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Film captures hero's universal appeal

Cut through the webbing of hype surrounding the release of Spider-Man and you really will find a movie buried somewhere in there. That almost comes as a surprise, given that the level of marketing accompanying Hollywood's latest blockbuster wanna-be has been (as usual) so cacophonous, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture. There have been the toy store merchandising, the glossy magazines, the long distance service, the fast-food tie-ins, and Lord knows what else. (The low point: a TV commercial showing our hero using his trusty web to snag himself a Burger King hamburger. Wouldn't his fabled "Spidey sense" have warned him against eating that crap?)

Such self-glorification forces viewers to pay attention to their own tingling "Spidey sense," the one that reminds them that bigger isn't always better -- especially where Hollywood blockbusters are concerned. Yet remove Spider-Man the movie from its red herring surroundings and it's apparent that this is one summer film that satisfies. Although not in the same league as the screen versions of Superman, Batman or X-Men, this one largely works because director Sam Raimi and scripter David Koepp have managed to turn their movie into a successful tightrope act between soap opera and spectacle, retaining the personal elements that made the comic book so wildly popular while also providing the requisite big-bang special effects that thankfully never overwhelm the story.

Taking his cue from Amazing Fantasy #15 -- the comic that first introduced Spider-Man to the world back in 1962 -- Koepp has been remarkably faithful in getting that origin story onto the screen. As before, Peter Parker (played by Tobey Maguire) is a nerdy high school kid who undergoes a dazzling transformation after he's bitten by a rather unique arachnid (a radioactive one in the comic, a genetically mutated one in the movie). Suddenly, he possesses all sorts of incredible powers: If he's not quite faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, he still places a pretty impressive second with his extraordinary strength and ability to climb walls like his diminutive namesake.

The first half of the film follows the template of the genesis story in a way that should satisfy the hardliners, even keeping such plot elements as the wrestling match that Peter enters in an attempt to gauge the limit of his abilities, and the death of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). Indeed, the only major digression from the original text is that instead of Peter building wrist devices that enable him to shoot webs, the webs are now part of his own makeup, shooting out from under his actual skin (a guy named Peter spewing white streams from his body whenever he's in an exciting situation -- Freudians should have a field day with that one).

The second part of the film settles into more conventional territory, as Spider-Man finds himself locked in a deadly battle with the Green Goblin, a masked villain who, unknown to Peter, is the alter ego of Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a harried industrialist and the father of Peter's troubled best friend Harry (James Franco). There's also a heavy emphasis on the spunky girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and her burgeoning romance with Peter. Dafoe and Dunst are well cast, but if the film gets bogged down in the second half, it's because there's too much Goblin gobbledygook to wade through and because Mary Jane spends too much time as a simpering damsel in distress rather than as the dynamic individualist of the printed page.

Raimi, perhaps still best known for his cult Evil Dead films, keeps the picture hopping, and he receives major assists from composer Danny Elfman and three-time Oscar-winning costume designer James Acheson, whose duds for Spider-Man look as if they literally sprang off a comic book panel (he has less success with the Goblin, whose cumbersome outfit makes him look about as frightening as Count Chocula). The special effects are, for the most part, first-rate, especially in the exhilarating sequences in which Spidey swings from skyscraper to skyscraper, treating the concrete jungle as if it was his own personal playpen. The characters of kindly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and irascible Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (perfectly played by J.K. Simmons) have been accurately rendered, and a tossed-off comment by Peter regarding a Dr. Connors (in the comics, the true identity of arch-villain The Lizard) may hint at what a future sequel has in store for us.

Still, little in Spider-Man would count for much if the central role hadn't been so perfectly cast. This particular character had a large impact largely because he's equal parts man and hero -- that is to say, whereas Clark Kent clearly comes second to Superman and Bruce Wayne pales in comparison to Batman, Peter Parker has always been as interesting a character as his web-slinging alter ego. Maguire's portrayal lets what's always been true in print become a reality on the screen. He's wonderfully endearing as Peter Parker -- the initial scenes set at his high school have us really believing he's a hapless victim of the social pecking order. And the later sequences in which he uses his new powers allow Maguire to display a heady mix of joy and wonderment, as the character brims with the sensation that he's taking the necessary steps from youthful indiscretion to adult responsibility. Raimi probably had neither American Graffiti nor Rebel Without a Cause on his mind as he filmed this enjoyable superhero opus, but thanks to his lead actor's commitment, he ended up with a story that, true to its source, celebrates the ordinary as much as the extraordinary. *

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