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Hollywood | Spider-Man is a smash summer hit, and it's actually a pretty good movie

Issue: "Mounting a defense," May 25, 2002

If you haven't seen Spider-Man by now, you are among a rapidly shrinking group. While the film, this summer season's first blockbuster, isn't causing the same sort of public hysteria that Titanic did several years ago, its startling box-office numbers ($223 million in its first 10 days) are garnering similar media attention.

To further distinguish Spider-Man from James Cameron's bloated, overpraised disaster epic/teen love story, it's actually not half bad. In fact, it's pretty good.

Spider-Man (rated PG-13 for violence and action) is, of course, based on the classic comic book. It's the story of an average teenage boy who's bitten by a mutant spider (in this case, genetically modified) and, as the venom courses through his bloodstream, takes on the arachnid's super-human characteristics.

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It's a comic book, and viewers shouldn't expect much more than comic-book plotting and character development from the movie version. There is, however, something very pleasing and even morally instructive in the story arc of a traditional superhero tale.

Typically, the forces of good and evil are clearly arrayed against each other. There's no question about who's who. The story's intrigue, and subtlety, is found in the personal battles that the hero and the villain face. Often, as in Spider-Man, hero and villain have traveled down a similar path, only at the crucial moment taking radically different forks in the road.

Peter Parker (played with a perfect blandness by Tobey Maguire), upon the discovery of his new powers, does what any teenager would do. At first, he simply plays, whooping aloud as he jumps and swings through New York City. Soon, he realizes that he can translate his ability into financial gain, and perhaps even improve his love life, pining away as he does for childhood crush and girl next door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst).

Peter, however, quickly learns an important lesson-familiar to anyone who knows the basic story of Spider-Man from the comic books-that unequivocally teaches him that his new power also brings new responsibility. Through circumstances Peter could have prevented, the boy's loving uncle (who's his stand-in father) is murdered on the street. Peter's thoughtless actions, making him tangentially complicit in his uncle's murder, hit him hard. Thus a superhero is born.

In this film, undoubtedly the first of a franchise, Spider-Man's enemy is the Green Goblin, the alter ego of the father of Peter's best friend. The Green Goblin also unexpectedly gains great power, during a botched military experiment, and Willem Dafoe does an excellent job with a Jekyll-and-Hyde character in the throes of moral anguish. The already rich Goblin doesn't learn the same lesson as Peter, at least not quickly enough, and decides instead to capitalize on his superiority by any means necessary.

Spider-Man is not without its flaws, but it offers about as much as moviegoers could hope for in a superhero film. The mostly excellent special effects serve the story, rather than distract from it. When they are utilized, they're often thrilling. The movie's central theme-and the fact that one can even identify a central theme is a credit to the film-is solidly woven into the tale, and repeated explicitly several times: "With great power comes great responsibility."

That's a simple lesson, but refreshingly so. Spider-Man doesn't have any of the dark, nihilistic edges that have plagued many comic-book adaptations in recent years, particularly the Batman series. Spider-Man is fine, family-friendly (although not for small children) summer entertainment. For once, I'm not scratching my head, wondering what all the fuss at the box office is about.


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