Spider-Man ranks among the best superhero movies ever made.
You know how it goes: nerdy high schooler Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider, develops super powers, and fights bad guys. It’s an origin story, like so many others, but Spider-Man’s theme, that with great power comes great responsibility, resonates because it’s a lesson that we all must learn, over and over again. Spider-Man, as a character, has abilities that make him strong and fast and agile, as well as give him the ability to do neat stuff in involving lots of very tall buildings (Pity the poor, nerdy high schooler who gets bitten by a radioactive spider in Barstow.). But it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’ll use these abilities responsibly. In fact, he behaves like a child, with disastrous consequences. And how many times has each of us done that? How many times have we taken our unique gifts and used them irresponsibly or in service of our own narrow self-interest? How has that usually worked out? That’s part of Spider-Man’s appeal: we don’t need to be nerdy, or a high-schooler, or a New Yorker to relate to this character. We look at Peter Parker, at Spider-Man, and we see a fanciful version of ourselves as we are and as we aspire to be. That’s pretty good stuff for a superhero movie.
Thematics aside, Spider-Man also succeeds as pure entertainment. Star Tobey Maguire nails the role, bringing just the right combination of gee-whiz excitement over his transformation and insecurity as he develops into a man. Perhaps more importantly, he conveys how much Peter Parker enjoys being Spider-Man. Sure, he must have looped much of his in-mask dialogue, but his wahoos and shouts of joy as he swings from building to building feel like the authentic whoops of a young man having a ball. Willem Dafoe, as the villain, proves yet again that he ranks among his generation’s finest actors. His reading of an easy cliché, “We’ll meet again, Spider Man,” belongs at the top of Villainy’s Greatest Hits. He goes big and broad, and just the right amount of over the top, without devolving into silliness.
This isn’t a two-man show, however. J.K. Simmons, playing Parker’s boss and newspaper editor, made my family laugh out loud as scenery-chewing comic relief. Kirsten Dunst and James Franco, as our hero’s would-be girlfriend and only slightly baked best friend, respectively, ground Peter and help us get an “in” to the story. The Chin, well, he does his thing. It really is a magnificent chin.
But hey, these are professional actors. They’re supposed to be good. What makes Spider-Man good is that sense of joy, that fun we get as we swing with Peter Parker through the canyons of Manhattan, thrilled at our abilities and finding our place in the world. There aren’t enough movies about joy and responsibility out there. Even if there were, Spider-Man would be the best of them. I just plain loved it.