Hollywood loves comic books, from the Blondie and Dick Tracy B movies of the '30s and '40s to the more recent big-budget franchises of Superman and Batman. There are times (say, every holiday season) when American movies seem to be one gigantic, endless comic book. The film industry has long been buggy about creepy crawlers too. In the '50s it spawned the mammoth postnuclear monsters of Them (ants) and Tarantula, and 30 years later it bankrolled David Cronenberg's magnificent remake of The Fly.
So the crossbreeding of Spider-Man with new film technology-part of Marvel Comics' adventure in big-budget movies, which began with the hit Blade and X-Men entries-seems a natural. On the printed page, comic-book action hero is an oxymoron; a man can fly only in the reader's complicitous mind. Films make the fantastic real; they are, after all, called motion pictures. In the new Spider-Man, our friendly neighborhood arachno-human can execute some cool moves as he trapezes above New York City. In these aerial scenes (a combination of acrobatic stunt work and digital derring-do), Spidey zooms and glides and quadruple-somersaults like a one-man Cirque du Soleil troupe, and the movie and the audience soar with him (for a while, anyway) on a great vertiginous ride.
The film, directed by Sam Raimi and written by David Koepp, is a faithful adaptation of the Stan Lee original-faithful to a fault. Spidey, a.k.a. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), is still the teen dweeb from Queens with a crush on the girl next door (Kirsten Dunst), a dose of genetically altered spider dna in his veins and a compulsion to save the world from the gaudy Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Sure, he can leap tall buildings with several sticky bounds, but he's also nearly grounded by a load of unresolved guilt. Plenty of classic heroes-Oedipus, Hamlet, Luke Skywalker-are obliged to kill a father figure; by the time this movie is over, Peter is responsible for the deaths of two such figures. That makes him one conflicted kid.
And it makes this Spider-Man a nest of conflicting ambitions. Every Hollywood marketing impulse screams for the movie to be zippily cartoonish. Yet the story is also Rebel Without a Cause: an agitated boy, the girl he loves, his best friend (James Franco as the Goblin's son) and some adults who never quite get it. Will Spider-Man be Ghostbusters or Ghost World?
Raimi, whose 1990 Darkman gracefully blended fantasy and pathos, pretty much goes with Plan B. The cast of serious actors, who might feel more at home in a rep theater than a franchise starter, is led by Maguire. The young star, a quiet, thoughtful presence in Wonder Boys and The Cider House Rules, can seem like an alien sent to observe earthlings. Here he's highly muscled but still sensitive; he certainly cries way more than your standard superhero. Raimi directs the film at Maguire's pensive pace. Some scenes are just inert. Whole swatches of Spider-Man play like a $139 million indie film.
In emphasizing angst over energy, the movie is much like its hero-not the dashing crime fighter in a red-and-black bodysuit but the introspective nerd who both endears and exasperates. Perhaps that's artistically appropriate, for Spider-Man is about the awkward process of becoming, of somehow surviving teen turmoil to turn into, as Peter's saintly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) tells him, "the man you're going to be for the rest of your life." Why shouldn't there be growing pains in the Spider-Man movie? Just as Peter's transformation is a process of trial and error, so the series may be able to mature in the planned sequels. The James Bond, Star Wars and Batman series show that first episodes are often outshone by later installments.
"With great power," Uncle Ben also says, "comes great responsibility." And with great hype come great expectations. This movie, which is already a big hit, is up against more than a beloved comic book; for the millions of visitors to Universal Studios Florida, it must overcome memories of the Spider-Man theme-park attraction. In a six-minute tram tour of upper Manhattan, the ride provides careering thrills, state-of-the-art 3-D visuals and a fistful of supervillains. There, and not on Sam Raimi's screen, is where to find a charismatic Spider-Man-and a moving marvel.