WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: On a school field trip, nerdy science genius Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically-engineered spider, causing him to undergo some very sudden and profound changes. With his new-found powers, Peter also finds that with great power comes great responsibility, that he cannot protect everyone he loves, and that those near him are not always looking after his best interests.
It wasn’t a term that was used at the time of Spider-Man’s release, but Sam Raimi’s film is essentially a ‘reboot’ of the web-slinging hero’s movie career, following on from some limp TV movie efforts produced in the late 70s. Here, Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker, the introverted youngster who gets nipped by a super-spider and inherits its traits of athleticism, web-slinging and eerie precognition.
As expositions go, Spider-Man is pretty effective, the film quickly establishing that Parker is clever, the victim of bullying, and hopelessly in love with the red-headed girl next door, Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Parker lives with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris) and is friends with bolshy rich boy Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of even bolshier military industrialist Norman (Willem Dafoe); all of this is set up in the first ten minutes or so, and leaves plenty of time for Peter to discover and develop his powers, dishing out an entertaining beating to the bullies who formerly tormented him and making a name for himself via a comical wrestling bout, although that evening ends in tragedy as Peter fails to foil a robbery, the robber shooting Uncle Ben and providing the young superhero with a valuable lesson in what he should be doing.
So far, so good, and despite Harry starting a relationship with MJ, she falls in love with the masked Spider-Man, meaning Peter is happier than ever. But into his life comes the evil Green Goblin, in fact the deranged persona of Norman Osborn, the result of an experiment gone wrong. The Goblin causes havoc wherever he turns up, most notably protecting the interests of Norman’s company, and it falls to Spidey, whenever he is not providing photographs of himself to the Daily Bugle, to rescue the population from his dastardly plans.
It is with the appearance of the Green Goblin that Spider-Man displays most of its faults. It is, of course, a tricky balancing act to introduce the characters of (what will hopefully become) a franchise and also tell a complete tale; but the original Superman and the more recent X-Men both did a better job than Raimi here.
This is because the Green Goblin is simply not a convincingly menacing character. For all of Dafoe’s impassioned acting against himself, the character is essentially a fixed green mask on a hoverboard. When Dafoe is arguing against the mask on the back of a comfy chair it is almost as if the chair is taunting him, and when the Goblin is in full action he resembles a fairly cheap Power Rangers villain.
Moreover, in flight the Green Goblin – Spider-Man too, unfortunately – shows up weaknesses in the film’s CGI: too often, the characters’ movements are jerky and stiff, not entirely human in appearance. Also, the light appears to come from several sources, which does not make the CGI unrealistic as such, but throws up very clearly the difference between when the characters are being represented by people in costumes and when it’s being done by computer ‘magic.’ You also have to wonder why (other than the obvious film-ending reason) the Green Goblin does not simply kill our hero when he drugs him and takes him onto a high roof to give him a lecture.
Other aspects of the film are far more successful, however. Maguire is a perfect balance of athleticism and goofiness for the role of Peter/Spider-Man, who never has the cocksure confidence of other superheroes; Dunst is sweet as MJ, with her own frustrations in life and pretty without seeming unobtainable – she also gets that iconic upside-down kiss – whilst J.K. Simmons is fantastic as the Bugle’s shoot-first-shout-later editor Mr Jameson. The climax, too, is carried out with some panache, Spidey forced to choose between a cable car full of children and Mary-Jane’s life.
That climax also shows up some cute writing, in that Spider-Man does not actually have to kill anyone, both Uncle Ben’s killer and the Goblin doing away with themselves. Harry’s discovery of Spider-Man returning his father’s dead body sets up future conflict nicely, and there is a nice note of self-sacrifice in Peter pushing MJ away. In fact, everything about Spider-Man sets up Spider-Man 2 for the terrific sequel it would prove to be; it is perhaps inevitable that with the job of providing the set-up, this movie would only be a qualified success.