Who can scale a skyscraper, shoot webs out of his wrists and wing through the asphalt jungle like an urban Tarzan? None other than your friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, Spider-Man.
Peter Parker is an insecure, nerdy teen who is picked on at school and ignored by the pretty girl he adores. Then a genetically altered spider bites him and his body undergoes changes that make puberty seem like a hormonal hiccup. He’s not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse, but he dedicates himself to fighting crime as a masked superhero.
In his feature-film debut, Spidey goes up against the Green Goblin, a self-seeking, power-hungry scientist malevolently transformed by an experiment gone awry.
Spider-Man spins an impressive web of positive themes, including social responsibility, standing up for what’s right and being single-minded about one’s calling. There’s a sharp contrast between loving, supportive family relationships and destructive ones. The film draws a very clear line between good and evil and comes down on the right side.
Peter has loved Mary Jane Watson since before he even started liking girls. When she moved in next door, the inspired fourth grader asked his Aunt May, “Is that an angel?” His continuing respect and adoration for Mary Jane is refreshingly sweet. He stands by her through thick and thin, when others question her motives and virtue—even when she becomes his best friend’s girl. Many times Mary Jane is emotionally rescued by Peter’s words of encouragement, and physically rescued by Spider-Man. Finally, with her life literally dangling by a thread, Mary Jane experiences her “ah-ha!” moment: Peter is the only one she truly loves. But Peter realizes that Mary Jane’s life will be constantly endangered by a romantic relationship with Spider-Man and makes the tough but noble choice to leave his love unspoken. The message that friendship is the most unselfish expression of love is balm for the heartbreak.
Only once does Peter use his newly acquired hyper-strength for less-than-honorable purposes. He punches out a bully, but later expresses remorse and concern for the boy’s condition. Uncle Ben underscores the importance of restraint when he tells Peter, “Flash Thompson probably deserved it. But just because you can beat him up, doesn’t give you the right to.” Ben’s last prophetic words to Peter become Spider-Man’s call to action: “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility” (echoing Luke 12:48).
Peter comforts his grieving Aunt May and later stays by her hospital bedside until she recovers. He himself grieves on more than one occasion for his murdered uncle, posthumously referring to him as “Dad.”
Several references (ranging from lighthearted to reverent) are made to God, mainly by Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Changing a light bulb, Ben says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” Aunt May’s bedtime recital of the Lord’s Prayer turns into a plea for deliverance from a villain. A fight registrar sends Peter into the ring with a glib blessing. In contrast, Dr. Osborn makes a reference to evolution.
Mary Jane dresses immodestly a few times. One sexualized scene has a rain-drenched Mary Jane (who’s wearing a low-cut dress) looking for all practical purposes like a wet T-shirt contestant. She chooses that moment to do a slow-peel of Spider-Man’s mask and plant a passionate (upside-down) kiss on him.
Scantily clad buxom beauties serve as ringside attendants at a World Wrestling-style fight. Briefly seen posters bear images of nearly-nude women, one of whom is covering her bare breasts with her arms. In a man-on-the-street interview about Spider-Man, a hooker comments, “Guy with eight hands? Sounds hot.” Another woman gushes to the cameraman, “He has those tights, and that tight little …” (she trails off before finishing).
The clumsy, bespectacled Peter is tripped, teased and ostracized by cruel classmates. Normally, the gentle-spirited teen takes it in stride. But a school bully who pushes Peter one too many times is propelled backwards several feet by a spider-powered punch. Uncle Ben dies from a robber’s crossfire. (The actual murder isn’t shown.) Spider-Man makes his first public appearance in a boxing/wrestling match, which might be laughable but for the contender getting taken out of the ring on a stretcher.
An armed man demands cash from a fight boss. A robber/murderer falls backwards through an upper warehouse window and dies. After downing the human enhancer potion that eventually transforms him into the Green Goblin, Dr. Osborn kills another scientist by propelling him through a glass wall. He also terrifies festivalgoers, crashing through buildings and ultimately killing the board of directors that recently fired him. Then, discerning Spider-Man’s greatest “weakness,” he strikes hard by trying to force our hero to choose between the lives of a sky trolley full of children and the woman he loves.
Action violence builds in intensity as the minutes tick by, causing the film to hit the PG-13 wall with a solid “thumppp!” in a final, sometimes brutal conflict that leaves Green Goblin impaled by his own deadly weapon.
The film suffers from a handful of mild profanities (“h—,” “a–“) and close to 10 exclamatory uses of the Lord’s name, including an emphatic abuse of “Jesus!” Mary Jane’s dad is verbally abusive towards her.
There’s a cigar-chomping newspaper editor, a cigarette-smoking street hostess and a whiskey-swilling bad guy.
Spidey’s heavyweight opponent taunts him into action by asking, “That’s a cute outfit—did your husband give it to you?” The Webbed Wonder comes precariously close to taking vengeance on his uncle’s killer, but is spared the dubious satisfaction when the man trips over a pipe and falls backwards through an upstairs window.
This coming-of-age arachnid tale is perfectly written to resonate with adolescents, underdogs and the “little guy.” Director Sam Raimi explains, “For me, the strength of the character has always been that he is a real person—one of us. He’s gone through junior high and high school, he’s a bit of an outsider, he can’t get the girl, he’s broke … he becomes a superhero, but he still has to do his homework in the evenings.”
With so many young people likely to identify with Peter, then, parents might ask, “Is that a good thing?” They could do much worse. Peter is humble, selfless, respectful and dedicated to helping others. And he pays attention when his Uncle Ben tells him, “These are the years a man changes into the man he’s going to be for the rest of his life. Just be careful who you change into.” In the midst of a culture that seems to take pleasure in finding its heroes in all the wrong places, this finely-spun film debut is a refreshing alternative, putting down a solid franchise tent pole with a moral core.