Spider-Man (2002)

The first Spider-Man is likely a top 5 superhero movie for me… and it might even be top 3. Maybe I’m getting carried away by its sweeping sincerity and energy, but I can’t help but think this film is damn close to a masterpiece.

It had been the better part of a decade since I watched, and nearly everything is better than I remembered:

Tobey Maguire’s gawky earnestness is not as much of a liability as I remembered. In fact, I circled back around and actually really loved it this time. He makes Peter Parker so profoundly uncool and straightforward, but unambiguously sincere in spirit. It made me love and root for the Peter Parker character most of the time.

Willem Dafoe is not just good, he is great. Like I have a hard time thinking of another performance in a comic book/superhero movie I love more, other than (maybe?) Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. He’s a full-on insane villain, cackling and attacking children and old ladies and wearing a damn devil suit. Yet Norman Osborne is grounded enough as a flawed human character for us to see a full other side of Dafoe’s performance, snapping between sanity and villainy on a dime, always oozing danger, especially in those iconic Gollum-esque mirror scenes.

Honestly, the whole cast is delightful: JK Simmons as J Jonah Jameson was rightfully a breakout performance, but James Franco and Kirsten Dunst and Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson all personify their roles perfectly. The list of minor performances is excellent, too, with Randy Savage as Bone Saw McGraw a particular joy.

The CGI, while still extremely dated, is less invasively bad than I feared. Certainly it detracts a little bit and pulled me out of the film a few times, but the visual compositions and designs are strong enough to overcome the uncanny edges most of the time.

I was astonished how strong the screenplay is. The story arc is extremely tight and focused: The story beats are nearly all great and follow in a steady pace with a coherent narrative arc, something that cannot be said about plenty superhero flicks. And the one liners are great, too, even when they’re corny or quippy.

Ultimately, there’s an earnestness and simplicity about Spider-Man that feels so refreshing having endured the MCU roller coaster the past decade-plus. Danny Elfman’s soaring score adds to the emotional directness. And I haven’t even mentioned Raimi’s brilliance in evoking the iconography and visual-emotional texture of comic books, or the heart-tugging “don’t mess with New York” moment of crowd unity, so I’ll cut my praise off and just say I love this movie.

As for the one part of the movie much worse than I remembered: Peter Parker’s “nice guy” complex. Although we’re always on his side, he pulls enough creepy attracted-from-afar stuff in a way that is glorified that I was put off by his chase of Mary Jane. It’s not a good look, but Maguire and Dunst’s warm chemistry, plus Peter Parker’s overall humility otherwise, very much soften the blow.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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