It's not a great movie, however. The computer-generated action stunts are too fast, and the teen soap opera dramatics too slow. Still, energetic cult director Sam Raimi ("Darkman") takes the comic book seriously, a far better approach than that of a director who treats it as a campy hoot. For evidence, just compare Tim Burton's famous "Batman" to Joel Schumacher's franchise-killing "Batman & Robin."
In the trinity of comic book superheroes, Superman is the All-American space alien with boringly infinite powers. Batman is the shadowy, tormented millionaire with no superpowers but unlimited money and technology and a suspicion that the end just might justify the means. He's Richard Nixon, Howard Hughes, and Zorro rolled into one.
In contrast, Spider-Man is, initially, every comic book fan. He's the nerdy high school loser whom the beautiful girl next door never notices except when her jock boyfriend is pounding on him.
"Spider-Man" is a puberty allegory about how boys don't grow up as fast as girls. The unprepossessing Tobey Maguire ("Pleasantville") plays Peter Parker, a teen from Queens who moons over his voluptuous neighbor and classmate Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst of "Bring It On"). One day, a genetically engineered super-spider bites Peter. Overnight he sprouts manly (well, spidery) muscles, and takes up a career of wall climbing, web slinging, crime fighting and Mary Jane rescuing.
Still, Maguire's Spider-Man is significantly less beefy than many of the fantasy figures -- such as Terminator and Rambo -- who began infesting movies after steroids arrived in Hollywood a couple of decades ago. By emphasizing agility over brute strength, Stan Lee's character from 1962 is surprisingly in tune with today's growing taste for more nimble East Asian-style fighters.
Maguire and Dunst are fine actors, though neither makes any attempt at an Archie & Edith Queens accent. The only performer who imitates a New Yorker is Willem Dafoe ("Shadow of the Vampire"). His Green Goblin sounds like Jason Robards playing former N.Y. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller as a crack addict.
The best scenes come early as Peter exhilaratingly but painfully explores his new powers. How exactly would you swing down the street using your spider web shooters ... without smacking into the side of a building, a la George of the Jungle?
Unfortunately, Raimi eventually runs into a fundamental problem. He wants to make a character-driven movie, but both Spider-Man and the Green Goblin wear masks. This makes the action portions of the movie about as impersonal as a "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" episode.
Fairly quickly, you realize that "Spider-Man" is going to end just like so many other movies do these days, with -- avert your eyes if you can't guess the finale -- the good guy and the bad guy whaling on each other until our hero wins.
Lots of fellows these days complain about the "feminization of American culture." Perhaps that's actually happening, but movies have become increasingly masculinized, as shown by the enormous anticipation for "Spider-Man."
Compare two recent Angelina Jolie movies: last week's chick flick "Life or Something Like It" and last year's boy toy "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." Being a guy, I certainly wouldn't go see "Life or Something" again, but, as I predicted, the women who saw it rated it warmly. Yet, not many saw it. It grossed less than $7 million in its first week. Because it's a film for females, it lacked buzz.
In contrast, Jolie's video game-based "Tomb Raider" earned almost $48 million during its first weekend, even though it's now widely derided as a dud.
So, which segment of the audience is obsessive enough to get on the Internet and beat the drums for unreleased movies? You guessed it -- the generally shy but extraordinarily opinionated, often overweight fan boys who love comic book movies. The best known is Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News, the movie preview Web site that has so much influence over what's thought hot, and, increasingly, what gets made.
"The Simpsons" brutally parody the kind of fan whose tastes count most in today's Hollywood via the character Comic Book Guy. He's the fat, surly owner of The Android's Dungeon and Baseball Card Shop. "Rest assured," he smugly tells Bart after Homer's disastrous debut as Poochie on the "Itchy & Scratchy" cartoon, "I was on the Internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world."
"Spider-Man" is far from being the worst movie these kinds of comic book geeks have inflicted upon us. It might even be the best. But that isn't saying much.
It's a mild PG-13 for stylized violence and action.
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