Guys in multicolored tights jumping from buildings look a lot better as drawings on a page than as actual objects moving at 24 frames per second, which is probably the reason most superhero movies stink. Relatively early on in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), an introverted high school senior with the mysterious powers of a spider, prepares to enter an amateur wrestling competition. He has patched together an awful costume and dubbed himself "The Human Spider," but the announcer introduces the presumptuous teen as "Spider-Man." As the crowd roars, Parker turns around to complain about the mistake. It's a tiny, throwaway moment, but it lies at the heart of why Raimi's film succeeds where others have failed. Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, as conceived by Stan Lee decades ago, as realized by the director and his screenwriter David Koepp, and as acted by Maguire, is a bona-fide Everyman, a guy with ordinary problems and vanities ' a Jack Lemmon who can crawl up walls.
Raimi and Koepp have remained reasonably faithful to the original Spider-Man story, which first appeared in 1962. Science nerd Parker, living in Queens with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), gets bitten by a genetically mutated spider and suddenly finds himself sticking to ceilings and leaping great distances. One day, he stands aside during a burglary, refusing to aid the cops in apprehending the perpetrator. When that escaped burglar winds up wreaking havoc on Parker's own family, the distraught teen devotes himself to fighting crime as Spider-Man. Just in time, too, because millionaire scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe, chewing the scenery with giddy abandon), father to Parker's friend Harry (James Franco), has gone off the deep end and reinvented himself as The Green Goblin ' an eerie supervillain flying around Manhattan in a military-grade glider. Meanwhile, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), a fast-talking newspaper editor straight out of The Front Page, launches his own PR jihad against the budding crime-fighter.
The portentous mechanics of superhero antics don't seem to interest Raimi all that much. True, plenty of scenes depict Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan traffic, bouncing from building to building, and fighting baddies, all delivered via colorful, cartoon-like CGI effects that make no attempt to look real. But most of the film is spent on Parker discovering his newfound powers while contending with the vagaries of growing up. And here, the pitch is just right: The Spider-Man saga, as it has unfolded over the decades, is as much a soap opera about his alter ego's personal life as it is a series of confrontations between guys in masks tossing bons mots at one another. The film succeeds spectacularly in depicting Parker's world ' his unrequited longing for next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), his initial helplessness against the bullies at school, the pressures of living with his elderly aunt and uncle.
One could say Raimi's career has been leading up to this: After the florid stylization of The Quick and The Dead and Darkman, he pulled back with subdued studio jobs like A Simple Plan and The Gift. Now the director appears to have finally reached a happy medium. When Parker rifles through used car ads, hoping to impress Mary Jane, the gleefully expressionistic images of romantic and automotive glory that flash through his head are pure Raimi. But without the restraint of his later years, the camera-drunk auteur of The Evil Dead probably couldn't have mastered the emotional shorthand to render his character's surprisingly touching personal life. If we had to suffer through For Love of the Game for the director to develop these new emotional folds in his repertoire, the sacrifice was worth it. He has finally given us a guy in multicolored tights that we can care about.