Every summer, like hopeful popcorn-eating lemmings, we march into movie theaters by the millionsonly to fling ourselves down onto the jagged rocks of disappointment far below our expectations. Which is to say, summer movies are usually not very good but we pay for them anyway. Perhaps it is a conditioned response after years of media hype: When presented with visual stimuli involving mummies, spaceships, or Julia Roberts, we have little choice but to do as we're trained and then convince ourselves that we actually enjoyed that crappy movie we just saw.
What a jolt to the system, then, to finally see a summer "blockbuster" that really delivers on its promises. Director Sam Raimi's Spider-Man has genuinely thrilling action sequences, cool special effects, a great cast, and an involving story that holds them all together. The mind nearly reels in shock at the thought of actually having fun at a movie theater: So this is what it's like to be entertained. That's not to say that Spider-Man can stand shoulder to shoulder in the Popcorn Movie Hall of Fame with Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, but it's certainly better than most of their sequels.
Although Raimi is considered a Geek God by the ain't-it-cool-news faithful, he was by no means a safe choice for a big-budget superhero picture. That's because his movies often show alarming signs of individuality, which is typically that last thing studio execs want threatening a potential franchise. (And that's why so many of them fail: Please note the almost total denuding of Tim Burton's personality from last summer's Planet of the Apesan endlessly dull movie of safe choices that might've been rescued by Burton's trademark weirdness.)
Raimi earned his geek spurs by making the ultimate B-movie horror series, The Evil Dead (parts one through three); campy and gleefully over the top in every respect, they revealed Raimi's pleasure in pushing his low budgets to their breaking points in order to create delightfully morbid gags. Later, with bigger budgets, he created more polished genre entertainment with his own superhero flick Darkman (1990), his homestyle spaghetti western, The Quick and the Dead (1995), and his psychic thriller, The Gift (2000)all underrated yet winning movies. (His efforts at mainstream dramas, however, haven't been as sure-footed: A Simple Plan (1998) showed great psychological depth if few thrills, while For Love of the Game (1999) was, well, a Kevin Costner movie.)
It gladdens the heart to see Raimi finally get his big chance in the majorsespecially when you consider that he beat out such masters of bombast as James Cameron for the job to direct Spider-Man. Thankfully, he rewards his benefactors at Sony Pictures by making all the correct creative choices to direct probably the best superhero movie to date.
First, rather than hire the latest teen stud-boy of the moment for the title role, Raimi insisted on the more cerebral Tobey Maguire, who's known more for communicating his characters' personality traits through occasionally knitting his eyebrows than for kicking ass. Maguire is a canny choice because Peter Parker is one superhero who actually does indeed knit his eyebrows every once in a while. The creation of Marvel's Stan Lee, Parker is famous in comics history as being the first superhero to experience inner conflicts like most human beings. As a teenage loser raised by his humble aunt and uncle, Parker is unpopular, unsuccessful, and unsure of himself. Maguire plays him like a boy teetering on the edge of creepiness, afraid to show his real self to others for fear of even more punishment. He inspires both empathy and frustration, which are two more emotions than most caped wonders spark.
Second, rather than make Spider-Man an all-out slugfest with multiple villains, Raimi keeps things simple. The script by David Koepp concentrates mostly on Spider-Man's origins, fleshing them out in a believable manner and managing to suspend our disbelief (no small shakes in a movie about a guy who climbs buildings in his PJ's). Likewise, rather than ladle on a number of zany evildoers a la the Batman series, Raimi limits the story to one really good one: Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin. Instead of simply appearing as a handy force of pure evil for Spider-Man to combat, the Goblin gets his own origin story; Raimi and Koepp go so far as to show us his own inner conflicts as well. We're not talking Shakespearean depth here, but it's refreshing for a summer action flick to actually give its villain a certain amount of understandable motivation, and Dafoe does a good job of alternating between being an everyday cretin and a larger-than-life human monster. This makes the battles between the two besuited supermen a little more interesting than just the usual total good vs. total evil showdown.
Third, rather than order his crews of special effects minions to create a stylized comic-book universe, Raimi opts for regular ol' New York City as his setting. By using a more naturalistic look, he makes Peter Parker that much more believable and the action that much more effective. While this mood is sometimes broken by digital effects that are a mite too artificial, supervisor John Dykstra gets it right more often than not and the overall effect is dazzling. Most compelling are the perspective shots that send the viewer swooping through the skyscraper canyons of downtown Manhattan, whipping around corners and dipping into the streams of Yellow Cabs below. It's really cool.
Last, and perhaps least, Kirsten Dunst's role as the love interest, Mary Jane Watson, goes at least marginally beyond the usual parameters of Designated Girlfriend. She's got her own worries than just how she's going to hook up with the Amazing Spider-Man, and Dunst is able to imbue the simplest dialogue with a sort of flirtatious melancholy that makes you hope for Peter Parker's chances. By film's end, Raimi makes another risky choice over the two characters' relationship, but again it's the right one for the story.
Is Spider-Man the most fun since Indy outsmarted those occult-loving Nazis? Maybe, maybe notbut Spider-Man's record-breaking opening weekend does indicate that audiences are hungry for popcorn movies that taste like the real thing instead of just looking like it.