(Reviewed April 14, 2002, by James Dawson)
I never thought that the thing I would like most about this movie would be the guy who plays Daily Bugle newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Unfortunately, even that character -- like too many other things here -- will seem uncomfortably reminiscent to most audiences of elements from 1978's "Superman" and 1989's "Batman."
Like 1978's "Superman," "Spider-Man" includes scenes in which Our Hero runs down a street toward the camera tearing open his shirt to reveal his costume underneath, saving his girlfriend from a perilous skyscraper fall (just as Superman saved Lois Lane in a helicopter plunge) and being frustrated by the fact that said girlfriend has the hots for his heroic alter-ego instead of for him (an unwelcome change from the "Spider-Man" comic). Both characters also work for frothingly amusing newspapermen.
Like 1989's "Batman," "Spider-Man" has a bombastic score by the excruciating Danny Elfman, a villain (the Green Goblin) who channels Jack Nicholson's Joker so closely that in one scene he even does an eerie impersonation of Nicholson's facial tics and an origin based on a taste for vengeance inspired by the crime-related loss of a relative.
What differentiates "Spider-Man" from those movies is the hero's secret identity as an insecure teenager named Peter Parker. He longs for next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson, who inexplicably has been transformed intoo his life-long fantasy object here (instead of being a girl Peter meets during his first year of college, as in the comic-book version). Mary Jane is the daughter of a loudly abusive father (another departure from the comics) and wants to be an actress (instead of a model). Comics fans will notice that the comic-book Peter's first love Gwen Stacy is nowhere to be found in this movie, although much of her history has been grafted onto the movie's version of Mary Jane.
Although she looks nothing like the comics version of Mary Jane (except for the red hair), Kirsten Dunst is goofy and sexy and genuinely likeable in the role. She also gets a chance to show off her heroically proportioned breasts, in a delightfully gratuitous rainstorm scene that leaves her with a wet and very clingy top. (Unfortunately, however, she never utters the classic comic-book line, "Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot." For shame!)
Willem Dafoe is better as Norman Osborne, father of Peter's roommate Harry, than as his evil alter-ego the Green Goblin. The problem with the Goblin is that somebody thought it would be a good idea to put him in a costume that makes the guy look like a bad action figure with a full-face mask that shows nothing but his eyes.
Now, it's bad enough when your main character wears a full-face mask that shows none of his expressions, but at least that is consistent with Spidey's comic-book costume. Changing the Goblin's get-up so he resembles a bad Ultraman villain, though, was a huge mistake. During dialog scenes between the two characters, as the point of view switches from one emotionless mask to another and back again, the effect becomes unintentionally funny.
There are many other changes throughout the film that also smack of "pissing in the oasis." (Translation: If the Spider-Man property has endured for 40 years and is good enough to be worthy of a movie adaptation, why change what doesn't need fixing?) Some differences that at first may appear to be minor tweaks actually change Spider-Man's basic character. Example: In the comics, before he decides to become a crimefighter, Spider-Man does not bother to subdue a fleeing criminal because he is self-absorbed enough to think doing so is not his responsibility. In the movie, Spider-Man sees that the person the thief just ripped off is a promoter who just screwed Spider-Man out of money, giving Spider-Man an incentive to let the thief go. Not a big change, but an annoying one.
A far worse change is the decision to make Spider-Man's web shooters organic, with the stuff coming directly out of his arms instead of from mechanical devices at his wrists. This makes the character kind of creepy, taking us out of being able to see him as a regular teen who just happens to be able to crawl up walls and beat up bad guys.
Most of the people who see the movie, though, will neither know nor care about such nit-picking fanboy concerns. For them, the main problems with "Spider-Man" will be these: (a) too fast, too fakey special effects of Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers to get across town; (b) literally laughable scenes of split-personality Norman Osborne arguing with himself in a mirror; and (c) a real downer ending.
So, what's good about the movie? Tobey Maguire's portrayal of Peter discovering his abilities and awkwardly making his first few web-swings through the city is okay. Kirsten Dunst is cute. And Simmons is a dead ringer for his J. Jonah Jameson comic-book counterpart.
Aside from that...well...let's just say that after seeing this movie I have no desire to see it again. I expected more heart and better effects.
By the way, if you stay through the credits until the end, you will get to hear the theme from the 1960s Saturday morning (barely) animated version of "Spider-Man." Those were the days...
Back Row Reviews Grade: C
To see my reviews of director Sam Raimi's other two Spider-Man movies and 2012's Marc Webb-directed "The Amazing Spider-Man," use the links below:
"Spider-Man 2" (2004)
"Spider-Man 3" (2007)
"The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012)