In Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire puts over a tender, funny speech that's better than any amorous declaration in recent Hollywood romantic comedies. Peter Parker (Maguire) pretends to his girl-next-door true love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), that his alter ego Spider-Man was asking about her. He says he told the superhero, "The great thing about MJ is when you look in her eyes, and she's looking back and smiling ... you feel stronger and weaker at the same time, and you feel excited and, at the same time, terrified."
At junctures like that, and for minutes at a time, the moviemakers dramatize the great and awful thing about adolescence: feeling everything at once in a manic-depressive jamboree of tragedy and comedy.
What's both sad and ticklish about Spider-Man is that the human elements are stronger than the superhero shenanigans. This picture builds on the iconoclastic qualities of the comic book only to fudge on the exhilarating action.
But many will forgive that fault, especially in a season when fantasy blockbusters like The Scorpion King are so empty they couldn't fill four frames of a comic strip. At its best, Spider-Man hits on the essential attraction of classic superhero comic books: the tear-streaked farce of youthful insecurity.
Even if a paragon in leotards is impossibly gifted like Superman or smart and rich like Bruce Wayne/Batman, he still has to overcome poignant facts like orphanhood, as well as social alienation and mental states akin to schizophrenia. Such struggles make him all the more a champion to readers and viewers dealing with real-world problems like poverty or adolescent ailments like acne.
The brilliance of The Amazing Spider-Man comic in the early 1960s was to bring insecurity on the poverty-and-acne level into the superhero's makeup and play with it. Yes, the hero was once again an orphan, and yes, after he gained his spider-powers, the killing of his surrogate father, the deliciously named Uncle Ben, inspired him to go into crime-fighting.
But Peter Parker was no Clark Kent, an Ubermensch posing as a milquetoast; he really was a milquetoast. His gifts for science and photography didn't give him glamour, the way they added to Batman's; instead, they sealed his reputation as a nerd. And he didn't live in Metropolis or in Gotham City, but in plain old Queens.
The superpowers he gained when a radioactive spider bit him at a radiology exhibition were oddly particular and funky. He didn't have super-strength; he had spider-strength, the equivalent power that a spider would have if he were Parker's height and weight. He didn't have a sixth sense; he had spider-sense, a heightened intuition about evil-doing.
Suddenly he could climb walls and hang off ceilings and walk tightropes. And he used scientific skills to become more of an all-around arachnid -- he cooked up his own web-spinning device that would allow him to swing from skyscrapers or rope in evil-doers with a magically firm yet elastic lasso. If Bruce Wayne's creation of Batman was the work of a Byronic man of mystery, Peter Parker's invention of Spider-Man was the world's greatest science-fair project. And Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko knew how to turn this wonkiness inside out: to craft a reverse-cool that became coolness itself.
For a while, it looks as if director Sam Raimi (Darkman, A Simple Plan) and screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) have the same knack for spidery design. Their minor alterations make sense -- the spider that bites Parker is a genetically engineered new breed, and Spider-Man now generates webs naturally rather than with gadgets under his costume.
Raimi and Maguire beautifully capture the furtive intelligence of Parker and the burgeoning exuberance of Spider-Man. Maguire, with his flat, seemingly affectless voice, wins emotion the way Willie Nelson does with his reediness -- by tapping a peculiar inner strain of amusement, lyricism and conviction. (That voice also makes it possible for you to believe that MJ wouldn't recognize him with his mask on.) Maguire has been super before -- especially in Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys -- but in the early reels of Spider-Man he gets to be both angst-ridden and upbeat. Raimi and Maguire go deeper into the pubescent-fantasy roots of Spider-Man than even Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did; there's an infectious elation to Parker suddenly discovering he has muscles and figuring out what to do with the sticky substance that shoots out from his wrists.