It's interesting to see the resurgence in comic book movies, after many thought that director Joel Schumacher single-handedly ruined the "Batman" franchise with the one-two punch of "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin". "X-Men" was enough of a hit to renew interest in the genre, which was followed by development of such characters as "Daredevil" (who will be played by Ben Affleck) and "Spider Man", which finally emerged out of development hell after a lengthy battle over rights and several screenplay treatments, including some work by James Cameron.
After a lengthy discussion over stars (Heath Ledger and, shockingly, Freddie Prinze, Jr. were in the running) and directors (Sam Raimi was a terrific eventual choice), the film was set. Expertly marketed to not really overhype it all, the final film is certainly a good one, in my opinion. There's just a few things about it that keep it from swinging over from very good to excellent.
I'd most certainly call the opening half the better of the two. We're introduced to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), an intelligent, aspiring photographer who also happens to be on the low end of the status ladder of high school. He's fallen for the girl-next-door Mary Jane ("M.J.") Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but doesn't know how to express his feelings; he also happens to get beaten-up by the local bullies.
On a field trip to a science experiment at a local university, Peter gets a pretty nasty bite from a genetically modified spider, causing him to fall ill and pass out once he gets home. When he wakes up, things have changed drastically; he can climb walls, has incredible reflexes, can sense danger and can shoot webs. There are a few scenes early on where Maguire hits perfect, goofy notes trying to figure out how these new powers work.
After a tragic event, Peter decides to use his powers to fight crime, riding the streets of criminals large and small by swooping in on them unexpectedly. Elsewhere, industrialist Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), the father of Peter's friend Harry (James Franco) takes an overdose of an experiment he was working on, giving him super strength and a second, far darker personality, eventually becoming the Green Goblin, Spider Man's villian in this particular picture (who knows which of many bad guys in the series will be chosen for the sequel).
There's a lot to like about this picture, which entertains and adds a little more character depth than viewers usually find in a Summer movie. Director Raimi, who has been consistently moving up and showing great talent with smaller character-driven dramas like "Simple Plan" and "The Gift", alternates between exhilarating action sequences and character moments. Maguire and Dunst take several sequences that are mainly dialogue-driven and through expressions and other subtle touches, make their unspoken romance believable and their characters sympathetic. Maguire was a perfect choice, easily moving from awkward to serious to subdued.
The one character element that didn't work for me was Dafoe's Green Goblin. While the actor certainly gives it an over-the-top try, the character as written here doesn't make for a particularly interesting villian. The Goblin's mask, which looks like it could have been picked up at a Halloween store, doesn't really help matters, either.
The film's special effects are quite good, as one would probably expect from a picture with a reported 120 million dollar budget. While a few scenes here and there don't look seamless, there are several remarkable shots of Spider Man flying through the streets of Manhattan that are dazzling. Speaking of visuals, it's interesting to see how Raimi's visual style has changed over the years, from the highly inventive camera work of Bill Pope in "Army of Darkness" (Raimi's "Darkness"/"Evil Dead") star Bruce Campbell has a cameo) to Dante Spinotti's stylish and fast-paced work for "Quick and the Dead" to the picture-perfect baseball scenes by John Bailey in "For Love Of the Game". For "Spider Man", Raimi has borrowed director Robert Zemeckis's usual cinematographer, Don Burgess ("Cast Away") and the result is a film with slick, attractive visuals that either remain subdued for quiet moments or follow the rapid action clearly.
Certainly, this is a very good film and one of the stronger "Summer" movies that I've seen in a couple of years. There are some concerns I had; the first half feels more fresh and energetic to the somewhat familiar and louder second half and the villian could have been stronger, but other than that, I was certainly entertained.