Spider-Man

To get the big news out fast, Spider-Man is up, up and away as the firecracker to beat this summer. Working from a script by David Koepp, director Sam Raimi gives this unapologetic fluff a mind, a heart and a keen sense of fun — all the ingredients missing from, say, The Scorpion King. And the actors seem to be having almost as good a time as we are. The unlikely superhero that Stan Lee created at Marvel Comics in 1962 makes a perfect fit for Tobey Maguire. OK, so maybe a stuntman squeezed into Spidey drag for the dangerous feats that aren't CG (computer generated). Maguire's substantial accomplishment isn't acrobatic; he builds a real character out of the sketch that is Peter Parker, an orphan from Queens, New York. Peter has a high school geek's sense of the universe: He's getting screwed out of the good stuff, especially teen angel nextdoor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, taking adorable to a sexy new dimension). Superman's roots on another planet and Batman's wealth always kept those crusaders at a distance. Peter is the average joe incarnate. Even after that mutant spider bites him and he starts going bugfuck climbing walls, Peter still can't make the move that would get him into Mary Jane's pants. He feels resentful when his rich friend Harry (a brooding James Franco) horns in on her, but says nothing. Peter is a product of the solid values instilled by his uncle (Cliff Robertson) and aunt (Rosemary Harris). Mary Jane's father is abusive. And Harry's dad, the scientist-mogul Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), ignores him while staging shouting matches with his villainous alter ego, the Green Goblin. Dafoe is a wild, warped wonder, taking the Goblin to dark places the Joker never investigated.

Comic-book freaks will bitch about liberties taken. You'll hear that some of the CGI isn't so hot (it isn't) and that the Goblin's mask looks like party plastic (it does). Know what? It doesn't matter. Raimi mixes his flair for the sensational (The Evil Dead) and the subtle (A Simple Plan) into one knockout package. Peter testing his new powers with small skips and jumps until he is leaping across rooftops is Raimi's style in a nutshell: slow build, huge payoff. The cold technology of the FX, like the Times Square battle between Spidey and the Goblin, can freeze off feeling. Raimi counters by showing a New York crowd booing the Goblin with a moving, post-9/11 fervor: "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us."

It's the little things that float this $139 million balloon. That includes the upside-down kiss when Mary Jane slowly pulls down Spidey's mask for a smacker and nearly strips his face naked before he leaps away. Maguire and Dunst keep Spider-Man on a high with their sweet-sexy yearning, spinning a web of dazzle and delicacy that might just restore the good name of movie escapism.

From The Archives Issue 304: November 15, 1979