Main cast: Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man/Peter Parker), Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin/Norman Osborn), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), JK Simmons (J Jonah Jameson), Rosemary Harris (Aunt May), and Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben Parker)
Director: Sam Raimi
I went to see this movie with minimum expectations, but Spider-Man is a pleasant surprise. As an action movie, it’s a flop, but as a character movie, well, it’s not bad. Fanboys and fangirls, beware that this movie is not like the comics you – and I – love, and Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man is all wrong. His Spider-Man/Peter Parker has a fatalistic pragmatism lacking in Stan Lee’s Peter Parker, but it’s not a bad thing at all.
There are some twists in this story, as scriptwriter David Koepp attempts to distil everything about Peter Parker’s genesis to Spider-Manhood, his guilt over Uncle Ben’s death, and his love story with Mary Jane Watson. Of course, this is probably decades of comic book story adapted to two hours of screentime, so there are some changes that are to be expected.
So meet the geek Peter Parker. He may be a science whiz, but he wants to be a photographer. I don’t know why, and this movie never addresses that question. Still, no matter. He’s in love with the girl next door, Mary Jane “MJ” Watson since he was six. MJ’s a white trash kinda girl who just wants to be an actress.
One day, while at a tour at some science lab in their prospective future college, the kids take turn bullying Peter until a genetically enhanced spider bites Peter. Peter becomes strappingly muscular, he doesn’t need geeky glasses anymore, and he has superpowers now! He can shoot webbie stringies out of some hole-thingies in his hand, and he can climb walls. I have no idea how he can also become so acrobatic and dextrous, but hey, who needs logic? Geeky fanboys always harbor this dream that one day they will lose their extra pounds, greasy hair, and turn into Peter Parker overnight by no effort of their own (workout, get a job – nah, too much bother, we’ll just wait for a spider to bite us on our lazy butts and we’ll become so sexy overnight, we’ll be getting laid 24/7), so Peter Parker is their hero.
Meanwhile, Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn (don’t ask why a rich kid is befriending a nerd, especially in a high school populated by Archie and Betty lookalikes) also vies for MJ’s affections. To complicate matters, Harry’s father Norman is a mad scientist who performs some tests on his self involving some nasty green vapors and oops, he becomes a superhuman schizophrenic Jekyll-and-Hyde nutcase!
Peter becomes a vigilante with a vengeance when he lets a robber go only to have the robber fatally wound his Uncle Ben. When he and Norman’s path cross, well, soon their family is dragged into the mess as well.
Not that this is anything new. Of course Norman will don some fugly lycra and mask and become the Green Goblin. He glides on some mechanical hover-glider thingie, not knowing how much he looks the forgotten Evil Dead member of the Village People. And yes, he takes MJ hostage in the end, forcing Spider-Man to choose between a cable-car full of kids or that of MJ. Yawn.
Yes, I burst out laughing when I saw the costumes for the first time. Seriously, Spider-Man in costume is so bulked up as compared to the mildly bulked up but still scrawny Peter Parker, the contrast is ridiculous. Nice butt on that Spider-Man though, I must say. It is also very obvious that Tobey Maguire is crawling on a horizontal “wall” – this is surprisingly cheesy special effect at work here, I’m afraid. You’d think the choreographer will point out that Mr Maguire is doing the “climbing” all wrong. People scaling a vertical wall don’t use their knees to move them upwards as if they are crawling along a floor.
I must also say that the Green Goblin is one of the worst villains ever. William Dafoe looks menacing, but he’s wearing a sissy mask that makes the Scream dude looks sober, and his voice is so wrong and so devoid of any sense of menace. It doesn’t help that he is sprouting lines more painfully corny than Batman and Robin‘s Mr Freeze – everything you can think of about spiders and webs are here.
It’s not that the rest of the cast are spared from cheesy dialogues. But Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst obviously work overtime to give their characters depths never called for in the script, and kudos to these two youngsters for making it all seem so effortless. From the script alone, MJ Watson is a braindead damsel-in-distress, but Ms Dunst’s expressive face provides MJ with genuine depths. When MJ is afraid, she really is afraid – Ms Dunst is an amazing actress for someone her age, and she effortlessly makes MJ smarter, more vulnerable, and at the same time stronger than MJ is actually written.
The script – for reasons known only to the movie folks, I guess – makes Peter Parker less a sarcastic fellow than a melancholic, secretive boy-behind-the-tree lone wolf hero. Purists won’t like this, but I think it’s a good thing – Tobey Maguire really shines when he plays the misunderstood loner. Yes, his deadpan voice is so wrong when Peter Parker is supposed to be a wisecrack-a-second fellow, but he has the right face for a loner: he’s cute, yes, but at the same time he has this sad hangdog face that makes it so easy for people to see him as a victim. Like Ms Dunst, he spares little back in his role. He too pours in nuances in his voice and face to the point that Peter/Spider-Man is indeed a sympathetic loner-vs-the-world type worth rooting for. In this movie, Peter Parker does come off as a romantic martyr who has to push away everyone he loves for their own sake.
Hence, while MJ’s declaration of love is the corniest I’ve heard, Ms Dunst’s tears and the way she delivers it – with breaks and sobs that tell me that, yes, her heart is indeed breaking – make it like the most romantic declaration ever. Likewise, when Peter Parker is waxing poetry about MJ’s eyes, I want to throw up if someone else is doing the talking. But Maguire’s face, eyes, and the way he voices things out – pure magic.
Heck, even pretty boy James Franco does a decent job as the ambiguous pretty face who eventually may become Peter’s worst enemy in the sequel.
Spider-Man is actually a badly-written duel of two pansies in bad lycra, but it is very obvious that it has a very talented cast that manages to rise above whatever crap it forces the cast to say and do. I am not too impressed with this movie, but Mr Maguire and Ms Dunst imbue their Peter Parker and MJ Watson with so much intriguing depths that I am really looking forward to the sequel, if only to see more of the sizzling chemistry between them.