4 stars

by Stephen Notley

For years --no, centuries-- humanity has been waiting for a big-screen live-action Hollywood Spider-Man movie. I happily appear in print before you now to tell that it exists, and that it webs, flips and kicks major ass.

For the nerds out there, of course, this is old news. The movie's been out for a week now, and the geeks have already seen it three times each, so they know how cool it is. I direct my remarks to the regular civilians who need to know that this is a smart, cool, confident blockbuster that's worth the money and more. You know how sometimes when you see the trailers, you feel like you've seen the whole movie? Not this time, folks. This film is *full*.

Spider-Man is the the kind of movie that gets you on its side right away. The first scene, bam, it's a good joke, and you're smiling. Two more jokes and you're grinning. And it just gets better. Summer blockbusters are often described as "popcorn" movies, and that description has never been more apt, cuz this movie has popcorn rhythm. Pop!--that's funny-- Pop!--that's good-- Pop!--that's cool-- pop! pop! pop! pop!, on it goes, little moments, little gags. Here's Peter learning he can climb walls, and here's Peter discovering his webbing, and here's Peter using  his spider-sense for the first time --*such* a sweet scene. Pop, pop, pop, and all of it adds up to one big sastifying bowl of Spider-Man-flavored goodness. 

Sam Raimi is revealed to be the perfect choice to direct this film. He's nailed the comic-book operatic sense, the simple iconic characters like the Shy Nerd or the Cute Girl Next Door. But more than that, he's simply nailed the sense of *fun* that has to be a part of any Spider-Man movie. Reaching back to his Evil Dead days, he and screenwriter David Koepp sell the story with gags and little bits --not one-liners, but solid beats of comedy business that keep it all moving.

And casting? Please. Tobey Maguire has taken any doubts about his suitability for this role and pounded them into the ground with hammerblows from his genetically enhanced fists. He's nerdy, he's befuddled, he's ecstatic that he can jump over rooftops -- he's Spider-Man. Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane is an amalgam of the comics' MJ and Spider-Man's other girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and though it's mostly a comic-book girlfriend role, she inhibits it with some appealing sweetness. And Willem Dafoe acts his freakin' face off from inside that goofy mask, infusing his split-personality transitions with some nasty menace.

Worthy of special mention is J.K. Simmons from TV's Oz, here playing Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson. He veers away from the "Par-ker!"-yelling icon of the cartoon series to create a new portrait, and gets off a good half dozen of the movie's best lines in the process.

Is the movie flawless? No. Like any bowl of popcorn, some of the kernels misfire. 
If the best part of the movie is the first half where Peter becomes Spider-Man, the  pop pop pop rhtyhm tapers off a bit in the 2nd half as the movie tries to figure out how to draw its themes into Spider-man's conflict with the Green Goblin. The comic-book tone almost always works, but there's the occasional clunky scene, particularly some of Peter and MJ's romantic stuff. And yeah, it's true, sometimes the effects look a little computery.

But these are quibbles in a movie that entertains and entertains and entertains. The best tribute I can offer Spider-Man is that on Friday, with 90% of its energy drained by some savagely incompetent sound at the Eaton Centre Cineplex Odeon, the movie still caught people's attention and made them laugh.  Now that's a blockbuster.