One thing is certain about the summer's first blockbuster: "Spider-Man" gives us the most sensitive superhero ever.
Sam Raimi's film canonization of the beloved Marvel Comics hero combines eye-popping heroics with dollops of teen angst, as Tobey Maguire takes us through the making of a costumed crime-fighter and Peter Parker's pining for the girl next door.
As written by David Koepp, "Spider-Man" makes a sometimes bumpy ride, for the movie attempts to work in many major elements from the 40-year-old comic book.
Following Peter from his lonely life as a high school nerd to his proud discovery of new strength after he is bitten by a genetically altered arachnid, Koepp parallels the boy's story with the making of another mutant. At first, Norman Osborn wants only to save his military contract, and thus puts himself though an untested experiment to upgrade his physical powers. But like Mr. Hyde, this alter ego becomes a murderous monster, dubbed the Green Goblin by the tabloid press.
In time, Spider-Man and the Green Goblin become deadly adversaries. But it takes a while for the plot to crystallize. First Peter must yearn in vain for Kirsten Dunst's red-headed, sad-eyed Mary Jane Watson, even as he hopes to win her over by buying a sports car with earnings as a wrestler. To enter the ring, the bold lad designs a rudimentary Spider-Man costume, then does battle with one Bone Saw McGraw in an amusing sendup of the World Wrestling Federation, complete with folding chairs.
Raimi, whose portfolio also includes "Darkman," withholds the first burst of swooping acrobatics over the streets of New York. But once Peter has perfected his red and blue spider suit, the director and his special-effects team, headed by John Dykstra, unleash a dizzying burst of web-swinging that will keep audiences coming back for more.
Illustrating the perfection of the Spider-Man act is a zippy montage of good deeds. At this point, Peter/Spidey is just practicing, totally unaware that a fiendish foe will soon be coming his way.
But Willem Dafoe, superbly villainous, is building Norman's masked killer into a deadly nemesis, reminiscent of The Joker, though unfortunately less witty. Dafoe, whose long, lean, seamed and sharply sculptured countenance could enable him to play Batman's greatest adversary in straight makeup, underlines the correspondence between Spider-Man and the Caped Crusader, as does the grandly stirring orchestral scoring by Danny Elfman.
"Spider-Man" seems, in fact, to have stolen a march on "Batman: Year One," Darren Aronofsky's upcoming account of Bruce Wayne's response to the loss of his parents.
Peter's own mother and father have been dead since his childhood, of course, and he has been raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. But it is Uncle Ben's slaying by a car hijacker that sets Peter on his path as a scourge of muggers and a savior of babies in burning buildings.
As photographed by Don Burgess and designed by Neil Spisak, the New York of "Spider-Man" feels nothing like the Gotham City of Anton Furst. There are echoes of the "Batman" films in a street parade that turns violent as the Green Goblin jets in on a sort of air surfer, and in a shot of the lonely Spidey perched on a Crysler Building gargoyle. But except for its dark and scummy alleys, "Spider-Man" has a generally sunny, bright look, kind of like "Superman." There is even a sequence in which Spidey carries Mary Jane on a sky joy ride, as the Man of Steel did with Lois Lane.
Although it is crammed with incidents, the plot of "Spider-Man" feels thin. It pits Peter against his only friend, James Franco's preppy Harry Osborn, over the heart of Mary Jane, who, like Lois, goes for the super guy. It depicts Norman, Harry's sarcastic and sometimes abusive military industrialist father, as he wrestles like Jekyll and Hyde with himself in a manse filled with the shamanic masks of many cultures. At last, the Goblin, whose own mask borrows from "Alien" in an art deco kind of way, tries to win Spider-Man over to his side, Darth Vader that he is.
There is more sweetness and even preachiness than humor in Koepp's screenplay, with Cliff Robertson gruffly offering up, "With great power comes great responsibility" as Uncle Ben, and Rosemary Harris mothering Peter as Aunt May. J.K. Simmons' Jonah Jamieson, Peter's editor at the Daily Bugle, has the funniest line, referring to his ridiculous flattop: "I trust my barber."
At last, Raimi arrives at the climax, a complicated but exciting cliffhanger at the Queensboro Bridge involving the Roosevelt Island cable car. The finish, though reminiscent of "Batman," comes directly from the comic. And as the credits roll, the faithful cheer.
SPIDER-MAN is directed by Sam Raimi and written by David Koepp, based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Director of photography, Don Burgess. Production design by Neil Spisak. Edited by Bob Murawski and Arthur Coburn. Music by Danny Elfman; special effects by John Dykstra. Produced by Laura Ziskin and Ian Bryce. Featuring Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris and J. K. Simmons. A Columbia Pictures release and presentation of Marvel Enterprises/Laura Ziskin production. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 for rude talk, numerous violent deaths.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times