LOS ANGELES — Given how important the teen audience is to a big-budget action flick, it's amazing that "Spider-Man" has taken this long to crawl onscreen. After all, the tortured teen-turned-tensile-superhero provides a made-to-order demographic for the movie studios. But, given the demands of displaying his particular superpowers, studios were wise to wait until now.
This Peter Parker, a teen photographer turned slinky Spidey (played by Tobey Maguire), swings and soars through Gotham City with the kind of panache and visual style that only state-of-the-art digital technology can provide. It's truly hard to imagine this sort of scale and freedom with anything less than total digital control of the hero, his villains, and his cityscape the kind that was once only achievable only through animation.
That said, it's important to note that this early whiff of the summer popcorn-flick season is more than merely an exercise in technical wizardy. The familiar question about faithfulness to the original character always pops up when yet another well-loved comic-book character jumps to the big screen. Sometimes that question may not matter if the movie works on its own terms, which this one does. But it should hearten those who enjoy the original Spider-Man character that the film rolls out the classic ideas of Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man in Marvel comic books, with the reverence of gospel.
The comic-book character, introduced in 1962 (the film marks its 40th anniversary), was a teen who struggled unsuccessfully to find his place in high school, even before he was endowed with the senses and skills of a spider.
The message in the final panel of the first Spider-Man comic book is clear: "With great power there must also come great responsibility." It is delivered early in the movie by Parker's uncle, played by an actor who has become Hollywood shorthand for integrity, Cliff Robertson. Willem Dafoe also stars as Spider-Man's nemesis, the Green Goblin, and Kirsten Dunst is Spidey's love interest.
In explaining where his characters came from, Lee once bemoaned "the awesome affliction that threatens us all: the endlessly spreading virus of too much reality in a world that is losing its legends a world that has lost its heroes."
This crowd-pleaser is a highly satisfying rendering of Lee's reluctant hero, one that captures the broken heart and tortured soul of a young man whose coming of age arrives with a perilously high price tag. But the solemn message and the escalating tragedies that bring home its truth to a somber Peter Parker may be the trickiest part of this film to succeed with summer teen crowds.
The weight of his responsibilities in the wake of his personal losses drops more and more heavily on Spidey as the film progresses. Movies with any sort of message, whether comic book or Shakespeare, always risk losing audiences who want to be simply entertained, not lectured.
As Spider-Man intones in the film's closing moments: "This is my gift and my curse." But as a 15-year-old fan of Maguire said on her way out of an early screening, "Who would want that kind of superpower if you have to pay that kind of price?"