Seen apart from expectations and hype, Spider-Man is what it is: a solid comic-book movie. Director Sam Raimi provides dollops of humor, romance, and kinetic action, and though Spider-Man and Raimi fans (in all likelihood, the same bunch) might wish for more, it's enough.
Spider-Man tells the story of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), though to hear him tell it, it's really about his literal "girl next door": Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). On a field trip with "M.J." and rich-kid buddy Harry Osborn (James Franco), the nerdy, withdrawn, 98-pound-weakling Parker is bitten by a genetically-engineered uber-spider. The film finally sparks when Parker awakes to his new powers. Soon, he's sticking to the walls, bouncing off the roofs, and web-swinging through the New York skyline as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Coincidentally, Harry's government researcher dad Norman, played by thespian Willem Dafoe ("We've barely even tapped the vastness of human potential!") goes schizo at just about the same time, becoming the homicidal Green Goblin. Noisy clashes ensue.
Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp have clearly taken Tim Burton's Batman as a template, an ironic choice as Spider-Man is the front-running hero of Stan Lee's Marvel Comics world, the alternative to DC Comics' Batman and Supes line (for Lee's part, he's deliriously happy and appears in the film). From the opening credits--scored predictably by Batman's Danny Elfman--to the chemically-enhanced emergence of the Green Goblin to the balloon-saturated parade appearance of Macy Gray (see Prince in Batman), the construct feels second-hand.
The overall structure lacks cohesion, but in short stretches, Raimi finds an earnest yet charming groove. Maguire's discovery of his sticky discharge carries an unmistakable undertone of puberty woes, as does a comment from Cliff Robertson's wooden Uncle Ben about those pesky teenage hormones. A costume-design montage will raise fanboy pulses. A diversion to a wrestling ring provides some smiles, and opportunities for Raimi vet Bruce Campbell and one-time "Macho Man" Randy Poffo to cameo. Two intriguing sequences depict the Green Goblin's psychosis as a Jekyll-Hyde complex, allowing Dafoe to act with himself. But seconds after introducing a promising invention, Raimi returns to his lurching, arrhythmic narrative. How, for example, are we meant to react to the muddled first crime of the Green Goblin? In a scene that runs less than a minute, government researchers spout plot at each other, the Green Goblin surfs in, blows something up, aaaand...CUT!
Like Norman Osborn, the film is schizo, and while both halves work reasonably enough on their own merits, they don't complement each other well. The "human" side gets a foothold with Maguire and Dunst's pupil-duel staring contests and the melodramatic underpinnings of Peter Parker's new career (the dictum "With great power comes great responsibility" is intoned more than once, lending a suitable pop operatic feel to the proceedings). But Raimi's efforts to attain moral heft and emotional weight are at odds with the action sequences, which offer hollow exhilaration (some more Spidey one-liners might have revved up the fun factor). Worse, the digital animation of these scenes makes a poor match for the tantalizing glimpses of actual acting (hobbled as it is by masks), stunt work, and photography cut in by Raimi. By scrimping on the illusion of reality, the film sometimes feels like a CGI show-and-tell of flailing, boneless figures.
To see what could have been, check out Raimi's own Darkman, a similar, but much more scrappy and spry exercise. Raimi's love of old movies (shared with his buddies the Coen Brothers) is apparent in both films, with their hokey settings of laboratories and His Girl Friday newsrooms and their use of headline-spinning montages, but Spider-Man never finds the rhythm or packs the perverse punch of the earlier, Grand Guignol action-comedy-romance.
Zesty and essentially true to its source, Spider-Man does the job. Nevertheless, the film is, perhaps, too concerned with fidelity and in-jokes to balance the film's myriad and unfinished story elements. Spider-Man is sure to be a runaway hit, but here's hoping the sequels climb a bit higher.