The keenest lesson a lot of fans will take away from this first major Spidey movie is that patience is rewarded. Global legions who obsess over the forty-year-old Marvel Comics creation of writer Stan Lee and designer Steve Ditko have had plenty of time to absorb all the particulars of Spider-Man, his family and friends, and especially his enemies. Here, however, screenwriter David Koepp wisely sticks to only one major villain -- the Green Goblin -- and tells the origin of the great web-slinger thoughtfully, as if for the first time. Thus, unlike the fairly rapid-fire segments of Bryan Singer's equally successful Marvel adaptation, X-Men, we get one focused, old-fashioned story that unfolds more like the latter-day cinematic introductions of DC Comics' Superman and Batman franchises.
Commencing with an appropriately webby title sequence, we get straight to business. Seventeen-year-old Peter Parker (26-year-old Tobey Maguire) is a dweeby schlub who resides with his sweet, elderly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, perfect) and compassionate Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, likewise) in a cookie-cutter Forest Hills house in Queens, New York. Maguire imbues Peter with enough wide-eyed innocence to make the previous crop of Hollywood soft boys -- say, the late River Phoenix or the MIA Andrew McCarthy -- look like Hannibal Lecter by comparison. Somehow, it works.
Life for bumbling, bespectacled Peter seems to be a great big bang-up, his true parents dead, his presence mocked by the mean kids on the bus, and his thunder consistently stolen by Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello), his rival for girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (a red-haired Kirsten Dunst). All this changes when his high-school class is invited to Columbia University to explore, you know, one of those exhibits dedicated to nanotechnology and genetically mutated spiders. Then fate strikes.
Utilizing the loudest set of fangs imaginable, an escaped über-spider -- blithely and quite hilariously dismissed by the Columbia guide -- descends onto Peter's hand and seals his destiny. Peter excuses himself, returns home, and collapses to his bedroom floor, the better to transmogrify into a human-spider hybrid. The next morning, Peter's got a brand-new bag, from cut abs to perfect vision to surprising powers that play out in splendidly directed action scenes at his school.
And here's where it gets mythic, because the birth of any hero immediately summons the presence of a suitable nemesis. Early on, Koepp and Raimi introduce us to Peter's friend Harry Osborn (James Franco, star of TNT's James Dean) and to Harry's military-industrialist father, Norman (a very game Willem Dafoe). Though Harry's friendly enough, another of the movie's lessons is never trust the wealthy. Harry tries to put the moves on MJ, and his megatycoon father has the sheer audacity to turn himself into a flying homicidal maniac in peculiarly stupid-looking armor. Thanks to milky contact lenses and some shock edits -- one of them sensationally cheap -- the nasty Green Goblin is born.
None of Raimi's trademark style is lost on Spider-Man, which allows the Evil Dead director to play with all sorts of knockout visuals while telling a universal story. Much of the web-slinging, especially the early, trial-and-error stuff, is a hoot, but the movie is grounded in intelligent characters and performances rather than being an effects showcase.
Maguire is ideal for the role, working through vulnerability, smugness and guilt after he inadvertently allows the murder of a loved one. Dunst, equally suited to MJ, reveals so much potential here that one hopes she's allowed to be less distressed and more pro-active in the sequels. And Dafoe's supernatural turn in Shadow of the Vampire has prepared him well; he definitely doesn't need the silly Goblin helmet to be scary.
Spider-Man amounts to a very strange amalgam, part Raimi movie (watch for a cameo by Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell), part marketing blitz for Marvel and Sony (singer Macy Gray shows up) and part nostalgia trip. Many of the elements -- including J.K. Simmons as bombastic Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (whose action figure features "desk pounding action") -- seem transplanted from a bygone era, one that might have launched more romantic, coming-of-age, family-oriented, stridently patriotic, big-studio superhero movies than are likely to emerge this year. If that sounds appealing, swing by and marvel. And stick around during the end credits to hear the awesome 1960s "Spider-Man Theme" in all its hissy unremixed glory.