Spider-Man sucks you right in the moment that Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a sweetly bashful high school science dork, wakes up after being bitten by a genetically engineered spider and begins to discover his newfound powers. At school, Peter is too shy to declare his love, or even his like, to the girl next door (Kirsten Dunst). All of a sudden, an adhesive web shoots out of his palm and wreaks havoc in the cafeteria — as funny and low-down a pop metaphor for the messiness of adolescent sexual trauma as anything seen on the big screen since I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
Hallway ruffians don’t stand a chance against Peter, whose new spider vision allows him to view punches coming at him in bullet-time slo-mo. Before long, his hands sprout metallic microscales, letting him shimmy up walls, and when he learns, with a bit of practice, to control that spurting web (the way that adolescents will), he starts to use it as a giant slingshot trapeze. At that point he’s gone—prancing from building to building, swinging through New York City as if it were a concrete jungle gym. His movements become as effortless as his thoughts, and we’re with him every step — and leap — of the way.
Spider-Man, an adventure in vicarious acrobatic daredeviltry, has been excitingly staged by director Sam Raimi, but it’s also a lightweight, mock-campy, script-by-David ”The One-Man Committee” Koepp (Jurassic Park) movie with little visual style apart from the creation of Spider-Man himself. In his skintight hood and two-tone red-and-blue bodysuit, with its silver web mesh and mirrored insect eyes, Spider-Man looks like a phantom ballet dancer, and it’s the impersonality of his presence that, paradoxically, liberates the movie. He’s the first of the mythic comic-book heroes whose presence on screen is largely a creation of digital effects, and the slightly synthetic hyperreality of this bounding, rubber-limbed figure actually brings the audience closer to the sensation of seeing a comic book come to life than we’ve gotten in the Superman or Batman films.
The fact that the digital seams sometimes show is hardly a problem. If anything, it mirrors the crude vitality of the Spidey drawings in the Marvel comics—the sense of a twitchy, light-bodied avenger slipping, and sticking, around a city of skyscrapers; he’s in the world but not quite of it. Freed from the usual actor-flying-in-a-big-cape chicanery, the movie brings the physical iconography of a comic superhero alive before our eyes.
At first, the offbeat casting of Tobey Maguire, with his gurgly-voiced passivity, works well. He brings his own cuddly conviction to the ”divided” role of a clandestine teen superhero. Maguire, with a grave stare that still manages to twinkle, always sounds like he’s weighing each and every word as though he were stoned. He’s that rarity, an entirely sincere actor, so earnest in his cuteness that at times he’s like an oversize baby.
When Peter makes goo-goo eyes at Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson, or gets the hang of his invincibility by entering a kamikaze wrestling match, Maguire makes it easy to root for him. Spurred by the carjacking murder of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), he then dedicates himself to cleaning the streets of crime. Yet unlike, say, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Spider-Man never really draws you into an extravagant universe of good and evil at war, and at play. As the movie charts its hero’s rise to fame, complete with J.K. Simmons (of ”Oz”) in a kitschy crew cut as the loudmouth editor of the Daily Bugle and a series of encounters with street thugs who look about as threatening as bandits in a musical, you can feel Spider-Man starting not to take itself seriously.
Sure, it’s only a comic-book movie, but how much better if it took a cue from Raimi’s moody 1990 Darkman and didn’t insist on reminding us of the fact. Maguire, winning as he is, never quite gets the chance to bring the two sides of Spidey — the boy and the man, the romantic and the avenger — together. That hesitant voice starts to sound a little odd issuing from behind Spider-Man’s mask, and after a while you may start to ask: Is our hero’s big-eyed daze of wonder hiding something, or is there not much there to hide? Dunst has a role that’s no more fleshed out than Maguire’s, yet she lends even the smallest line a tickle of flirtatious music.
A superhero demands a supervillain, of course, and Willem Dafoe, as the Green Goblin, a former tech-industry entrepreneur gone mad with evil, injects his scenes with jaunty mischief, especially when he’s surfing through the air to taunt Spider-Man. Dafoe, with his skinny cheeks and Klaus Kinski mouth, already looks a bit like a creature (Cobra-Man?), and his distinctive snaky rasp comes in handy when he’s hidden behind the Goblin’s golden-green armor and frozen cackle of a mask. That it looks like a mask — specifically, one that you could go right out and purchase for Halloween — only underscores that the character is, in effect, an all-surface knockoff of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, who had a far richer presence than anyone here. Spider-Man is a canny franchise escapade; it gets the job done. But it also leaves you hungry for something more, and I don’t necessarily mean the next episode. B