What we need to remember about Spider-Man the character is that at heart, he is just your average teenage boy. Peter Parker is a nerd from Queens, one who is by no means someone who would make tough guys quake and women swoon. It's in his ordinary-ness that makes Peter's transformation from nerd to hero so...amazing. Therefore, it is both a delight and relief to see Spider-Man turn out so well, and to be one of the best comic book adaptations to be made in a long time.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a shy, much-bullied kid in New York City, very bright in mathematics and science but not one of the in-crowd. While he has only one friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), scion of billionaire industrialist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), Peter has his heart set on the literal girl next door, his Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). While on a field trip to a science lab, one of the spiders that has been experimented on takes a bite into Peter, and in remarkably short order our four-eyed 98-pound weakling has been turned into a remarkably buff young man.
It also gave him powers he could not imagine: the power to climb walls and shoot out extremely strong spider webs through his arms. So, what's a young man with such powers to do? Obviously, use them to impress the girl he loves. Therefore, Peter enters a contest to earn him some money for a ride, but despite having won, he gets cheated. His revenge has unintended consequences, in particular towards the man who raised him, Uncle Ben Parker (Cliff Robertson). Now Peter takes to heart one of the last things Uncle Ben told him, "With great power, comes great responsibility". Peter, with his new alter-ego of Spider-Man, decides to use his powers for good.
All well and good, but unbeknown to Peter, Norman Osborn has been equally affected by the serum he created, but this one has a malevolent and dangerous effect. It causes a split personality for him, between the rational business tycoon and father and his own alter-ego, the villainous Green Goblin. It becomes a struggle as to who will win out (here's a hint, it ain't Norman), and Spider-Man soon becomes a fight to see whether The Green Goblin will defeat Spider-Man or not by using any means necessary, right down to targeting Parker's loved ones: both Mary Jane and his widowed Aunt May (Rosemary Harris).
We end Spider-Man with an epic confrontation between Greenie and Spidey, with ramifications for all the cast...and the opening to a sequel.
I don't think I have been as impressed with a comic book film since Superman: The Movie, and while that film continues to be the Citizen Kane of comic book adaptations (the standard by which all other comic book films are measured against), Spider-Man follows some of the same steps Superman took in order to become a great film.
First, it took its time in building the situations and characters. We got to know Peter, Mary Jane, Harry, as well as the adults: Uncle Ben, Aunt May, Norman, and even such characters as Peter's loud-mouth Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). It is quite an achievement that director Sam Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp manage this in a remarkably economical manner. With only a few lines and scenes we establish that Harry is a rich boy and that he has to now go to a public school, that Peter is bright but invisible or mocked by his peers, and that the dynamics of the love quadrangle between Peter, Mary Jane, Harry, and Spidey will be a major part of the story.
Granted, as someone who tends to dislike voice-overs in films, having Peter narrate the opening and closing of Spider-Man doesn't necessarily thrill me, but I have to give credit to that because it was kept to just the opening and closing of Spider-Man. Raimi trusts us to let the story tell itself, which it did, and Spider-Man has a beautiful flow where the stories of Peter Parker's romantic yearnings for Mary Jane and Spider-Man's struggle against the Green Goblin never crashed into each other but instead meshed together excellently.
Spider-Man allows us to have great moments of action (the attack at the World Unity Festival being a highlight) and even comedy (such as when Bruce Campbell in a cameo gives Spidey the name of the Amazing Spider-Man rather than Peter's chosen moniker, The Human Spider). However, the film can quickly play on our expectations. When we see the promoter that had stiffed Peter being robbed himself, audiences cheered when Peter refused to help even when he could. When we then quickly found that by not doing that Peter had cost Uncle Ben his life, we now felt exactly what Peter felt: shame and regret.
Raimi should be congratulated as well for drawing great performances out of his cast. We had the comedic from Simmon's rapid-fire delivery as the excessively gruff Jameson, the touching from Harris' wise Aunt May, and the bullying kid (Joe Manganiello pre-True Blood as M.J.'s bad boy boyfriend Flash). However, it is the main cast that rightly gets the lion's share of attention.
Maguire is excellent as Peter Parker AND Spider-Man. One must always remember that an actor in a superhero role is playing two characters: the superhero and the secret identity. Maguire balances the insecure teen (despite being in his late twenties) with the maturing man. Dunst is equal to him as Mary Jane, the girl who projects a casualness with a violent background (and when she is called on to scream, she can scream like the best of them). Franco gives a good performance as Harry, the boy who is Peter's true friend but also one who doesn't struggle too much in pursuing Mary Jane herself. The fact that it DOESN'T come off as completely sleazy is a credit to Franco, Raimi and Koepp.
Finally, Dafoe makes the conflict between the basically decent Norman Osborn and the monstrous Green Goblin into something believable just shows what a talented actor he is. This evolution, in particular when he basically talks to himself (or a disembodied voice) may have come off as laughable, but Dafoe sells Norman's fear of the Goblin with the Goblin's malevolence.
There are so many other aspects in Spider-Man that work to making the film an enjoyable and intelligent experience: James Acheson's costumes (his first version of Spidey's outfit is both clever and accurate to what a teenage boy might pull off), Danny Elfman's music worked when it needed to suggest action and when it suggested romance, and Don Burgess' cinematography had us almost literally soaring with Spidey.
If I could say that there are flaws within Spider-Man, it might be that the Hispanic characters are remarkably unsympathetic (one is Mary Jane's unpleasant boss, the others are there to menace our damsel), and somehow the film feels longer than its two-hour running time. I also thought the idea that the Green Goblin would first tempt Spidey to join him in his reign of terror was unnecessary: he could have just gone on his rampage without thinking they could be partners in crime and this is the one point that slows down the film.
One last thing: I would argue that it stretches credibility that no one in the Daily Bugle didn't ask exactly HOW Peter Parker could get such great pictures of our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man without Peter knowing more than he lets on. Just a point of logic.
When I first saw Spider-Man, I thought as a fan of the character it was a great and fun film. As a film reviewer, I found myself involved in the story and thought it was a great and fun film. Seeing it again, I can see that some of the special effects are slightly obvious (there are points when it looks Spider-Man is animated and not really Tobey Maguire in his suit), and featuring Macy Gray as the headliner at the World Unity Festival does date the film (nothing against Miss Gray, but she's not as big today as she was in 2002). However, those are really small points.
I found Spider-Man to be a thrilling, fun, and highly enjoyable film that is quite intelligent and that also does something that Superman does: it takes everything seriously without being ponderous.
In the end, can one really argue against this now-iconic moment?