Superhero movies have been a big-screen staple ever since Superman flew through his first animated adventure in 1940. But for all the glory of Richard Donner’s majestic Superman and the kooky, dark weirdness of Tim Burton’s Batman films, it took comic-book-fan-turned-fanboy-director Sam Raimi to capture the graphic thrills and eye-popping spectacle of a true comic book superhero. The film was Spider-Man, and superhero movies have never been the same.
Tobey Maguire is the shy science geek Peter Parker, buffed up from everyman to superman when the bite of a radioactive spider transforms the high school nerd into a mutant wall-crawling muscleman. The adrenaline charge of unbelievable abilities comes at a price, however, and he learns the hard way that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Suited up in a bright, web-laced body stocking, he battles muggers, thieves and his inevitable supervillain nemesis, the cackling, rocket-powered, Jekyll-and-Hyde gremlin Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). But out of costume he’s just as nerdy and nervous as ever as he struggles with his unrequited love of girl-next-door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst under flaming red tresses). It takes a web-slinging rescue to get her attention and you can almost see the sparks when she plants a soft, slow kiss on her knight in red-and-blue skivvies.
Spider-Man is more than simply a faithful cinematic update of an iconic 40-year-old comic book character. With contemporary flair, Raimi translates the teenage melodrama of alienation and tortured secrets that redefined comic book heroes in the 1960s. He embraces the zip and zoom of modern moviemaking magic with a vengeance to send Spidey whipping through the steel canyons of New York like a spider monkey out of hell.
Raimi captures the ineffable quality that makes this misfit with muscles New York’s own blue-collar, working-man’s hero. He delivers high-flying whoosh, gymnastic spectacle and graphic comic book punch without losing the tragic weight of guilt and responsibility that gives Spider-Man his calling and his credo.
There have been slicker superhero films, but none with as much heart, unabashed charm and sheer kinetic thrill of whipping through the world in a state of high-flying gymnastic bliss.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.