Stars: *** out of 4
Summary: Moral, big-hearted and accessible superhero action, lacking the strong thematic interplay that has made subsequent superhero movies great.
Review: After 2000’s ‘X-Men’ helped resurrect the cinematic future of superheroes everywhere, it was inevitable that Marvel Comic’s flagship character would finally get his proper live action adaptation. The project was in development hell since at least the 80’s, and at one time was attached to James Cameron — with an awful script. Thankfully, it eventually ended up in popular cult filmmaker Sam Raimi’s capable hands, with a screenplay by David Koepp. The ultimate result helped cement the public’s faith in this new generation of superhero movies, made lots and lots of money, and was pretty darn good.
It’s easy to look back at ‘Spider-man’ with cynicism after the uber-excellent Nolan ‘Batman’ movies, which have taken all new superhero films to the next level of expectation and story complexity. It’s the family-friendly, sometimes comic and very high-spirited kind of ethos that defined Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ that the filmmakers draw on for ‘Spider-man’, and thank God they did, since it was a movie set in New York that was released the summer after 9/11/2001. The angsty-ness that is present in ‘Spider-man’ is much more subdued and related to the coming-of-age story that forms its backbone. ‘Spider-man’ was a crucial breath of fresh air after the baptism of fire that had defined the previous Fall, and the coming-of-age story, centered on personal tragedy and the loss of security, resonated with young people. For young adults who saw the movie that summer, the classic ‘Spider-man’ moral of “With great power comes great responsibility” meant something. With the War on Terror threatening to consume their future, and faith in U.S. homeland security dramatically lessened, I wonder how many of them drew upon their great power of courage and took up the great responsibility of a soldier?
As a standalone film, though, just how good is it? Well… still pretty good. Though it has some strong themes, it would’ve benefitted from greater complexity, in my opinion, but as I said, it may also be best that it didn’t try to be more. It has its goofiness, and the Green Goblin design isn’t that great. The optimism and strength of the performances are what sell the movie. Special effects had not quite yet caught up with the potential of the superhero, but they would for the sequels. Danny Elfman proved he can write more than one great superhero score. I laud his ‘Batman’ stuff a lot, but this score is pretty close.
Highly recommended, even for fans of ‘The Dark Knight’. It makes a good, lighter counterpoint, but lacks the epicness of Donner’s ‘Superman’.