Growing up in the late fifties I was naturally drawn to comic books. You know, the usual DC comic faire, Superman, Batman and the Green Lantern. Then, one summer, a friend of mine introduced me to another brand of comics, Marvel. These superheroes were a lot different than the ones in the early DC stories. The Marvel superheroes where regular people in possession of extraordinary powers, heroes a young person could easily identify with. In 1962 I picked up Amazing Fantasies #15. In it was a story about a high school student that was bitten by a radioactive spider and found that he had gained the incredible powers of that arachnid. Forty years later I saw this comic truly come to life in the movie Spider-Man. Almost every scene in the film was directly out of the fond memories I still have for that comic book so long ago. Peter Parker (Toby McGuire) is a geek, a nerd that few students want to associate with and every fewer students respect. Orphaned, he lives with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). The lamented Peter has a heavy-duty crush on the beautiful girl net store, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). MJ is bright and energetic but is dating a jock that loves to pick on Peter. A generically altered spider bites Peter one day while visiting a research laboratory on a school trip. Peter finds more than puberty is changing his body. (Interestingly enough the original reflected fears of then, radioactivity, while the film goes to the current controversy, genetic alteration.) Webs shoot out from his wrists, he can stick to walls, has enormous strength and speed and can sense danger before hit happens. In a parallel story the father of Peters one friend, Norman Osborn (Willem Defoe) is at work in a top secret Defense Department project to create a super solider. There is the required lab accident and Norman is transformed into a split personality that permits the Green Goblin to emerge. The Goblin is superhuman in strength and speed as well as driven by a desire to rule the world. The strengths of the original comic hold true in this film adaptation. The story is more than just a good guy versus bad guy epic. Sure there are incredible CGI driven fight scenes but at the heart of the film is a real story. Dichotomy is the central theme here. Peter is struggling with the guilt over the death of Uncle Ben and his growing love for MJ. At the same time he has to realize and accept the responsibility his new powers bring. Norman faces a Jekyll and Hyde schism between being a good father and a power-crazed madman. One of my favorite movie themes, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, is powerfully presented here.
The casting of this film was so good I cant think of the comic without seeing the faces of the actors inhabiting the panels of the book. McGuire brings pathos to the role of Peter. There is a sense of sadness and regret at the core of this super powerful being. He can perform extraordinary feats yet he cant express his love for Mary Jane. She is seeing his best friend and is beginning to fall for Spider-Man yet she still sees Peter as a nice guy. McGuires Spider-Man is less like a superhero and more like the guy next store. The audience can readily identify with him. Ms Dunst is blossoming into an incredible actress. Acting since a very young age she demonstrates professionalism to every role she takes on. Here, she brings more depth to Mary Jane than most films versions of comics posses. We get to see that MJ is also torn. Although she is beautiful and talented she is stuck in a dead end job dating someone she hopes will assist in moving her out of her current circumstances. The right guy has lived next to her all her life yet by the time she is ready for a deeper relationship Peter cant get close to her without endangering her life. Defoe is one of my favorite actors. He is extremely intense in any role he takes and this one is no exception. His Norman/Goblin is well-crafted evil taking control of basically a good man.
Many may consider the directorial career of Sam Raimi to be uneven. I have to disagree. Sure there were many films that just fell short of hitting it big but Raimi has always constructed films with great care and consideration. He is also not afraid to take on one genre after another. His film The Gift remains one of my favorite modern mysteries. Here in Spider-Man he proves that he can bring out fully developed human emotions in an action/adventure flick. Raimi perfectly blends touching scenes with state of the art CGI action. Most of the CGI scenes are well integrated into the live action shots. The only slight downside I could detect is the use of the new video stunt man J camera technique. In scenes where Spidey is flying above the streets of New York there was a lack of gravity. Hopefully the sequel will have this resolved. Raimi knows how to pace a film to keep enough expository information to spin a good tale while providing enough action to keep you on the edge of your seat.
There are three versions of this film available on DVD. A two-disc set is presented in your choice of full screen or anamorphic widescreen. There is also a special collectors gift set that includes additional extras like a mock up of the comic Amazing Fantasy #15, a cell from the film and collectable drawings. All sets include a commentary with Raimi, Dunst and other production people. There is a subtitled facts track that runs along with the film, comic/film comparison, special effects featurette and the hit music video. There are even DVDROM features to let you surf the web in search of even more details of the film. The second disc also has a gag reel, profiles, screen tests and a nice assortment of extras to add hours to your viewing experience. This film holds together for adults and kids alike. For those of an age to remember the comic this is your memory coming to life. Others unfamiliar with Spider-Man will find an introduction into a film that will surely launch an interring franchise. This DVD deserves an place in your collection with its story, action and extras.