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Release: 2002, Sony
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: [PG-13] for stylized violence and action
Genre: Action/Adventure/Drama

Before you get to the review...
Don't forget to check out our Spider-Man vs. The Hulk Showdown, and come back on May 13 to take part in our Spider-Man Watch and Win Contest. You can join our Mailing List to be informed of Spidey-related features. And if you're looking for the definitive book on the making of the Spider-Man movie, we recommend Behind the Mask of Spider-Man.

After being bitten by a genetically enhanced spider and acquiring superhuman powers, teenager Peter Parker (Maguire) assumes the identity of Spider-Man and dedicates his life to protecting the innocent.

What's Good
strong, engaging story and interesting characters
a well-chosen cast of actors
cool special effects and lots of action
fun all around

What's Bad
failure to explore the "betrayal" storyline further

Reviewer: Andrew Manning, Contributing Editor: Matthew Leary (05/02)

While films like Batman and Spawn drove the prospect of more comic book movies into the ground, the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man are bringing vibrant life into the genre. With actors who are perfect for the roles, first rate scripts, and lots of movie magic, they are proving that superhero films can be both critical and box office success stories.

Based on one of the most enduring and recognized comic book characters of all time, Spider-Man is one hell of a film. It has all the major ingredients needed for fun, escapism fantasy of blockbuster proportions: great actors, great characters, great story, loads of action, good overcoming evil, and a hint of romance. This first chapter in the Spider-Man saga focuses on the wallcrawler's origins, and pits Spidey against his first superpowered adversary, the Green Goblin.

As the story opens, we are introduced to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a bright but socially inept teenager who can't seem to get a break. Not only do the other kids constantly pick on him, but he's hopelessly in love with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the sweet girl-next-door who's always falling for other guys. While on a high school field trip, he is bitten by a genetically enhanced super-spider. The next day, he awakens to find that his body is undergoing an amazing metamorphosis, and he is gaining some uncanny powers: strength, speed, agility, keen eyesight, and the ability to climb walls and spin webs.

Despite these superpowers, though, the last thing on Peter's mind is becoming a superhero. He's got more pressing concerns, like scraping together enough cash to buy a car to impress Mary Jane. It's not until the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (a impressive sub-plot about responsibility and consequences) that he realizes his duty to humanity. From that tragic day forward, he assumes the identity of Spider-Man and makes it his mission to battle evil. Before long, he encounters the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), a murderous psychopath bent on killing Spidey's friends and family.

But the Green Goblin isn't your garden variety nemesis. He's none other than Norman Osborn, renowned scientist, corporate powerhouse, and father of Harry Osborn, Peter Parker's best friend. Because they're both brainiacs at heart, Norman sees Peter as the son he wishes he had. This causes a whole tangled web of emotions, including Harry's jealousy of Peter, Norman's disappointment in Harry, and Peter's loyalty to Norman. And things only get worse when Peter and Norman discover each other's super-charged alter-egos. The seemingly perfect Mary Jane, meanwhile, has her share of problems, from an unhappy home to failing to realize her acting dreams. The central theme of identity ties all the characters together, and is a lot more down to earth than the pundits would have you believe.

Spidey's human side has always been one of his most appealing aspects, and an important factor in his universal appeal. But Spider-Man isn't just about people dealing with various relationships--it also features plenty of action. Special effects bring the wallcrawler to impressive life, making for some very cool eye candy. Spidey spirals through dizzying heights with impossible grace, moving just as fans would envision based on the comics and cartoons. Whether he's battling the Green Goblin in mid-air or saving people from a burning building, the action is fast paced and fun. Audiences will be cheering Spider-Man every step of the way. And let's face it: with all the political upheaval in the world, it's nice to have a likeable, triumphant superhero to indulge in.

The chemistry between Peter and Mary Jane is touching, if not sappy at times. And Peter's eventual transition from a horny teenager to a responsible young man who dutifully sacrifices personal happiness is unexpectedly tragic and heroic. Plus, it opens the door for all the sequels to come (Spider-Man 2 is already slated for May 7, 2004). Tobey Maguire makes the perfect Peter Parker--both pre-superhero and post--with the only unsettling thing being his voice sounding too youthful on a few occasions from behind the mask.

The movie also boasts its share of humor, with most of this credit going to J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), the newspaper editor who hires Peter as a freelance photographer. The fast-talking cheapskate spouts a lot of funny stuff in his few minutes onscreen. Elsewhere, Peter's discovery of his spider powers is good for a few laughs, and Spider-Man throws out a couple of one-liners (although he is largely lacking his famous, carefree sense of humor from the comics).

If Spider-Man has any great flaw, it's the missed opportunity of developing the bad blood between Spidey and the Goblin. When the Goblin discovers Spider-Man's identity, he clearly feels betrayed--but that sense of betrayal gets completely lost by the final climax. Like Magneto in X-Men, the green fiend starts off with a strong sense of purpose, but eventually devolves into a simple engine of mayhem. (His dastardly deed at the end of the movie feels more like evil for the sake of evil, rather than a test of Spider-Man's resolve.) Still, it's an easily dismissed problem in the light of the film's accomplishments.

Hollywood's impending plan to crank out a feature film for every comic property in sight is questionable, so let's enjoy the premium stuff while it lasts: Spider-Man is a top-notch movie, and the epitome of a summer blockbuster done correctly.

Rating: 9 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)

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