Riding Shotgun: “Spider-Man” is Good Stuff

The road less traveled with superhero movies.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” A phrase penned by Marvel masterminds Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, those words have guided one of the most popular and recognized faces in all of comics: Spider-Man. And as that character swings from the funnybooks to the big screen, that philosophy takes on a whole new depth.

Sam Raimi, the director responsible for such cult classics as “The Evil Dead,” “Darkman,” and “Army of Darkness,” took it upon himself to wield power of a tremendous sort when he signed on to film “Spider-Man” — a project that has spent the past 20 years embroiled in legal battles, script changes, and the dropping out of one director after another.

On one hand, Raimi had to make the story and the character accessible to a mainstream audience that might have no experience with the comic book whatsoever. On the other, he had to deal with the expectations of a legion of Stan Lee’s true believers who would accept little compromise in the story of one of their most beloved heroes.

Oh, and not to mention that he had to live up to the hype created by Sony Pictures, who expected this film to be their biggest summer moneymaker and have already signed the principals for sequels.

All this pressure and he still managed to pull off one of the most enjoyable and exciting films of the year.

For the uninitiated, the silver screen version of the story of Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man) has changed little from the one presented in 1962 by Lee and Ditko. (If you look carefully, you can spot Lee ushering children to safety in one of the crowded battle scenes.)

Parker, played by Tobey Maguire, is an average senior in high school — geeky, awkward, alienated. Well-adjusted nonetheless, he spends his days living with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Queens, NY, and pining for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), his gorgeous, red-haired next-door neighbor and one of the most popular girls in school.

He seems destined for anonymity until he’s bitten by a genetically-altered spider during a class trip to a genetics laboratory. In an overnight transformation, he goes from awkward geek to a … well, a super-strong, amazingly agile geek with spectacular powers.

Thinking that he can capitalize on this transformation and win the heart of Mary Jane, his newfound abilities lead him to beat up Mary Jane’s boyfriend — the school bully — and enter an amateur wrestling bout to help win money to buy a cool car. But when tragedy strikes (I’ll leave out the particulars for those who might find them to be spoilers), he realizes that he has to use his gifts for something more substantive than material gain.

And so, donning that famous red and blue costume, he becomes Spider-Man, New York City’s first costumed superhero.

In updating the story for the 21st century, none of the original glamour is lost. The webbing he shoots from his hand is organic, not produced by a machine. The spider that gives him his powers is genetically-altered, not radioactive as Lee and Diko had imagined it. But apart from such minor tweaks, the movie remains true to its origins.

Maguire is perfect as Parker — the everyboy who has power thrust into his hands. The casting was considered unorthodox when it was announced. But someone like Freddie Prinze Jr., who had been one of the other actors considered for the role, could never have pulled off the unlikely hero’s blend of post-adolescent turmoil and burgeoning character. The chemistry between Maguire and Dunst make their scenes of fumbling attempted romance a joy to watch.

And Willem Dafoe — who, considering the widely eclectic characters he has portrayed in his career, must choose his roles using a Ouija board — is just as capable as Norman Osbourne, a scientist and industrialist driven insane by his experiments. Flashing a mixture of disillusioned genius and manic sociopath, Dafoe’s Green Goblin is the best comic book villain since Jack Nicholson put on the Joker make-up in “Batman.”

The most important, and ultimately the most successful, decision that Raimi made with Spider-Man was to let the action take a backseat to the drama. While most action films — especially those aimed at the prepubescent ranks (“Scorpion King,” anyone?) — rush from one fight scene to another, Raimi turns the tables. He decided that the story was not so much about a superhero, but about a teenager forced to grow and mature in unexpected, and rapidly accelerated, ways.

This is exactly what Lee and Ditko had in mind when they created the character. Rather than the usual muscle-bound moralist, they created a hero whose greatest challenges are those faced by every young man coming of age.

While the action is intense and artfully done, it’s those moments in between, which make up the greater part of the film, that give the characters true depth and make this movie a must-see for children and adults alike.

In the next Riding Shotgun: your friendly neighborhood pop culture fanatic heads to Philadelphia for the inaugural Wizard World East convention. It’s freaks, geeks and Lou Ferrigno in the City of Brotherly Love.

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood