Movie Review: Spider-Man (2002)

Tobey Maguire stars as an intelligent and otherwise ordinary young man who becomes a superhero and struggles to balance his life while saving New York City in Sony’s uneven but clever and occasionally rousing adaptation of the Marvel Comics character, Spider-Man.

The doe-eyed actor is the picture’s chief asset. With a detachment, Maguire deftly expresses a range of emotions as Peter Parker, a nerdy high school student whom his next-door neighbor, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), barely notices. Things begin to change even before a genetically engineered spider bites Peter while he is snapping shots of Mary Jane during a field trip for the school newspaper.

Change is constant in this thin but reliable story of a misfit whose heightened ability subsequently ensnares him in solitary confinement. Orphan Peter Parker, raised by his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), is both smart and artistic, happy to discover new knowledge—as against his rich best friend, Harry (James Franco)—and draw sketches before creating his own costume to match the new identity.

While Peter recreates himself, Harry moves in on aspiring actress Mary Jane fair and square, even as Mary Jane tries to send signals to her awkward neighbor, and this is much to the dismay of Harry’s scientific businessman father (Willem Dafoe in a perfect pitch). But Dad has bigger problems. While he’s desperately trying for a military development contract, an experiment explodes and he is transformed into a Jekyll and Hyde creature known as the Green Goblin. These two mutants meet in a climactic showdown around Thanksgiving.

Yellow eyes, a hovering aircraft and a supply of combustible greenish yellow balls add to the Goblin’s menace and—with good versus evil waged within concealed identities—Spider-Man and the Green Goblin duke it out in several exciting battles. Spider-Man picks up swiftly—when it does—soaring between skyscrapers and bridges and cleverly combining tragic lessons and predicaments involving the aunt and uncle, Harry and Mary Jane.

With St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a first Thanksgiving in a walk-up apartment and a wide skyline, it feels like New York City, though certain scenes look very artificial, including an exterior building fire, fake daylight and the movie’s World Unity Festival, which reeks of a corporate memo. The cast is generally fine, with J.K. Simmons adding flair as a gruff newspaperman who hires Parker as a freelance shutterbug.

Peter Parker and his Spider-Man remain focused on Mary Jane, with whom he generates friction, she in turn plants a wet one on him when it counts and this develops while the Green Goblin terrorizes Manhattan with those ball bombs. But Spidey’s Who Am I? narrative, which bookends the red and blue live action comics tale, goes dormant in long gaps filled with pockets of droll humor, swinging action and mixed messages, all but erasing Spider-Man from key stretches in the progression.

When he initially suits up, it’s done in order to finance a car to impress Mary Jane and, when he draws blood against evil—following a major personal loss—he is driven by a heat of the moment reaction. Watching Peter Parker alternate between conflicting aims takes a toll and, when Dafoe’s Green Goblin opines that “we are who we choose to be,” it hangs there like an unanswered question about Peter Parker’s (and Spider-Man’s) motivation. Though he sort of scampers away like the little weaver that fanged him in the first place, the title character’s back and forth doesn’t derail the basic formula of fun, romance and action.

Buy on DVD

DVD Notes
The 2002 movie looks crisp on DVD (reviewed on a two-disc special edition) with loads of extras, though most bits, such as a seven minute so-called profile of director Sam Raimi, amount to padding. Don’t mistake multiple bullet points on the box for a lot of substance—the usual bonus items are included—and be aware that the bulk of the discs’ material is commentary and cable television tie-ins.

An informative feature archives Spider-Man from its March 1963 edition to its latest years. The first edition’s entry reveals in plain text—after clicking on the comic book cover (selections are arranged by decade)—that Spider-Man, already working for the Daily Bugle (as Peter Parker), rescues test pilot John Jameson (the newspaper publisher’s son), a character depicted as Mary Jane’s astronaut fiancé in Spider-Man 2. Doc Ock (the villain in Spider-Man 2) apparently appeared in the second edition of the series four months later.

Posted on Box Office Mojo for the May 2002 film theatrical release.