We find high school student and budding scientific genius Peter pining after classmate M.J. (a cherry-tressed and occasionally barely dressed Kirsten Dunst, who succeeds in the tricky proposition of playing bubbly-yet-haunted). The sweet-natured beauty queen from the wrong side of the tracks is spoken for by a callous jock who delights in tormenting Peter via public tripping and other time-honored inflictments of pain and humiliation. Peter's life as a dateless nerd seems cemented. Little does he know that a bite from a genetically spliced super-spider (radioactivity is so Cold War) will transform his identity--and his life. For one thing, he's had his last wedgie. For another, the fate of the world now rests on his shoulders.
Director Sam Raimi's entire career has been building up to this megabudgeted tentpole popcorn picture, from the “Evil Dead” movies to “Darkman” to the “Hercules” and “Xena” Hour of Power. He's even made the bold foray away from the camp fantasy at which he's proven himself a master and into mainstream film--most notably, “A Simple Plan”; least notably (and much more bafflingly than the voice of Lou the puppy from “Cats & Dogs” as Spider-Man), “For Love of the Game”--a move that brings with it maturity, experience and discipline, for good and bad. In trying to fit the commercial formula, Raimi's zest and ingenuity are sometimes suppressed in place of standard character dynamics and impressive yet uninspired special effects. There are also a few obvious missteps: Peter's DNA transformation scene is lamely executed, and nemesis Goblin's first descent upon the public at a street-clogging parade isn't nearly as terrorizing as it should be, edited as it is with him jetting into view from a distance and beginning to wreak his havoc before we've had even so much as a close-up. (The inclusion of singer Macy Gray as the parade's celebrity entertainer, a trip-up in itself for dating the film needlessly, further undercuts tension as the non-actress peers and gapes dumbly at the metallically demonic rocket-powered villain.)
Still, Raimi does know his genre and has a lot of fun with the always gratifying makeover element as Peter entertainingly experiments with his new powers and forges his larger-than-life alter ego identity, quickly forgoing his homemade pajama-like costume for a high-tech latex look, and the clumsy moniker “The Human Spider” for…well, you know. Maguire in hindsight seems the only choice to play Peter, imbuing the character with intelligence, sensitivity, affability, strength, humor and edginess. He even begins to sound like the Spider-Man from the ‘70s animated series when he indulges in some trademark wisecracks, of which there are judiciously few, thus capturing the cool flippancy while avoiding the smarmy smart-ass territory the cartoon tended toward. And Raimi cleverly absolves himself of his prosaic backslides with his winks to the audience, such as when the Goblin, holding M.J. in one claw and a gondola of schoolchildren in the other while suspended hundreds of feet in the air on his hovercraft, taunts Peter, “You never know when some lunatic is going to come along with a sadistic choice.” Raimi himself must make such a choice in “Spider-Man 2” when he must decide which to pursue: the generic people-pleasing he's achieved here or the myth-makingly off-kilter originality of which he's capable. Audiences will be ensnared in whichever web he weaves. And straight-facedly goofy brother Ted Raimi (best known as Joxer on “Xena,” here playing a beaten-down subordinte of Peter's boss, archetypally surly newspaper magnate J. Jonah Jameson) will be assured his rightful place as the Clint Howard of the new millennium. Starring Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe and Kirsten Dunst. Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by David Koepp. Produced by Laura Ziskin and Ian Bryce. A Columbia release. SF/Adventure. Rated PG-13 for stylized violence and action. Running time: 121 min