'Spider-Man' creates likeable hero with predictable battles

Posted: Thursday, May 09, 2002

Oh, the hardships of the sensitive teen-age boy. Plotting a future. Trying to catch the eye of the girl next door. Adapting to changes in his body, including those pesky cobweb emissions and the tiny, clingy hairs that make scaling walls a snap.

Along comes ''Spider-Man,'' perhaps the most awaited comic-book adaptation since, well, the dawn of the comic book.

No stranger to such stylized fantasy worlds, director Sam Raimi (''The Evil Dead,'' ''Dark-man,'' ''Army of Darkness'') has admirably synthesized 40 years of crime-fighting from the pages of Marvel Comics into an energetic romp that captures the spirit of Spidey's universe with reverence and affection.

With the awkward charm of a good boy slowly blooming, Tobey Maguire is an inspired choice for the lead.

And with its sweetly sad underpinning of romantic longing and uneasy friendship -- plus a demented villain who evokes sympathy amid his blustering -- ''Spider-Man'' sometimes rises above the comic-book trappings to conjure real sentiment.

The ''X-men'' movie had deeper intellect, but ''Spider-Man'' has a stronger heart.

Maguire stars as Peter Parker, a high-school science geek picked on by classmates and unnoticed by his secret love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Peter's only friend is rich kid Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of wealthy researcher Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe).

An orphan, Peter lives with his doting uncle and aunt (Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris).

Bitten by an irradiated spider on a science field trip, Peter awakens the next morning to find his body more muscled and toned and his eyeglasses no longer needed. He soon discovers he can leap great bounds, cling to walls, spew heavy strands of web from his wrists and sense approaching danger.

Now the Uber-arachnid on the block, Peter initially figures to cash in on his abilities as the Amazing Spider-Man until a tragedy turns him to a life of crime-fighting, surfing his webs from building to building across Manhattan in search of good deeds to do.

Meantime, Norman Osborn has subjected himself to experimental human-performance enhancers that turn him into a super-maniac. In Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion, Osborn continues his regular life while periodically transforming into Spider-Man's archrival, the Green Goblin, cruising around town on a floating glider hurling grenades and otherwise causing mayhem.

While Spider-Man's traditional red-and-blue duds translate to the big screen with minimal corniness, the Green Goblin is stuck in goofy emerald armor whose big-snouted face looks like an early design reject for the gargoyles of Notre Dame.

Dafoe's best moments come in schizoid debates between the tremulous Osborn and his snarling alter ego, his internal struggle eliciting occasional compassion among viewers.

With earnest, unpretentious delivery, Maguire is an eminently likable hero audiences will root for from his earliest moments as the class wimp. Dunst adds her habitual spunk, though Mary Jane is little more than a damsel endlessly requiring rescue.

Franco's role is negligible, but the film nicely establishes the comic books' conflict between Harry and Spider-Man for sequels (installment two of the franchise already is in the works).

The action sequences generally are fun, though repetitive. You'd think you would never tire of seeing a guy in red-and-blue jammies sailing around the New York skyline on self-made spider tethers. But it does get old.

There's also a sameness about the rumbles between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. Every few minutes, Gobby turns up to bellow at Spidey, lob a grenade or two and trade punches.

The hero-villain dynamic is undercooked, with the Green Goblin an overblown variant of the bullies who picked on Peter in school.

Personal rivalry between good and bad guys is a major element of action comics, but the best film adaptations shoot for a broader fight, with villains hatching dastardly schemes of mass destruction or conquest (think Gene Hackman in ''Superman,'' Jack Nicholson in ''Batman,'' Ian McKellen in ''X-Men'').

Taking out their superhero nemeses often is a bonus to the evildoers, whereas in ''Spider-Man,'' it becomes the driving goal for the Green Goblin, whose localized malevolence makes him more nuisance than menace in Manhattan.



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