Spider-Man is, to me, the best comic book movie of the 21st Century. I mean something fairly specific by that statement: not that it is the best superhero movie (I consider that to be The Incredibles) nor that it is the best movie to incidentally, almost superficially, include superheroes and to derive from comic books (I see no reason to deny that honor to Christopher Nolan's Batman films). Instead, that Spider-Man is the comic book movie that most effectively, thrillingly, and most importantly, joyfully captures the essence of what reading a comic book is like - specifically, what reading the Silver Age comics of director Sam Raimi's youth was like, all bright pop colors and playfully obnoxious attitude and simple situations laden with the sorts of emotional trials a 12-year-old could easily grasp. It, and its first sequel are in this respect perhaps the most Stan Lee-ish of all modern comic book movies, and in a post-Batman Begins world, when a strained, gritty realism undergirds very nearly every superhero movie out there, even a straight-up fantasy like Thor, what most stands out about Spider-Man is how very good it is at being extravagantly fun.
This proves, as though it weren't obvious, that movies are best made by people who want to make them: Raimi's affection for Spider-Man, created by Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, was well-publicised at the time, and that affection is surpassing obvious in the care taken to get the thing "right", and in the sheer enthusiasm of how the scenes are assembled, a kind of "holy shit, can you believe we actually get to this?" sense of possibility (and perhaps that enthusiasm owes to how, in 2002, comic book movies were still a new thing, and not a dismally overplayed money machine, but that can't account for all of it). Simply put, it remains more entertaining than, basically, every other movie in the genre, and that's even factoring in some CGI visual effects that weren't exactly the very best thing in the whole wide world when the movie was new, and have aged rather terribly altogether. That's what passion and commitment will do for you: Raimi wanted to make a Spider-Man that would capture the high-energy, pulpy effervescence of Marvel when it was young and feisty, and that's exactly what he achieved, and whatever imperfections the film picks up along the way, they practically demand to be hand-waved aside with a brisk, "oh, but that doesn't matter".
A lot of things carry the film to that point, but we're going to start with one that, in my estimation, not only hasn't gotten enough credit over the years but is viewed as a downright problem in some quarters, and by that I mean the leading man, Tobey Maguire, a dewy-eyed 26-year-old when he played the quintessentially teenaged Peter Parker, nerd and social outcast who finds his fortunes changing when, on a class trip, he's bitten by an experimental spider that infects him with a genetic mutation, giving him the proportional strength of a spider, the ability to cling to walls using his hands, a precognitive awareness of danger, and the ability to shoot tendrils of webbing out of his wrists.
Now, Maguire is not the world's best actor. Nor its worst! I will defend the sharpness of his performance in Wonders Boys against all comers. But it is the case that for the most part, knowing that Maguire is in a movie should inspire none of us to think, "well, we're in safe hands now, thank the Lord". And that being the case, I still think he was quite possibly the best actor in his age bracket to play Peter - whether it would have been worth the hunt for an actor in the next bracket down we can leave aside as a question that doesn't matter - for the character is precisely attuned to all of Maguire's limitations as a performer. For one thing, Maguire isn't movie star pretty, and it is an essential component of Peter Parker's makeup that he is believably an outcast. This is something much harder to sell with a pretty person. Try to imagine Jake Gyllenhaal playing a socially discarded nerd (and he almost jumped into Maguire's shoes during the three-picture run); it doesn't work. But Maguire, who has a somewhat squishy face, and who always gives off the impression that it takes him a whole hell of a lot of work to keep his eyes all the way open, he looks a little bit funny. Besides that, there's the actual "acting" involved: what is Maguire's default performance mode, but to seem really enthusiastic and smiley but he does it in a way that's sort of grating and overdetermined and insincere? Is this not one of the very reasons that The Cider House Rules is an emotionally hollow slog? And yet, how would you expect someone to act when he is not very good at being socially outgoing, but wants very badly to become that way, and so he acts really open and happy and friendly even though it's unnatural to him? And thus it is that I find Maguire to fit this film's conception of Peter Parker like a glove. Maybe not so much its Spider-Man, who is required to be more confident and airy, but since Spider-Man is frequently played by a CGI cartoon, this is of little matter.
Hell, man, I even have nice things to say about Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, but I'll save them for the next movie.
At any rate, Maguire's Peter is thus exactly the kind of gormless, eager kid at the heart of Silver Age Spider-Man, and this ends up proving critical to the overall tone the movie creates: as much as Raimi and cinematographer Don Burgess's use of color, as much as the gaudy visual matches and echoes in the editing that rather niftily recall the use of comic book frames, as much as David Koepp's cheeky, quip-laden screenplay - and I would like to say that of all the blockbuster screenplays in Koepp's singularly inconsistent career, the only one that can even think of challenigng Spider-Man as his masterpiece is Jurassic Park - and Danny Elfman's largely anonymous but effectively high-spirited musical score. It's a big, busy movie, that is to say, with just enough hard-edged Raimisms to feel like a personal project with real meat to it and not just an exercise in fizzy good times: a steel cage wrestling match anchored by an unctuous Bruce Campbell, the film's most warped sequence and also its best; the '40s newsroom sensibility of the Daily Bugle scenes, with J.K. Simmons* doing his best Adolph Menjou in comic patter routines that could only have been wedged into a big effects-driven popcorn movie by a director who knows his genre experiments; the unmistakable B-horror sensibility accorded to the film's villain in those moments when he's not played by a post-production effect.
And oh! that villain. It is frequently held that Spider-Man 2 trumps its predecessor; I don't agree. Though it's a remarkably close race, and what decides it for me is Willem Dafoe's ecstatic performance as Norman Osborn, the greedy but basically moral industrialist who goes insane when he takes an unproven super soldier serum and fancies himself the Green Goblin, a masked beastie with a hoverboard and hugely explosive bombs. I would, without a second's hesitation, rank his performance alongside Ian McKellen's in the first two X-Men movies and Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight as one of the very best comic book villain turns in the current century. He is certainly bigger and daffier than either of those two men, but so is his movie. What is fantastic about the performance is the way that Dafoe modulates three distinct registers that are all in flux simultaneously, all of them larger than life: the smart, savvy businessman and emotionally absent father; the terrified paranoiac who can't cope with his own acts of villainy, and the grandiose, snarling monster who exults in tormenting others and being just plain bad. In one showboating scene - a gimme moment, but just because something is handed to an actor on a plate does not mean that actor cannot do exciting things with it - Dafoe has to play opposing sides of an argument in a mirror, and he does it as well as it gets to be done (with The Two Towers coming out months later, 2002 was a banner year for "insane villains arguing with themselves" scenes). He is fun, he is garish, he is hitting exactly the right level of "threatening but unrealistic" to fit in with the poppy texture of the movie as a whole.
To this end, let us consider the design of the Goblin himself: a big, plasticky shell that looks really damn dumb, and offers no chance for Dafoe to act with anything but his eyes and teeth, thus encouraging him to really play to the rafters; it's the brilliance of the movie in one body. Even in 2002, not many filmmakers would have let something as goofy-looking as that Goblin costume into their gigantic summer movie; but Raimi, a B-movie maker at heart then and always, understands the matinee appeal of a ridiculous monster. To hell with realism and prestigious gloss; sometimes, the thing that is fun is to watch a guy in a squirrelly monster suit flail at a guy in a red and blue rubber unitard. And it is because Raimi and company always went straight and true for what was fun and not what was respectable, that their Spider-Man still crackles and rushes along after a decade of comic book adaptations have staggered about ineffectually in its wake.