The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'Spider-Man' weaving web
of success at box office

May 9, 2002
By Franklin Harris

The trouble with high expectations is that they usually lead to disappointment. But even after months of advertisements, promotions and merchandising, "Spider-Man" isn't a letdown.

Believe the hype. "Spider-Man" is a near-perfect superhero film, and it belongs ranked alongside the best of the genre, 1978's "Superman: The Movie."

Tobey Maguire is your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Photo © Copyright Columbia Tristar
Tobey Maguire is your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
I was lucky enough to see "Spider-Man" in a packed house, with an audience that laughed in the right spots, cheered in the right spots and applauded at the closing credits. Director Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead") and screenwriter David Koepp ("Panic Room") have delivered a crowd pleaser, mixing just the right amounts of action, humor and romance. I can't heap enough praise on this film without sounding like a flack for Sony Pictures.

By now everyone should know the story.

High-school nerd Peter Parker, played by the perfectly cast Tobey Maguire, is bitten by a mutated spider and gains all of the spider's abilities. At first, he uses his powers for personal gain. But a tragic event teaches him that "with great power comes great responsibility," a line right out of the comics.

Peter dons a red-and-blue costume, and Spider-Man is born.

Spider-Man's crime-fighting activities quickly bring him into conflict with the villainous Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and it isn't long before their personal war threatens all of New York City.

Raimi and Koepp are largely faithful to their source material, and when they deviate from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's "Amazing Spider-Man" comic books, they do so for good reason.

Before the movie opened, one of the biggest complaints concerned the Green Goblin's costume, which is quite different from the one in the comics. Why bother casting Dafoe, an actor who looks uncannily like the Green Goblin, only to hide him behind a metal mask? The reason is one of balance. Spider-Man's mask doesn't allow an actor to show any emotion, and it would put Spider-Man at a dramatic disadvantage to pit him against a fully emotive Green Goblin. Hiding both characters behind masks levels the playing field.

The other big change involves Peter's love interest, Mary Jane Watson, played by Kirsten Dunst.

The movie's M.J. is the same character we know from the comics, but her story arc belongs to Peter's original girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, deviating only in one important respect, which longtime Spider-Man fans will spot immediately.

Everything else is as fans would expect it. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is as overprotective as ever. Peter's boss at The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), is the blowhard we love to hate. And other supporting characters from 40 years of "Spider-Man" comics, including Flash Thompson and Eddie Brock, make cameo appearances.

Also credit the filmmakers for being willing to take chances. Raimi avoids the cliché of giving the Green Goblin some silly plan for world domination. The Green Goblin's goals are more modest, and he achieves most of them, making his battle with Spidey a simple matter of revenge.

If the movie has one failing, it's Danny Elfman's uninspired, tuneless score, which revisits his work on the first two "Batman" films.

Most everything comes together in "Spider-Man," but it isn't just a great movie, it's a blockbuster movie, too.

Between the hype and the almost unanimously positive word of mouth, "Spider-Man" broke every box-office record during its opening weekend. Its three-day take of $114 million obliterated the previous record of $90.3 million, set in November by "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

The folks at Sony who decided weeks ago to greenlight "Spider-Man 2" are looking like geniuses now.

Of course, "Spider-Man" has a way to go before it catches the all-time box-office champ.

"Titanic" is No. 1, with a take of more than $600 million. But if you adjust for inflation, "Titanic" comes in at only No. 5. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the king is still 1939's "Gone With the Wind," with an adjusted gross of more than $1 billion. The original "Star Wars" comes in at No. 2, having earned $865.9 million, adjusted for inflation.

But like the theme song from the '60s cartoon said, "Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man!"

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