Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:01 - Released 5/3/02

Not being a particular fan of superhero comics, I have to admit I've never read Spider-Man and don't know much about the character. This is why I was rather surprised to see that Tobey Maguire, the quiet, slightly geeky guy whose understated performances gave Pleasantville, Wonder Boys, and The Cider House Rules their sturdy underpinning, was starring in Sam Raimi's 21st-century update of the classic Marvel Comics character. But I guess Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and adapted for the screen by David Koepp, is a quiet, slightly geeky guy. At any rate, Maguire fits the role. He's not an action star, he's not a martial arts master, he's not a ball of muscle who blows up stuff while uttering clever one-liners...and yet, now he is. Our little Tobey has found his multimillion-dollar, sequel-making action role that will catapult him from minor prominence as a real actor into the pantheon of major commercial contracts and household word status of which real acting plays a very small part.

Spider-Man begins with a high school field trip to the Columbia University science department, where spiders, for some reason, are being cross-bred to produce "super spiders." Yeah, that's something I need around my house. When sweet-tempered doormat student Peter is bitten by an errant orb-weaver, he begins to feel a little woozy. After getting home, he tells his loving Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris) that he needs a nap, but when he wakes up, he feels better than ever. He also discovers that he can climb walls and buildings and spin webs from his wrists. Basically he does whatever a spider can. Hoping he can win some quick cash and buy a car to impress his friend and literal girl-next-door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), on whom he's had a crush since 4th grade, he designs a costume and enters a wrestling competition against "Bone-Saw McGraw" (WWF/WCW wrestler Randy Poffo, a.k.a Macho Man Randy Savage—you know, the Slim Jims guy?). Peter wins the competition, but it's too late: M.J. is already dating his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), whose father, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), is the founder of a multi-million-dollar chemical company. You know how the chicks always go for the rich guys.

But dating soon becomes the least of Peter's problems when his uncle is shot by a thief during a police chase. As he lies dying in Peter's arms, Uncle Ben gives him a piece of wisdom which will ring in his webby ears for decades to come: "With great power comes great responsibility." I think the old man is just talking about always using a condom, but Peter interprets it in his own way, deciding to use his newfound arachnid talents to fight crime and evil. And it's just in time, too, because, as it turns out, Mr. Osborn's company has begun developing a powerful performance-enhancing drug which turns the user into a homicidal megalomaniac with the strength of 10 men, and he chooses himself as the guinea pig. Soon Spider-Man and Osborn (now dubbed The Green Goblin) must face off in a desperate power struggle between good and evil, with Mary Jane caught in the middle.

Tobey Maguire is certainly more than adequate for the scenes in which you can actually see his face or hear his voice, and ditto for Dafoe. Dunst is good at the three things for which she's required; namely, screaming, smiling, and flashing her cleavage. Also notable is J.K. Simmons as the crewcutted, tough-as-nails newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. Of course, most of the really amazing action stuff is done either by stunt professionals or CGI computer geeks, but Evil Dead director Raimi definitely understands what makes a blockbuster, with quick cuts, fast action, and the judicious cranking up of Danny Elfman's pounding musical score. There are some eerie moments when images of collapsing New York buildings and fleeing bystanders hit a little too close to home (apparently there was even a scene which involved the World Trade Center that was cut from the final print), but generally things are well-sanitized and kept on a light-hearted basis. Screenwriter Koepp, previously responsible for scripts like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Panic Room, successfully adapts his writing style to that of pulp comics, and director Raimi follows suit with the film's colorful and fantastic look. And if you're wondering about a sequel, don't worry—not only does the film's ending hint at the possibility, but Spider-Man 2 is already scheduled for release in November 2003.

Reeve. Reeves. Keaton. Kilmer. Clooney. And now, Maguire. Get used to it, folks. Tobey's grown up. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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