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, he 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 sorties 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 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 has 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 ragecore and rap cuts, but stick around and you'll hear the awesome 1960s "Spider-Man" theme in all its hissy, unremixed glory.

Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man, a film that spins like a dream
Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man, a film that spins like a dream
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Indeed, Spider-Man spins like a dream, yet its fantasy has its limitations. There's a little too much manipulation in elements such as a gang of baddie cholos or a conspicuous moment of flesh to keep fansites buzzing. Furthermore, MJ becomes all too quickly enamored of Spidey's organic webshooter (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 suchlike sounds appealing, swing by and marvel.

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