by Columbia Pictures 

May 2002


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Adapting any popular work for the big screen is fraught with peril.  There is no chance of completely satisfying all the fans of the original format, and changes must be made to attract those who aren’t fans of the work or character to see the film.  With the rise of the internet, this may have become more difficult, since so many websites offer gossip about the script and direction a film is going to take, long before the film is even shot.  This can lead to the long-time fans airing, quite publicly, their Cassandra-like wails that the film will be a dismal failure on every level.  Such predictions occurred for “Spider-Man” when it was revealed that the lead would be played by Tobey Maguire (similar, in many ways, to the outcry in 1989 when Michael Keaton was selected to portray Bruce Wayne/Batman).  A second outcry occurred upon learning that Spider-Man’s mechanical web spinners would be replaced by organic ones.

In both cases, the causes of the outcry worked well, at least for those not devote fans of the character.  Maguire managed to do a wonderful job as the nebbishy Peter Parker, playing him seriously enough that he didn’t become a joke and realistically enough that you could see that he was an outcast from his peers, although why they had developed such a strong antipathy towards him is never explored.  Similarly, the scenes in which he figures out how his webbing works, and, more importantly, how to control it, are done quite well and induce both laughter and sympathy.  Not only do these scenes, particularly his fight with Flash Thompson, allow the special effects crew to show a variety of interesting interpretations of Spider-Man’s powers, but they demonstrate how Parker learns about who he is, not just as Spider-Man, but as a person.

For the latter,  Peter Parker is helped along by his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Richardson in a cameo role).  Parker’s next door-neighbor, Mary Ann Watson (Kirsten Dunst) appears as a change from the comic book character, but works overall.  Her slightly schizophrenic relationship with Parker, alternating between being friendly and remembering him from when they were much younger to utterly ignoring his existence, seems a bit strange, but the fact that she is never portrayed as overtly hostile to Parker, as so many others are, helps the portrayal of the relationship.  The relationship which never does seem quite real is Parker’s friendship with Harry Osborn (James Franco).  Osborn is the scion of a wealthy father, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), who befriends Parker when he finds himself in a public school, following his failure at numerous private institutions, but the two boys never really seem to have a basis for their friendship.

Of course, Osborn’s father is Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin.  Perhaps taking his direction from Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker in “Batman,” Dafoe plays the Green Goblin with just the right amount of camp.  The character does not appear to be over the top, but he definitely is drunk on his own perceived power and intelligence.  Psychological scenes in which the two sides of the character talk to himself are well done and similar to the scenes in which Gollum confronts himself in “The Lord of the Rings:  The Two Towers,” although different enough to set them apart.

“Spider-Man” works well as both a film about characters and an action film.  The images have an appropriate comic-book brightness to them without degenerating into a cartoon.  None of the characters are invulnerable, yet the blood never gets out of hand.  If the audience is asked to suspend its disbelief for segments of the film, it is in a natural way which is to be expected from this sort of film.

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