Superhero Saturday: ‘Spider-Man’ (2002) nails the casting and tone for Sam Raimi’s web-crawler origin story (Movie review)

I

 thought “Spider-Man” (2002) was run-of-the-mill when I saw it in theaters, but I got into it more on this rewatch. It’s a down-the-middle origin story for sure, but the fact that writer David Koepp and director Sam Raimi get the tone of the comic-book right (for kids, but not dumbed down; fun, but with real stakes) is nothing to sneeze at. And the casting – my god, the casting. I can see the longing in Tobey Maguire’s eyes every time Peter Parker looks at Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and Willem Dafoe is excellent in a tricky, tragic role where he isn’t always aware he is in fact the Green Goblin.

Raimi employs several tones in “Spider-Man” that blend together better than they have any right to. There are moments of schlock horror action, like when the Green Goblin flies around on his hoverboard, cackling and flinging bullets and bombs. The Spidey-vs.-Bone-Saw cage-match sequence is shockingly violent, including a disturbing dark-humor moment where Bone Saw’s previous opponent can’t feel his legs. “Matrix” bullet-time action is showcased when Spidey and the Goblin fight in the burning building. And when Spidey swings between structures, it’s all about the fun – not the danger – as he shouts with glee.

The performance choices are varied, too. As newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson, J.K. Simmons is in an entirely different movie, doing a parody of old-school editors even though this film takes place in present day (He’s so entertaining that it doesn’t bother me, though). Meanwhile, Maguire is totally earnest and Dunst is a dreamlike damsel in distress with a huge blind spot for the fact that her next-door neighbor Peter would be the ideal boyfriend, as opposed to grade-A jerk Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello) and nice-but-the-chemistry-isn’t-there Harry Osborn (James Franco). And Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) emphasize the earthy values of the Christopher Reeve-era “Superman”s.

Raimi employs several tones in “Spider-Man” that blend together better than they have any right to.

I hate-hate-hated “Spider-Man’s” ending when I saw it in 2002; I’ve mellowed on it, but still don’t like it. Mary Jane finally realizes she loves not Flash, not Harry, not Spider-Man, but Peter. And he friend-zones her! Don’t get me wrong, I see what Koepp is going for: Peter wants to focus on being Spider-Man, because superheroes are theoretically at their most effective if they are completely unselfish. But emotionally and logistically, it’s unsatisfying. For one thing, we want sad-eyed Peter to land his dream girl (indeed, this scene feels like a dream sequence from his perspective at first, when MJ wakes up and sees Peter’s worth).

For another thing, by friend-zoning MJ, he’s not necessarily buying himself more time to be Spider-Man. At the very end, Mary Jane realizes Peter is Spider-Man (because they kiss the same way). Granted, Peter doesn’t know she knows, and he’s caught up in the idea that superheroes should have secret identities (something this film doesn’t sell as well as the MCU’s Spidey adventures, but I understand the secret-identity thing is supposed to be a given, pre-“Iron Man”). But I feel like MJ would be open to dating Peter-as-Spider-Man, understanding that he regularly has to go off and save people. Rather than the tragic love-he-can’t-be-with, MJ is actually the ideal girlfriend for a superhero!

That said, Maguire and Dunst have crackling chemistry, and since there are two more films in this trilogy, I know this first entry isn’t the final statement on their relationship. I hope MJ becomes a more fleshed-out character in the later films, though. Dunst is superficially (if extremely) cute, but in order to fit the old-school damsel role, Mary Jane is frustratingly simple, both in her blind spot for Peter and in her overall life, which in this film is defined by who she is dating (which is because we only see Peter’s POV of her life, but we can only judge her by the information we’re given).

Because all the major players are so fun to watch – from the genuine maturation of Peter to the delicious camp of Jameson – it’s hard to dislike “Spider-Man” overall. But there’s one major area where the post-production doesn’t do Raimi any favors: the soundtrack. Fortunately, the film itself employs a score by Danny Elfman, but the closing credits start with “Hero” by Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, and actually get worse from there. This turn-of-the-century butt rock was wrong for “Spider-Man” at the time, and now it’s even more wrong because it’s the major thing that dates the picture.

Other than that, “Spider-Man” could hit theaters today and be just as enjoyable; I suspect Raimi aimed to make a timeless picture, and he succeeds on that count.

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