From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco

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The summer movie season gets off to a literally swinging start with Spider-Man. Not since 1978's Superman has there been a live-action, comic book-based film so savvy at mixing self-aware camp with sincere emotion, and so successful at establishing the normal guy life of its spandexed protagonist. Spider-Man's web loses tension, though, later on when its hooded hero concentrates on battling evil, becoming another bombastic, special-effects-laden spectacle.

A single bite by a genetically altered spider transforms nerdy Peter Parker (Maguire), a high school senior in Queens, N.Y., into a capeless crusader. Arachnoid superpowers accompany his new, pumped-up physique: He can cast gunky spider-webs from an orifice in his wrist and scale walls via tiny bristles sprouting from his flesh. Welcome to puberty in the parallel superhero universe.

What makes Parker's metamorphosis into Spider-Man so effective is a charmingly bemused performance by Maguire, whose essential passivity works to his advantage here. Parker is confused by his new powers; early scenes of him learning to flick webs and slamming into walls are particularly comic. And Maguire shows chemistry aplenty with the lovely Dunst, who makes a plucky figure out of Mary Jane Watson, the girl next door. Parker has a crush on her but she, unaware of his true identity, has one on Spidy.

Spider-Man, directed with panache by Sam Raimi (The Gift), is best while Parker is new to his tights. Later on, the plot gets pumped full of hot air as he battles the masked Green Goblin (Dafoe, who plays it as if he's slumming), and repetitive zap!-blam!-bap! fight scenes prevail. Computer-generated images of a confident Spider-Man swinging through the air with the greatest of ease are cool, but a little flying goes a long way. The film's heart is so clearly in Parker's conflict over his dual identity, and in his romantic yearning for Mary Jane, that every time he pulls on his hood to pummel criminals, it's almost beside the point. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: A webbed feat

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph V. Tirella.