Review by Calvin Trager
April 12, 2002
From the moment the movie opens, Spider-Man stirs memories of the big-screen adaptation of Batman. There's an Elfman score underneath a relatively simple title sequence that serves to build anticipation before the feature starts. This is generally a good thing, as the only successful Marvel adaptations to date have been X-Men and the Blade franchise. If you've been unfortunate enough to see The Punisher or Captain America movies, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
Being the first movie in a new franchise handicaps the movie a bit, as it is necessary to lay out the characters and the world. The exposition material required to establish some of the characters and their relationships does slow the movie on occasion, but just as it seems to be on the verge of truly dragging, the action picks up again. There is a nice little scene near the start of the movie that serves to not only explain a slight shift in the origin of the spider powers, but also serves to explain the spider powers. The general origins of Spider-Man have been brought to screen with only minor tweaks. The key sequence in creating Spider-Man the hero vs Peter Parker who has special powers is very true to the original, with only subtle changes being made in order to update events from the early '60s of the original to current times. Purists may take issue on the matter of the webs, but even the most ardent fans should have a smile brought to their face by a sequence in which Peter Parker is trying out his new powers and a tribute is paid to the original web-shooters.
Overall, the movie does an excellent job of establishing the Spider-Man universe. All of the primary characters are present, and fans of the comic book will recognize name-dropping of characters who could show up in sequels. Some of the supporting roles have been reduced to one-dimensional characters due to time constraints. However, this does not diminish the wonderful performances, such as the one turned in by J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson.
As far as the leads are concerned, Tobey Maguire is excellent as the nebbish Peter Parker from the opening, as well as the slightly more confident, yet still highly-reserved Peter Parker of the majority of the film and the cocky, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Kirsten Dunst turns in an acceptable performance as MJ, but there just isn't much to work with. However, it is Willem Dafoe who is the revelation of the movie. Similar to the first of the Burton Batman films, Spider-Man uses a single insane villain, a role in which Dafoe excels. What differentiates Dafoe's interpretation from Nicholson's over-the-top performance is that Dafoe displays some restraint, which actually lends a sense of menace to the Green Goblin that was absent from the Joker.
The movie mostly delivers on its promise of bringing Spider-Man to life. The majority of the Spider-Man powers (wall climbing, spider sense, proportional strength) are handled with the smooth visual look that audiences have become accustomed to with state-of-the-art special effects. There are sequences that are obviously only possible with CGI effects, and the majority of them are handled nicely. Some of the early sequences of Spider-Man web-slinging his way across the skyline are not the greatest, especially when compared to similar sequences that occur later in the film. Whether there is any basis in fact or not, one gets the feeling that the effects were done in sequence, and that there was a learning curve from which the later shots benefited. The overall impression is far better than, say, the Scorpion King sequence at the end of The Mummy Returns, but the web-slinging isn't quite perfect.
Spider-Man also delivers upon its promise of being the first summer movie and having several action sequences in which nifty fighting moves are executed and things are noisily blown up. It's not the best ever, but still engaging and entertaining.
All in all, Spider-Man is nearly everything that one could hope for in the first of a promised series of comic book-to-film adaptations. The movie seems a bit long at times, and then just about when things are getting really moving, the movie starts to head toward its closing act. However, that was to be expected, given the need to cover the origin of the character.