Dream Weaver

Spider-Man slings pop mythology for the masses

Raimi's Evil Dead films -- especially the utterly charming Army of Darkness -- allowed him to explore the struggles of a lone hero in a world gone mad. With these wild horrors, as well as the Hercules and Xena series he developed and produced, Raimi gave himself carte blanche to strip-mine mythology, lace it with yuks and serve it up in outlandishly cinematic terms. None of his trademark style is lost on Spider-Man, which allows the director to play with all sorts of knockout visuals (effects by John Dykstra and scores of animators; costumes by the brilliant James Acheson) while telling a universal story. (In interviews, Dunst has emphasized how "really relatable" Spidey truly is.) The effects are smashing, yet there's a heart behind them.

Peter Parker's heart keeps Spider-Man from becoming a mere effects showcase -- though much of the web-slinging, especially the early, trial-and-error stuff, is a hoot -- and the movie is grounded in intelligent characters and performances. Maguire is ideal for the role, working through vulnerability, smugness and guilt after he inadvertently allows the murder of a loved one. Dunst is equally suited to MJ, filling her role with stunning veracity (and conveying yet another lesson: Girls from abusive homes move to big cities to become actress-waitresses). She reveals so much potential here that one hopes she's allowed, in the sequels, to be less distressed and more proactive. As for Dafoe, though he sometimes channels Jack Nicholson's ill-cast Joker, his supernatural turn in Shadow of the Vampire prepped him well; he definitely doesn't need the silly Goblin helmet to be scary (although the foppish purple cap is sorely missed).

Spider-Man amounts to a very strange amalgam -- part Raimi movie (it happens to include cameos by his brother, Ted Raimi, and Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell), part marketing blitz for Marvel and Sony (singer Macy Gray shows up), and part nostalgia trip. Many of the elements -- including J.K. Simmons as bombastic Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (whose action figure features "Desk Pounding Action") -- seem transplanted from a bygone era. Clinching this sense of timelessness, the end credits feature the requisite contemporary rage-core and rap cuts; but stick around and you'll hear the awesome 1960s Spider-Man theme in all its hissy, unremixed glory.

Spider sense: Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst see eye-to-eye as a couple of pretty believable comic-book heroes in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.
Doug Hyun
Spider sense: Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst see eye-to-eye as a couple of pretty believable comic-book heroes in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.

Indeed, Spider-Man spins like a dream, yet its fantasy has limitations. There's a little too much manipulation in a few elements, such as a gang of baddie cholos or a conspicuous moment of flesh to keep fan sites buzzing. Furthermore, MJ becomes all too quickly enamored of Spidey's organic web-shooter, if you know what I'm saying. Such quibbles aside, however, it's unlikely that too many romantic, coming-of-age, family-oriented, stridently patriotic, big-studio superhero movies will launch this year. If such a feature sounds appealing, swing by and marvel.

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