A big-screen, well-appointed "Spider-Man" is a hard concept to screw up, and director Sam Raimi ultimately doesn't. The movie does what it has to do: puts this most populist of comic-book superheroes at the center of a colorful, computer-enhanced popcorn entertainment.
It's got appealing performers as the leads -- Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson -- as well as a formidable villain in the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn, played with a heaping scoop of relish by Willem Dafoe.
And it's got the people's superhero. Superman is an alien, the X-Men are mutants, and Batman is some dark, haunted guy living in a stylized gothic version of America, but Spidey is just an everyday teen who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains special -- and especially fun -- powers.
What's surprising, then, is how thin the material comes to feel. Although the first sequel already has been ordered (Columbia knows it has marketed a blockbuster), by the end of this introductory installment, the tank seems near empty.
The screenplay by David Koepp ("Panic Room" and the first two "Jurassic Park" movies), a writer who's better at moving characters from place to place than providing strong connective tissue or memorable dialogue, streamlines Spider-Man's back story efficiently. High school senior Peter Parker is an unpopular, science-minded dweeb being raised by his kindly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). Gwen Stacy, Peter's blond girlfriend who's shockingly killed in the comic book "The Amazing Spider-Man No. 121," has been deleted, and Peter's fetching, red-haired classmate Mary Jane has taken on some of her traits. Although she's lived next door for years, Peter can barely work up the nerve to talk to her before that spider bite on a field trip.
Although the movie omits Peter's comic-book revelation of jumping away from a speeding car and winding up affixed to a building, the scenes of Peter discovering his powers and swinging around Manhattan contain an exuberance too rarely seen in superhero movies, which tend to emphasize the burdens of superpowers. When Peter draws multiple versions of his Spider-Man getup, he's living out the dream of every kid who has imagined himself as a superhero.
In the comic book, Peter manufactures his web-shooting mechanism, but here that phenomenon happens organically; when he flicks his wrist, those sticky webs spurt out. Although the change may offend purists, it makes dramatic sense and reinforces the theme that Peter's new physical gifts are a metaphor for puberty. Norman Osborn, the ultra-rich father of Peter's friend Harry (James Franco), also gains superpowers when an experiment goes awry and half of his personality is taken over by the maniacal, sky-gliding, fireball-hurling Green Goblin. Initially driven to take revenge on double-crossing business associates, Norman/Goblin becomes an all-purpose New York terrorist.
Although the movie was filmed before Sept. 11, that tragic day seems to inform the film, such as in the closing shot of Spidey and the American flag, and the scene in which an angry New Yorker, among a crowd throwing debris at the Green Goblin, proclaims, "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!"
Since his "Evil Dead" days, Raimi has been a fan of fancy camera movements, and his "Spider-Man" certainly looks lively, with lots of swooping and swinging to capture the hero's acrobatics. The computer effects don't usually draw too much attention to themselves, though sometimes Spider-Man looks like a cartoon. Maintaining a consistent tone is not, however, this director's strong suit. J.K. Simmons is a hoot as grousing Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, but the "His Girl Friday"-goes-to-the-cartoons flavor of his exchanges with Peter isn't matched elsewhere, certainly not in Peter's occasional glum voiceovers.
Raimi inserts numerous "Superman" nods, including a gratuitous shot of Peter running and ripping open his shirt to reveal the Spider-Man logo. But while the first "Superman" movie took itself less seriously as it progressed, "Spider-Man" is the opposite, turning more violent, downbeat and tedious as it goes along. Despite the kid-friendly beginning, by the time the Goblin and Spider-Man pummel each other endlessly during the climax (the bridge setting borrowed from the Gwen Stacy death comic), the movie has earned its PG-13.
With his big, round, soulful eyes, Maguire always has been able to convey a sense of wonder, and his instinct for understatement also serves him well here. His few off-notes come when the screenplay calls for Peter to be inexplicably rude to his aunt and uncle.
Dunst again shows why she's one of today's most alluring young actresses, conveying deep yearnings beneath Mary Jane's sleepy-eyed beauty while not repressing the character's teenage-girl impulse to hurry out to the lunk with the fancy new car. Mary Jane's thank-you kiss to an upside-down Spider-Man is one of the most winning romantic moments of a superhero movie.
Dafoe is fine, although Norman's "Sybil"-like battles with his Goblin alter ego get silly. Franco may have been a fine TV-movie James Dean, but his pretty-boy pouting just makes Harry a bland drag. One of the primary functions of such an introductory movie installment is to set up the rest of the series, but the prospect of Harry as a future Spider-Man rival -- as forecast here and played out in the comic books -- seems grim. The Spider-Man saga is a classic for a reason, and the filmmakers don't squander the material's strengths. But they do perhaps exhaust them. After the enjoyable setup, the dynamic becomes routine, the content repetitive; we don't need to hear the refrain "With great power comes great responsibility" three times.
There's no denying that Spidey spins a nifty web here. But in the end it's the movie that doesn't stick.
Directed by Sam Raimi; written by David Koepp, based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; photographed by Don Burgess; edited by Bob Murawski, Arthur Coburn; production designed by Neil Spisak; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin, Ian Bryce. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday, May 3. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: PG-13 (stylized violence and action).
Spider-Man/Peter Parker -- Tobey Maguire
Green Goblin/Norman Osborn -- Willem Dafoe
Mary Jane Watson -- Kirsten Dunst
Harry Osborn -- James Franco
Ben Parker -- Cliff Robertson May Parker -- Rosemary Harris
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune Movie Reviewer.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times