I admit that I have a soft spot for dorky men. I want to protect them, but I also want them to find their own strength. I want to even the odds for them, or at least participate vicariously as the odds are evened. This is why Peter Parker is the perfect non-hero. Stan Lee, the creator of the Spider-man comic book series, talks in the commentary about the risk he took in creating the character of Parker:
"When I did Spider-Man, I wanted to make him a character people could believe in. So I figured, I wonít make him the handsomest guy in the world, or the strongest. I wonít make him rich; heíll have money worries. I can relate to that, because I had money problems in those days. I said he wonít be that popular; I mean itís not easy for him to get a girl. He has to worry about getting dates. And I figured that most of the kids, or the teenagers, or the young adults who read those stories would be able to relate to that, because life isnít easy for anybody, really. So thatís what I did, and Iím so happy it worked. Originally, my publisher never thought it would work. He said people just want to see the hero fighting the villain; theyíre not interested in all that other stuff. So I must admit I took a little bit of a chance."
Lee knew that an angst-filled loser who makes good speaks to the loser in all of us, and through him we can find our strength and our redemption. Thatís the deep theme of Spider-Manóthe nobody who becomes somebody. But being somebody doesnít come naturally to nobodies; they have to learn a new way to be human, a new way to relate to people, and they have to learn very hard lessons along the way of that process. Itís that process that provides the heart of Sam Raimiís rendition of Spider-Man.
Cast in title role is possibly the dorkiest leading man in films. Tobey Maguire plays average so naturally that we accept the loser-hero without a second thought. His struggles are conveyed in an understated interior way, with facial expressions so deeply expressive that Raimi and screenwriters David Koepp and Alvin Sargent (aided by comic book creators Lee and Steve Ditko) had to keep cutting the dialogue back; Maguireís intimate skills were so profoundly and unassumingly effective that in most cases, words were superfluous.
Added to that the fact that young Peter Parker didnít inherit a way with words from the genetically altered spider who bit him, he still manages to make his feeling obvious to everyone without ever speaking a word about them. He does this so effectively that itís a turning point for the plot. Peter tries hard to hide his feelings, never speaking of them, but their clarity gives the villain the weapon he needs to use against Spider-Man.
Willem Dafoe is sufficiently scary and evil as Norman Osborne, who becomes the Green Goblin. The truth is, Dafoe just has a scary face, with all those angles and extremes. The villain, however, seems just to be a plot device, and I found myself impatient with the scenes which took our focus away from Peter. More compelling, however, were the scenes with Peter, Norman and James Franco as Normanís son and Peterís best friend, Harry Osborne.
There are two love-triangles in this film, one involving Peter, Norman, and Harry. Peter looks up to Norman as an aspiring scientist looking up to a successful one, and Norman feels the affection for Peter of a mentor for a protťgť. Added to that is the sibling-like rivalry Harry feels toward Peteróthe film establishes early that Harry tries in vain to win his fatherís approval. We watch with a certain degree of sympathy as Harry wrestles with his affection for Peter and his complex relationship with his father. Franco elicits sympathy as the poor-little-rich-boy who really only wants love. In the end, all Harryís resentment becomes focused on Spider-Man, whom he mistakenly believes killed his father, thereby setting up one of the central conflicts of the sequel.
The other love-triangle, of course, is the boy-girl-boy set-up. Peter has loved Mary Jane, played by Kirsten Dunst, since they were small children, but Peterís dorkiness and lack of confidence make it impossible for him really even to speak to her, much less make his move. But with the arrival of the new powers, it seems that he has a chance with her, now that he has some strength and confidence. And in case we forgot, the set-up for the climax includes one of the best, most romantic speeches ever made by a film hero to his love, as well as a gentle reminder by Aunt May that Peter has always loved Mary Jane. As both Peter and Spider-Man, our hero is protective and attentive to Mary Jane, setting up the final scene in which Mary Jane offers her love and Peter turns her down. It breaks our heart, as itís supposed to, and sets us up for the sequel, as itís also supposed to do.
Other notable performances include veteran actors Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Robertson gets comparatively little screen time, but he makes it work for the story. We have no problem believing that Peterís uncle is a formative influence on Peterís life, someone whose approval matters a great deal, and someone whose values will shape Peterís choices. We also see that Uncle Benís death is a huge price to pay for Peterís new abilities, and becomes the most significant catalyst for Peterís character growth. Harrisí role doesnít give her much meat until the sequel, but her sweet-and-supportive mother figure is deep and real, and Harris has presence that grounds us all in the sheer normalcy of human relationships. The versatile J.K. Simmons plays the inimitable J. Jonah Jameson, the Daily Bugleís headline-happy editor, with humor and vivid energy. Heís a caricature, to be sure, but one we enjoy watching and love to hate.
For comic book fans, scenes, sets and lines are taken right out of the classic comic books. A stylized New York provides the background, and the costumes reflect a not-quite-real time and place. Thereís a hint of the old-school journalism that birthed both Peter Parker and Clark Kent, and the comic book stock character of the strong damsel who still gets distressed, almost always while wearing sexy dresses.
I know that studios take a risk when they try to bring already-beloved characters to life, but for those of us who are comic book fans, as well as those of us who have grown up with the cultural presence of those characters, the risk paid off in this adaptation. With a rare cooperation between technical, artistic, and performance participants, Sam Raimi has not only done justice to Spider-Man, but heís given us a pretty good story, too.