Dir: Sam Raimi. US. 2002. 121mins.
Even in the face of new Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings movies, no film this year can have the want-to-see already generated by Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man, a lavish $150m live-action movie of the beloved comic strip, which has been in gestation for over a decade. And in the face of almighty expectations, director Sam Raimi delivers an efficient, entertaining film which promises to crush box office records when it opens around the world on May 3. All is as you expect: the story of how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, stylish special effects, a budding romance, a vicious bad guy, a few setpieces, the showdown on a New York City landmark and the ambiguous ending leaving the door open for number two. Hell, there is no door: work on the sequel began before Spider-Man could even get into theatres to break any box office records. No matter how hard Raimi tries - and he is a gifted and intriguing film-maker - he can't quite banish the sense that we are being fed a package. Unlike Tim Burton's truly bold vision for Batman or even Bryan Singer's X-Men, Spider-Man bears the controlling signature of a franchise-hungry movie studio and not a film-maker.
That blandness is a disappointment in a film which made the inspired decision to cast Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker aka Spider-Man. Maguire is perfect as the high-school nerd Parker is supposed to be, while also convincingly secretive and conflicted as the superhero. As offbeat the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman, Maguire quietly dominates the film and gives a dimension to the character that a more conventional leading man would have been unable to give - and which frankly the script doesn't provide. Similarly appealing is Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson, the school beauty whose home life is hell and whose first job as a waitress hardly meets her ambitions as an actress. Dunst's Mary Jane is vulnerable and slightly melancholy. When she finally declares her love for Peter, the moment feels authentic thanks to these two fine young actors.
Spider-Man is born when, on a tour of a science lab, humble Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically-altered spider. On his return home to the house where he lives with his Uncle Ben (Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), he feels exhaustion and wakes up the next morning with a new muscular physique and strange arachnid powers.
Peter's best friend is Harry Osborn (Franco), son of the megalomaniac businessman Norman Osborn (Dafoe). As Peter discovers new powers, so too does Norman, who has tried out a scientific experiment on himself - giving him super-human powers but also a large streak of insanity. Assuming the identity of the Green Goblin, he sets about taking revenge on his business enemies, while terrorising New York City.
Meanwhile Peter learns a valuable lesson in the use of his powers. His uncle is mugged and killed by a petty thief who only hours earlier he had let go free. Taking to heart his late uncle's warning that "with power comes responsibility", he uses his spider skills against crime and in particular against the Goblin himself, drawing his beloved Mary Jane, Harry and his aunt into immediate danger.
The Goblin himself, as played by Willem Dafoe, is also a problem. Despite interesting hints at the duality in the character, he is a stock baddie imbued with few characteristics and too little menace - not to mention a clunky suit of green armour with amateurish-looking holes revealing the actor's mouth and nose underneath.
With Daredevil, The Hulk, The Punisher, X Men 2 (aka X2) and Blade III in the works from Marvel, let's hope studios and film-makers start experimenting with the superhero movie formula. Audiences can only take so much of the same story, whatever colour the latex suit.
Prod cos: Marvel Enterprises, Laura Ziskin Productions, Columbia Pictures
W'wide dist: Columbia/Columbia TriStar
Exec prods: Avi Arad, Stan Lee
Prods: Laura Ziskin, Ian Bryce
Scr: David Koepp, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Prod des: Neil Spisak
Eds: Bob Murawski, Arthur Coburn
Music: Danny Elfman
Main cast: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, JK Simmons