With a great character comes…alas, just a decent superhero movie: Revisiting 2002’s ‘Spider-Man’

July 14, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 14, 2014

In 2002, Columbia Pictures released a movie titled, simply, Spider-Man. It was a pretty fun outing starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as, respectively, the eponymous hero ( Peter Parker) and his longtime next-door neighbor and not-so-secret crush, Mary Jane Watson.

What few people could have foreseen was that Spider-Man would unleash a cinematic infestation of, well, Spider-Man movies. The wall-crawler’s first big-budget cinematic outing was followed in 2004 by Spider-Man 2 and in 2007 by Spider-Man 3, all of which starred Maguire and Dunst and were directed by Sam Raimi.

The first two movies in the series, especially the 2004 release, received a decent critical reception. The third feature, which I’ve never seen, is widely considered to be a sprawling mess.

Still, it was a bit of a surprise when, in 2012 — not a decade after the debut of the first Spider-Man — Columbia released a reboot of the series. The Amazing Spider-Man starred Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and it was fun, even though there hadn’t seem to be an urgent need for it. Earlier this year, we got The Amazing Spider-Man 2which was also enjoyable, if a bit overstuffed. Both films evidently did well at the box office, and I gather that another sequel is on its way.

(My understanding, by the way, is that Columbia may be contractually obligated to release a Spider-Man film every so often or risk losing control of rights to the Marvel Comics character, who was originally created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.)

Some weeks back, I came across a DVD set of the original Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, and I grabbed it. Since I’d enjoyed the Amazing reboot so much, and since I’ve never seen Raimi’s third Spider-Man movie, I thought it would be interesting to screen these older superhero flicks.

I began, of course, at the beginning, with 2002’s Spider-Man. And, much to my surprise, I found the movie to be rather lacking.

Dunst and Maguire are appealing actors, but screenwriter David Koepp frequently burdens them with awkward dialogue. The corny lines isn’t limited to the main characters, either. The movie’s nadir may be when an extra, a man wearing a New York Mets baseball hat, berates the villain by shouting this clunker: “Yeah, I got something for your ass! You mess with Spidey, you mess with New York!”)

It doesn’t help that no one in Spider-Man who was cast to play a high schooler — Parker and Watson are about to graduate when the movie begins — has much resemblance to a teenager. (Much to my surprise, Dunst was just 20 when the first film in the trilogy debuted; Maguire, unsurprisingly, was 27.)

The movie’s antagonist is the Green Goblin. He comes into being when scientist-industrialist Norman Osborn, fearful of losing a crucial military contract, recklessly orders a subordinate to inject him with unstable performance-enhancing drugs. Osborn is played by an impossibly chiseled Willem Dafoe. Alas, the only thing stiffer than Dafoe’s actual face is his ridiculous Goblin costume, which features one of the silliest helmets in movie history. It doesn’t help that some of the Goblin’s movements seem to have been produced by some lackluster stop-motion animation.

Plenty of other things in Spider-Man are goofy, starting and ending with the opening and closing credits. These sequences, which are draped with schlocky-looking webs, appear to have been conceived and executed by especially clever middle schoolers.

Fortunately, the movie has compensating pleasures. Maguire exhibits a goofy, enjoyable awe as he explores his new powers after being bitten by a genetically engineered spider hybrid. (His surprise at discovering his unexpected bodily emissions is hilarious.) While Dafoe’s performance is mostly lamentable, he has a few good scenes in which his overpowering id and agonized superego verbally joust with one another.

More to the point for a superhero outing, perhaps: Some of the shots of Spider-Man in action are absolutely gorgeous. His early tries swinging through the canyons of Manhattan are especially enjoyable. And the final mano a mano confrontation between Spidey and the Goblin is pretty thrilling. (A turning point in the battle comes when the villain taunts a nearly defeated web-slinger about his lascivious plans for Watson.)

In the end, Spider-Man is just a decent superhero movie — not a great one. It’ll be interesting to see how Spider-Man 2 measures up to my memories.

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