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Balls (Of The Feet) To The Wall: Tobey Maguire tries out his new arachno-powers in Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man.'


'Spider-Man' is an irresistible telling of an American fairy tale

By Richard von Busack

THE ACROBAT of superheroes debuts in a tale that's a little sticky, as befits a story with so much web-slinging. The dialogue is a little clunky, sometimes uttered through masks. This blockbuster isn't a thing of beauty like Tim Burton's Batman. It doesn't have the haunting operatic quality in some stories of those characters we loved before we were old enough to read. But the writing is all in place; the confrontations and consequences are all much clearer.

Given a chance gift, seemingly meant to make him rich in a city where money is king, Peter Parker turns altruistic instead. His enemy is Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a Dr. Jekyllized member of the military-industrial complex. In the comic books, the Green Goblin seemed like a lapse of Stan Lee's imagination: what, a flying garden gnome? Co-screenwriter David Koepp has revised the Goblin, making him the long-green incarnate, the temptation to sell out. The Goblin brings advice: only ruthless individualism can hope to save a creature as strange as Spider-Man. Our hero triumphs when he realizes the meaning of the useful--even subversive--moral: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Some of the online critics have been complaining that the first hour is slow. On the contrary: it's the best part. The first leakage of webs from the boy (Tobey Maguire, perfectly cast) resembles those embarrassing biological accidents of adolescence. There's humor in the first strange crawls up the wall and in a wrestling match probably inspired by the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit Punch--in all, director Sam Raimi's fine slapstick skills shine to their best advantage.

And Spider-Man works as a romance of a shy boy and the woman he can't have. This kind of story functions perfectly for the movies, as it did in the 1920s; Lee and Steve Ditko were probably thinking of Harold Lloyd comedies (Safety Last, perhaps) when they put Parker on paper.

As Mary Jane, Kirsten Dunst once again proves she's no ordinary hot young thing, but an offbeat actress who always reveals a play of different emotions. Like a lot of beautiful women, Mary Jane thinks of herself as a reject. Her difference from other girls isn't in her beauty, but in her attitude, as in the scene in a science lab where she's looking at one of the fateful spiders, smiling as she says, "Disgusting." And she has the sense of humor to be amused by her first upside-down kiss (a sweet scene spoiled by overexposure in the previews). The effects are sometimes clearly computer generated, but the illusion almost always works. It's worth cutting the film a little slack to see these acts, quicker than the eye: the tarantella of the fight scenes, the hero capering in the highest wires possible.

Spider-Man (PG-13; 121 min.), directed by Sam Raimi, written by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and David Koepp, photographed by Don Burgess and starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Willem Dafoe, plays at selected theaters.

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From the May 9-15, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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