Spider-Man

Y

Kirk Honeycutt
This review was written for the theatrical release of "Spider-Man."

In his first movie outing, "Spider-Man" stays rooted in the two worlds that best suit this superhero -- a comic-book geography, in which the character can climb and spin through the urban jungle just as rambunctious boys scamper about a jungle gym, and old B-movies, where things happen with a rush and no one is afraid to be a little corny. Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker/Spider-Man, which is the smartest decision director Sam Raimi and his colleagues made. Guileless and charming with a perpetual look of startled bewilderment at the super powers he possesses, Maguire is perfect as an ordinary guy with a big secret. And he is the biggest reason why "Spider-Man" will become as strong an attraction for women as it will for guys and comic-book fans.

This Columbia release does what the doctor ordered: It sets up Spider-Man for a tentpole series that will continue a long while (or at least until Maguire tires of the role), provides a satisfying first episode and compelling Jekyll-and-Hyde villain, establishes the hero's love interest in Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson with flaming red hair and leaves enough threads dangling so you're eager for the next episode. "Spider-Man" is the first clear hit film of the summer, so long as you don't mind summer starting May 3.

While a number of directors including James Cameron positioned themselves to make the first Spider-Man movie, Raimi was a wonderful choice since he is operating in familiar territory, having directed such serio-comic fantasies as "Darkman" and "Army of Darkness." Steering clear of the grandiose, epic style of the "Superman" series and the brooding, nightmarish world of Tim Burton's "Batman" films, Raimi goes for a comic-book sensibility. The film feels contained -- its design, visual effects and cinematography all in the right balance and proportion. Spider-Man is the hero, and not some element in the filmmaking process.

David Koepp's efficient screenplay (based, of course, on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Marvel Comic Book series) places you in an alternative reality where the appearance of a superhero is welcome but not entirely remarkable. The fellow even gets bad press: A tough newspaper editor, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), wonders in print if perhaps Spider-Man and a villain the editor has dubbed the Green Goblin (and wants royalties on that name!) might not be in cahoots.

Peter Parker is established in the early moments as the 99-pound weakling who gets dissed by his muscular male classmates in a Queens-area high school. The source of this disdain is never explained; he is simply a geek and therefore a "freak." (Note how this concept has dated since Spider-Man's first comic-book appearance 40 years ago.)

Orphaned at an early age, Peter lives with his kindly uncle and aunt (veterans Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris). He pines for Mary Jane, or M.J., the pretty girl next door, who never seems fully satisfied with her choice of boyfriends.

At a science-class outing to a research lab, Peter is bitten by a genetically altered spider. The next morning, he discovers that a) he doesn't need his glasses, b )his body is buffed out and c) he has spiderlike powers including the ability to cling to any surface, spin tough-as-rope webs and make tremendous leaps. The "freak" is now really a freak.

The movie has fun as the young man explores the range of his new abilities. He then tests himself -- along with making money -- in a wrestling ring, where he takes on a mountainous challenger in a sequence that could've lasted much longer to comic effect. Immediately thereafter, when his dear uncle is carjacked and fatally wounded, Peter's Spider-Man turns into a crime-fighter.

Spider-Man's main opponent this outing is industrialist Norman Osborn, father to his best buddy Harry (James Franco). Norman actually takes a friendly interest in Peter's education and career. After high school, when the two youths room together in a Manhattan loft, they are, in a sense, rivals for the affections of both M.J. and Harry's dad.

Harry gets the girl, at least initially, but Peter has caught Norman's eye. Meanwhile, Norman has his own lab "accident," in which an experimental vapor gives him superhuman strength yet leaves him criminally insane. Norman is soon scooting around New York's skies on foot jets, dressed in a reptilian, armor-plated space suit. But his Green Goblin is a conflicted villain. He holds schizophrenic conversations with himself -- staring into a mirror or at his evil mask --as he struggles against the villainy that has invaded his body.

Thanks to a likable cast and lighthearted special effects by John Dykstra and Sony Pictures Imageworks, the two hours zip by quickly. Backed by Danny Elfman's full-throated score, the filmmakers' imaginations work in overdrive from the clever design of the cobwebby opening credits and Spider-Man and M.J.'s upside down kiss -- after one of his many rescues of her -- to a finale that leaves character relationships open ended for future adventures.

The movie shrugs off such implausibles as Peter's absurdly fast costume changes or how he selects which crimes he will intervene in. With M.J. forever wandering down dark streets, he has his hands full with her alone.

SPIDER-MAN
Columbia Pictures
A Marvel Enterprises/Laura Ziskin production
A Sam Raimi film
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenwriter: David Koepp; Based on the Marvel Comic Book by: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko
Producers: Laura Ziskin, Ian Bryce
Executive producers: Avi Arad, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Don Burgess
Production designer: Neil Spisak
Music: Danny Elfman
Visual effects designer: John Dykstra
Special visual effects: Sony Pictures Imageworks
Costume designer: James Acheson
Co-producer: Grant Curtis
Editors: Bob Murawski, Arthur Coburn
Cast:
Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire
Norman Osborn/Green Goblin: Willem Dafoe
Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst
Harry Osborn: James Franco
Uncle Ben: Cliff Robertson
Aunt May: Rosemary Harris
J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons
MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time 120 minutes