A simple story of good versus evil

Published June 1, 2002

Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson.

OK: so it’s a movie based on a comic book-a good-verses-evil morality tale. And it’s a big Hollywood picture, an expensive blockbuster that’s pulling in record-setting audiences at suburban multiplexes all over North America.

But unlike some of its predecessors like the Superman or Batman series, Spider-Man is an action adventure movie with a difference. Not only are the special effects amazing, the cast excellent and the script darn good, what puts Spider-Man in a category by itself is that it’s the first of this kind of movie to be released after 9/11.

Set in New York City, it puts a superhero in an anxious New World where personal moral choices matter most.

Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi, is based on the 1960s era comic book of the same name. Starring Tobey Maguire, it tells the story of Peter Parker, a bespectacled high school student who is bullied by his classmates because of his smarts – he’s a classic teenage geek. While visiting a science museum, Parker is bit on the hand by a genetically altered spider – he is infected with all the spider genes and, after a short time is able to do anything a spider can. His body bulks out, he’s able to walk up walls, spin webs, and has extraordinary strength. His vision is corrected, so off go the glasses and out comes a transformed Peter – a newspaper photographer most of the time, but in his off-hours, he’s Spider-Man.

Every superhero needs a supervillain and here it’s the Green Goblin, the alter ego of Parker’s best friend’s dad Norman Osborne (Willem Defoe). Osborne is a scientist who develops weapons for the U.S. military. While working on a prototype for a supersonic glider, and under pressure to get a new, large contract from the government, Osborne takes a performance enhancing elixir. Unfortunately, though, the drugs accentuate his megalomania. Defoe’s performance is amazing: like Parker he has two lives. He’s a wealthy, successful businessman but he’s also the Green Goblin, seeking revenge on the military industrial complex that dumps him and his industry.

So it’s all set up: a villain out to destroy and an unlikely hero capable of saving the day. The skirmishes between the Green Goblin and Spider-Man give plenty of opportunity for the digitally enhanced special effects to amaze you. And expect lots of fights. This is, after all, an action adventure movie based on a comic book. But what makes it so interesting and different is the post 9/11 New York City. There are a couple of brief references to “the bombing” and, in one scene, where Goblin has set an apartment building on fire, the New York firefighters and police are right there, bravely running into the flames to rescue victims. Spider-Man joins them. It becomes a moment of transference. All the huge regard that the public has expressed for the efforts of the 9/11 rescue workers gets associated with Spider-Man and he not only helps them, he can do things that they simply cannot.

In the hands of scriptwriter David Koepp and director Raimi, Spider-Man is a moral fable and a love story. Peter Parker’s guardian and uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) provide the moral fable. When he notices the changes in his nephew, he advises: "With great power there must also come great responsibility."

Sadly it’s the last conversation between uncle and nephew: Ben is murdered. Peter grieves but chooses to honour his uncle’s memory by taking great responsibility for the safety and welfare of others. It’s a choice that makes you want to cheer, especially when contrasted with the Green Goblin who uses his power to destroy. The great power of the military industrial complex is pitted against the great power of an individual who chooses for the good: a metaphor, perhaps, of the central dilemma of North American life: what is the good, in a time of great evil?

The love story is the sweetest part of the movie. Peter Parker loves the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). She, of course, doesn’t love him, doesn’t even notice him. But through a series of coincidences, she’s saved, time and again, by Spider-Man, and slowly, falls for him, and for Parker. Maguire and Dunst create some wonderfully romantic moments. The famous upside-down, half-mask off kiss is an instant cinematic classic.

Mary Jane may never know how much Peter Parker loves her, and his unrequited love makes for a tenderness and vulnerability that is very appealing. For in the end, this film is all about love: Peter’s love for Mary Jane, Uncle Ben’s love for Peter, Spider-Man’s love for justice and for freedom. It is far from the most profound movie you’ll ever see, and some may find the fighting and the violence too much to take. But this movie gets lots of things right and delivers a message that’s timely, good and in it’s own way, inspiring.

Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, diocese of New Westminster.


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