Kiss of the Spider-Man

I wonder how that spandex feels on the tongue: Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst
Columbia Pictures

The contrast between Bryan Singer's coolly programmed X-Men and Sam Raimi's giddily gonzoid Spider-Man is that between a hired gun catering to geeks and a geek taking the reins himself. X-Men seemed overburdened; Spider-Man brims over. You can tell Raimi has been waiting since he was in footed pajamas to make this movie, even paying dues as career fluffer to Kevin Costner in For Love of the Game (for love of Christ) and otherwise living down his rep as the cult-cheese auteur behind the Evil Dead series and Xena. To imagine Raimi's glee at watching his fairy-tale action circus come together, look no further than the goofy grin on Tobey Maguire's face when his teenage Peter Parker wakes up one morning, the day after being bit by a genetically altered spider, and discovers a Charles Atlas body in the mirror.

Spider-Man is about the responsibility that comes with sudden power, but it's also about falling in love with the job of a lifetime. Forty years in the making, this human arachnid's screen debut feels like a sweet release of pent-up imagination--it's Raimi's moment as much as the character's. And the director maintains a sense of "Hey, look at this!" wonder throughout, like Parker gawking at his newfound ability to observe spitballs in slow motion, or to bound lightly from building to building.

Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp are wise enough to be responsible powers and stay true to a good myth. "Spidey" was always the perfect insecure young superhero for an insecure young superpower--the flawed force for good that America believes itself to be. Created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko in 1962, the wall-crawler bounced rather than flew, swinging on self-slung webs through a cheerfully crowded and cantankerous Manhattan. This was an alienated hero who lost fights, who hit up the Fantastic Four for cash, who filled pages of thought balloons with his moral and romantic neuroses. (Even the mid-battle wisecracks were a cover for fear.) When Marvel Comics decided to publish a comic about September 11, Spidey was a natural choice to narrate.

Now, when Willem Dafoe's zestfully campy Green Goblin jets across the movie's skyline on a collision course with buildings in Times Square (during a "World Unity Festival," no less), the chill of recognition is enough to throw you out of the movie. Until that point, Spider-Man is all backstory and comics lore: Maguire's bookish orphan lives quietly with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) before adolescence arrives in the form of that fateful spider bite. Discovering his new powers, the science nerd enters a pro-wrestling match to win prize money and to buy a car, the better to impress his sweetly oblivious crush object Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). It never occurs to Parker to become a superhero until he loses someone close to him, and at the hands of someone he could have stopped, but didn't bother to.

Only by a serious stretch of metaphors can Peter Parker's crash course in regret evoke our government's dance of death with Al Qaeda. And to be clear: Raimi finished shooting just before "the events" of last year--he prominently snipped footage of Spidey snagging a helicopter between the north and south towers. Still, the Goblin story arc is eerily prescient. Consider that he's a wealthy maniac who until recently thrived on the teat of America's military-industrial complex. Or that he terrorizes innocents, and is faced down by Spider-Man in the heart of a flaming building. Near the movie's end, the two duke it out over the East River as a bridge full of New Yorkers accost the Goblin, yelling, "An attack against one is an attack against us all!"

That sort of Zeitgeist moment is exactly what I dreaded in the first summer movie of the rest of our lives. (Never mind the inevitably cheesy CG effects, the stop-motion animation of our era.) And it's a minor miracle that Spider-Man actually gains from our projections of terror; this movie is the zippiest catharsis imaginable. Only later does it sink in just how many subtexts Raimi has been juggling without our help, including--did I mention?--a love triangle between Parker, Mary Jane, and Parker's best friend Harry Osbourn (James Franco), who happens to be the Goblin's self-loathing Richie Rich scion.

Inevitably, the director loses grip on some plot elements amid the scientific/ Oedipal/class quandaries--Harris's Aunt May never transcends her let's-bake-cookies stereotype, for instance. But Raimi seems to have planned the action sequences years in advance, and they flow with all the rapid cartoon grace of an Eminem lyric (or of Danny Elfman's score). Raimi is nearly as careful with moral details, like the way Mary Jane is appalled rather than impressed when Parker clocks the class bully, or the way J.K. Simmons's hilariously gruff, phone-slamming tabloid editor J. Jonah Jameson sticks to his journalistic guns when it counts. (The Goblin attacks The Daily Bugle to learn the identity of Spider-Man's principal photographer: Peter Parker, of course.)

Rarely has geek wish fulfillment been so utterly free of malice. Even Parker's angst lacks vengefulness, and I was surprised by how well Maguire's stillness, milked by lazier directors in The Ice Storm and Wonder Boys, helps ground the character and suggest his innate morality. Parker is a walking poem of ineffectualness--his soliloquy to MJ includes the sentiment that she makes him feel "not quite normal"--and his pregnant stare serves as an apt substitute for thought balloons.

The most irresistibly romantic shot may be when the web-slinger hangs upside-down, kissing MJ in the rain, his identity still half masked. But I prefer the one after Goblin begins going to work on the skyline. Soon a Times Square bystander yells, "Look, it's Spider-Man!" and those reality-induced willies begin to dissipate. Suddenly, you find yourself gazing at perhaps the most benign image of hand-to-hand combat ever digitally enhanced: Spidey springing from hot air balloon to hot air balloon, out-bouncing his foe. He's elated, and so is the movie.

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