It's "Spider-Man," with a HYPHEN, *NOT* "Spiderman," godammit!

Cert: 12/PG-13
Length: 121 mins
Dir: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for the entire plot of the film. If you have not yet seen it, and do not wish to be spoiled, DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man costumeAfter many false starts and legal issues, the movie version of Spider-Man, Marvel Comics' most popular character, finally swings onto the big screen, and does not disappoint. When teenage nerd Peter Parker (Maguire) is bitten by a genetically-modified spider, he finds himself endowed with spider-like superpowers, which he vows to use for good after failing to stop the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (Robertson). As Spider-Man, Peter battles crime, tries to make ends meet by taking a job at the Daily Bugle newspaper, run by the tyrannical J. Jonah Jameson (Simmons) and tries to hide his identity from those around him, including his Aunt May (Harris), the girl next door, Mary-Jane Watson (Dunst), whom he harbours a secret love for, and his best friend, Harry Osborn (Franco). However, a greater challenge soon arrives in the form of the Green Goblin - aka Norman Osborn (Dafoe), the father of Harry, who has been transformed into the insane villain after testing his company's experimental performance enhancing drugs on himself. The Goblin first attempts to turn Spider-Man to his side, then, when he deduces his true identity, forces him to choose between being Peter Parker and being Spider-Man in a battle that comics fans will find hauntingly familiar.

Willem Dafoe in the Green Goblin costume
Directed by Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead"), "Spider-Man" captures the comic book almost perfectly. It balances the fun aspects of the story with the seriousness perfectly, never trying to come across as anything more than it is - a quality piece of superhero action entertainment. This isn't a Spider-Man who's been updated for today's world with a new setting, story or ethics - no sir, this is Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man, albeit with a few modern twists. And those modern twists work better than most - the spider that bites our hero is genetically engineered, the Goblin's costume is a combat flight suit, rather than a Hallowe'enish outfit, etc. But the changes are all totally cosmetic, as the film stays true to the very basis of what Spider-Man is all about - a normal guy who just happens to get superpowers.

First, the cast. Tobey Maguire IS Peter Parker - a friend commented to me recently that it was the first movie she'd seen in a long time where "the leading man wasn't much to look at." And that's precisely why Maguire works so well in the role - because Peter Parker isn't *supposed* to be much to look at. He captures the awkwardness and "average guy" feeling that the character has just perfectly. As Spider-Man... well, it's hard to say, really. Given the mask that totally obscures his face, I have no idea when it's him inside the suit and when it's a stuntman. One complaint I'd give, though, is the lack of Spidey's infamous jokes and one-liners. I believe there were only about two ("Hey, kiddo, let mom and dad talk for a while," when in Jameson's office, and "You're the one who's out, Gobby Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker- out of your mind!" in a burning building), and that was it. Unlike most of the other comic book fans, I've got absolutely no qualms with the use of the "organic webshooters" in this film - Spidey spins his web biologically, rather than through the use of mechanical devices, as in the comics. I think it's an interesting interpretation, though I'm quite glad that they didn't go down the road James Cameron had planned for it when he wrote a proposed script and came up with the idea, which was that Peter was left feeling like a freak.

Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, OWNS this film. His performances as both Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin are a joy to watch, particularly the scene where he talks to himself in a mirror (a scene filmed without any camera trickery). I was very happy to see that the film made use of the Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn
animated series' idea of a split-personality for Osborn and the Goblin, and the snarling voice Dafoe used for the Goblin was just different enough from his own to make it work (better than Neil Ross's high-pitched yowl from the animated series, at any rate). His motivations were a smidge oblique at times, but the energy that he puts into the role tends to overshadow even that. For all the complaints there were about the Goblin costume when it's design was first publicly released - and I'll be the first to admit, I did think it looked kinda goofy, almost Power Rangers esque - it really, REALLY worked on the big screen, though it's rather ironic that the inexpressive face mask hides Dafoe's own visage, which is truly terrifying in it's own right. :)

And the other headlining star... Kirsten Dunst. Hmn... there's a lot pros and cons at work here. On the one hand, she's an excellent actress who gives a great performance. Oh, and of course - HUBBA-HUBBA! AWOOGA! *pant*
Kirsten Dunst as Mary-Jane Watson

Ahem. As I was saying... on the other hand, through no fault of her own, the movie character of Mary-Jane does not really reflect the comic book character. While we get the briefest of glimpses into her troubled home life, it's not expanded upon - and her feisty nature from the comic books is all but gone, leaving her, as one reviewer put it, "a piece of screaming meat," perpetually in need of rescue. Plus, she's... er... well... a bit "easy." Her affections are directed at four different men through the course of the film (considering that she doesn't know Peter is Spider-Man, that makes it four for her) - which is a result of the script attempting to combine the comics characters of Mary-Jane and Gwen Stacy, the latter being Peter's girlfriend until the Green Goblin killed her, by throwing her from a bridge, a scene mimicked in the movie with MJ (thought I must admit to being impressed at how different the meaning and handling of the scene was).

And the supporting cast... James Franco is fairly unremarkable, but he looks like he really could be Dafoe's son. Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris are well-cast as Uncle Ben and Aunt May - they James Franco as Harry Osborn
seem to have gone the way of the recent "Ultimate Spider-Man" comic, making them a little younger and little tougher. And bloody hell, if J.K. Simmons as Jonah Jameson couldn't have just stepped right out of a comic book page. Everything about him was absolutely perfect. I hope the sequel gives him a lot more screen time! And as this is a Sam Raimi film, there's an obligatory appearance by Bruce Campbell ("Evil Dead"'s Ash), who gives a typically energetic - though disappointingly brief - performance as the wrestling announcer who christens our hero.

And what of the special effects? Well... they're a mixed bag. Some look absolutely fantastic - the scene near the end of one of the Goblin's pumpkin bombs shearing Spidey's costume off is awesome. Then, on the other hand, some are painfully fake - like the scene close to the start where Peter is leaping from rooftop to rooftop. It always annoys me these days when a film relies heavily on CGI - there's no substitute for Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May
actually going out somewhere and filming something REAL. Case in point: "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" - a film which is brimming over with airless, needless CGI. Thankfully, "Spider-Man" does not go that way, and CGI is generally only used for stunts that no human performer could manage. Still, that said, my favourite fight scene in the film is probably the final fisticuffs between Spidey and the Goblin, as, aside from the occasional sparse bit of web, it's REAL guys in REAL costumes in a REAL set throwing REAL punches, which ya just can't beat.

It's clear that the people behind this film are comics fans, from the numerous references and borrowed scenes that are used in the film. The aforementioned bridge scene is one, and the other primary one is the Goblin's death, when his glider impales him through his torso, pinning him to a wall - the precise way in which the Goblin died in the comics J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson
(of course, he came back in the comics twenty years later, but I digress...). Then there's the little things, like when someone in the Daily Bugle offices remarks that "Eddie" has been trying to get pictures of Spider-Man, to no avail. This is a reference to Eddie Brock, the reporter and photographer who, in the comics and cartoons, has his career ruined by an unwitting Spider-Man, and becomes the infamous Venom. And Osborn's partner, "Doctor Stromm" is the comics character Mendel Stromm, who created the original formula that turned Osborn into the Goblin, and also called himself "The Robot Master" (and ALSO returned about a few decades after his death... gotta love comic science). And Jonah's secretary? Whoever the actress playing her was, she was an absolute dead ringer for the character - Betty Brant, who, in the comics, was Peter's first girlfriend.

So, in summary... there are times when the movie feels a bit hokey (some of the scenes at the World Unity Festival come to mind), but it's not long before that's totally overshadowed by the "Dude, this is SPIDER-MAN! The MOVIE!" factor. The enthusiasm that Raimi and the cast approach this film with really shows through, which in turn makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable for the audience. One to see again! Sequels ahoy - Doctor Octopus, please!

RATING: 4 out of 5

Oh, and, if you're thinking about picking up the comic book adaptation, it's not worth it, really. Despite great Alan Davis art and a Stan Lee script (them's some big-ass credits for a movie adaptation, as those are usually drawn by someone no-one's ever heard of and written by Ralph "let's have the characters continuously narrate their surroundings" Macchio), it really struggles to fit the whole movie into one issue, which results in pretty much ALL of Mary-Jane's scenes being dropped, and the drastic shortening of a lot of sequences (especially the excellent Thanksgiving one). It needed to be spread over two issues.

The toys are good, though. Buy some of them!

All pictures, except logo, courtesy of the Spider-Man movie website.