have to mention that Kirsten Dunst is excellent and that Willem Dafoe not only excels as the Green Goblin, but actually looks like him (Dafoe should have played the Joker in the 1989 Batman movie -- he finally gets his chance here).

Raimi, who directed another great comic book-type movie in 1990 with Darkman, is the perfect captain for this ship. He blends his fluid, goofball style with similar elements in the story, and even casts his mainstays Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi in small cameos.

Some of the film's action shots blew me away -- Spider-man swings through the jungle streets of Manhattan, recklessly jumping from web to web. As he reaches the end of one strand, and his momentum carries him nearly upside-down, the camera literally follows him through this complex movement, and we experience a thrilling bit of vertigo.

The screenplay by David Koepp, whose career includes some solid films like Carlito's Way, Jurassic Park and Panic Room, is forced to pack in tons of backstory before getting on with it, but does it in a satisfying way. We never have to wait too long for an action scene or an emotional high point. Still, I now have faith that Spider-Man 2 will be even better.

I've been going to the movies long enough to know how rare it is for these summer blockbusters to actually deliver the goods. Not only does Spider-Man deliver, but I suspect it might deliver again and again. (See also Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3.)

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