Spider-Man was the first superhero film I remember going to see at the cinema during my childhood, and as a young viewer I passionately loved the entire trilogy for being a brilliant spectacle and having a sympathetic lead character as well. In the countless years since I last saw any of the films I found myself developing a newfound appreciation for director Sam Raimi as the Evil Dead films (1981-1992) remain some of the most entertaining horror films I've ever seen. With that in mind I was thoroughly excited about seeing him work with a huge budget unlike ever before, and given that it is currently the heyday for superhero films it was clearly an exciting chance to get back to when Marvel films really began to take off.
Spider-Man begins as an affectionate throwback to teen movie tropes of the 1980's, the era in which Sam Raimi's career was first propelled into glory. The story gives a proudly cheesy backdrop to the characters and takes them through a 1980's high school story brought into the 2000's without shame. Occasionally the cheesy nature of Spider-Man can get a little too silly, but at worst it is sporadic. Given that Sam Raimi worked prior on the pulp superhero film Darkman (1990) which capitalized on the man's talents for style and playing with cheesy story conventions, it's great to see him step it up with a larger budget and more ambition.
After the story develops from its teenage drama roots into a legitimate superhero narrative, the quantity of cheesy moments in the film declines. It still pops up occasionally, but this is only through an occasional quip in the script which lightens the mood for a momentary lighthearted joke. Though the story in Spider-Man makes an effort to be a backstory, it doesn't spend too much time playing around with Peter Parker's youth or family history. It's barely even 10 minutes into the film before Peter Parker gets bitten by the radioactive spider that gives him his powers. From there, the film immediately begins to focus on the intense changes that Peter Parker experiences as a result. We see him gaining new physical abilities which he progressively displays more of, and his psychology changes in the process. We see an all new level of confidence in Peter Parker as well as a greater sense of energy. The screenplay allows things to develop at a steady rate, and it doesn't forget to have fun along the way while balancing its use of spectacle with a thoughtful story.
In Spider-Man there is actually a lot of heart. Rather than forsaking character development for pure action, David Koepp ensures that there is enough humanity in Spider-Man to bring it down to earth. Spider-Man takes its time to put actual characterization into Peter Parker, and particularly his relationship with Mary Jane Watson. I'm normally one who doesn't enjoy the romantic elements of any film, let alone a summer blockbuster. But in the case of Spider-Man, the love story develops from being a cheesy teenage love story into one of real passion. This is largely thanks to the chemistry between the main actors, but also because the relationship in the film is not one which relies on sentimentality or melodrama. It is subtle, and a lot of the time it relies the implications of the characters rather than what they're explicitly stating. There is far more realism and genuine passion in Spider-Man than in the romantic material of a standard summer blockbuster, and though many of the supporting characters are simple archetypes the cast never let down the roles.
As a visual spectacle, Spider-Man is packed with plenty of stylish glory. The visual effects in the film are brilliantly detailed and used to show off a versatile collection of the titular hero's abilities. The CGI assists the character in swinging across the city and climbing up walls. It even lends assistance to the physical fight scenes. But even though Spider-Man features breakthrough CGI which were of a high enough standard to earn a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, the action does not rely excessively on them. While the CGI supports much of the action, there is a lot of actual fight choreography that goes into the film which the cast are passionately dedicated to keeping up with. This is made clear in the first scene in which Spider-Man battling the Green Goblin is depicted as there is a strong mix between practical stunts and visual effects. Everything is captured with brilliant cinematography which grasps the large scale of everything with its beautiful scenery as a backdrop, and the shots last enough time to capture the natural appeal of it all with smooth tracking. The sound editing is also great, and the brilliant musical score brought in by Danny Elfman helps to keep the spectacle rich in atmosphere. The film could stand to use a bit more action, but what there is proves to be vastly entertaining.
And like I said, Spider-Man as a very talented collection of cast members.
Tobey Maguire makes a befitting lead for the titular role in Spider-Man. He proves an ideal fit as Peter Parker because is very introverted and reserved; the perfect portrait of a geek. He works this naturally into the character without laying the stereotype on too hard, and his subtlety works. When the story gets to its most saddening material, we see Tobey Maguire channel his emotions with an easy transition. The man is able to cry on command perfectly, and it feels so real every time. When it comes to suiting up Tobey Maguire doesn't always grasp the over the top fun edge of Spider-Man because he tends to be so focused on humanizing the character that he plays Peter Parker in a suit more than he plays Spider-Man, but he does have a very energetic passion to him at the right moments. There are some times where material that is intended to be really dramatic is delivered in a manner too subtle to match the narrative ambitions, but the majority of Tobey Maguire's intentions are realized. Tobey Maguire does a really smooth job of humanizing Spider-Man, and he makes a really sympathetic protagonist for everyone to enjoy.
Willem Dafoe is also a great addition to the cast. The man has a natural talent for playing villains of the most sadistic and creepy form, and this has been clear as far back as Wild at Heart (1990), and Spider-Man is his opportunity to bring it to the most commercially viable form. The Green Goblin is a very cartoonish villain, and it is difficult to bring such a character to live-action cinema. But with the cheesy embrace of the film's narrative, Willem Dafoe manages to perfect the part. He displays vulnerability in the role of Norman Osbourne, but in the role of the Green Goblin he becomes a one-dimensional beast driven by pure sadistic obsession which Willem Dafoe captures with swift line delivery and creepy facial expressions. Willem Dafoe seems to have a lot of fun with the sick and twisted nature of the villain in Spider-Man, and he manages to find an effective balance between playing to the cartoonish nature of the comic book character and a genuinely intimidating villain, spearheading the role with strong villainy.
Cliff Robertson is a great presence because he has a long-running legacy in Hollywood, and with his age comes a greater sense of wisdom which he puts into the gentle spirit of Ben Parker. And Rosemary Harris captures the same nature with a really gentle performance that carries the inherently warm love of a grandmother consistently throughout the film.
Harry Osbourne can come off as a rather angsty stereotype at times, but James Franco manages to grasp the rol well enough. And J.K. Simmons was born to play the role of J. Jonah Jameson Jr.. because he embraces the relentless egotism of the role with a quick wit and hard edge that contributes some appropriately hilarious moments to the film.
Lastly, any film that features a cameo from Bruce Campbell, particularly one directed by Sam Raimi, is worth watching for that factor alone.
Spider-Man may spend more time characterizing its protagonist's human side than embracing his superpowers, but it is nevertheless a visually stellar superhero film with a brilliant cast.
Overall score: 8.4/10 (Great).
As a fan of superhero movies, I'd probably rate this a 9/10
but from a filmmaking & casual movie go-er's perspective (Meaning realistic) I'll stick with an 8.4/10, Don't miss it!