STARRING: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris

2002, 121 Minutes, Directed by: Sam Raimi

A few weeks before the much-hyped Spider-man movie's release I read The Essential Spider-man Volume I, a collection of the first 22 or so comics ever published way back in the early 1960s. To be honest I haven't read any Spider-man comics since leaving school and decided to brush up on my Spider-man 101. (We film reviewers call it "research.")

So how were they? Although considered "classic" today by nostalgic comic book aficionados, I was surprised at their sheer amateurism. The artwork weren't particularly good and the stories depended on the most embarrassing unlikely coincidences. Corny as heck, these 22 comics served as a sort of sociological time capsule from a time before JFK's assassination, before Vietnam, "free love", LSD and Charles Manson. As innocent and wide-eyed as Peter Parker, the geeky teenager who gets bit by a radioactive spider and then turns into the flamboyantly costumed alter-ego of Spider-man then . . .

Despite this, I enjoyed the comics not merely for their unintentional humor, but for their very innocence and uncynical view of the world. (As comic fans will tell you, this was before Stan Lee and Marvel Comics grew all self-aware, ironic and "hip".) The same goes for the new big screen Spider-man movie: it isn't really a very good movie, but I was entertained throughout.

Part teenager movie, part soap opera, with Matrix-like action sequences and clunky comic book dialogue and over-the-top acting (especially thanks to Willem Dafoe, who plays the Green Goblin villain), the movie manages to capture the essence of the Spider-man comics. Like the old Christopher Reeve Superman movies, its biggest asset is in its casting of the title character, in this case Tobey Maguire, once seen reading Fantastic Four comics in Ang Lee's 1997 excellent The Ice Storm. His wide-eyed innocent shtick works well without ever becoming corny or irritating. His bemusement, delight and angst at changing into the titular superhero seem real and unforced.

Otherwise, the plot sputters back and forth with no clear goal in mind, lacking in structure pretty much like Tim Burton's Batman efforts back in the early 1990s. A bored teenager sitting next to my wife in the cinema was fidgeting on his cellular phone throughout the entire movie, composing lengthy SMS messages.

Maybe the movie lacked a villain with clear goal in mind. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will feature a mad scientist villain who wants to destroy all cell phones and Spider-man must stop him. Maybe today's teenagers will identify with that. Who knows? I'm just not sure what will constitute a happy ending in such an event. I'm rooting for the villain to destroy all those annoying cell phones, which seem to have taken over their "owners" . . .

Despite its faults (the special effects aren't all that special either), Spider-man has a human core lacking in most of today's heartless blockbusters. We'd probably see more installments featuring our friendly neighborhood spidey in the franchise considering that the movie opened so extremely well at the US box office. Keep on web-slinging, I say . . .



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