Spider-man (12)

TWO hundred million dollars worth of profits means this behemoth of a summer blockbuster must be the best thing since Hovis came in slices, right?

Weeeell, not exactly. While Spider-man undoubtedly encapsulates everything that Hollywood can achieve with casting, dynamic direction, the ultimate in hi-tech special effects and a budget equalling the Third World Debt, it ultimately remains an empty affair.

At its most basic Spider-man is merely the latest in a string of mega-hyped comic strip actionfests that benefits from energetic performances and the firm hand of a filmmaker who is also a rabid fan of the original source material, in this case Sam (The Evil Dead) Raimi.

Cast your mind back over the last 25 years and the big genre successes of the past – Superman, Batman, X-Men – have benefited from the obsession of a slew of filmmakers who grew up on the type of fantastical storylines that spawned these comic strip heroes.

It’s only natural, then, that after passing through the hands of a string of wannabe auteurs – among them Tim Burton, the originator of the Batman series in 1989 – Spider-man ended up in the lap of Sam Raimi.

In truth, he hasn’t done a bad job. Then again, it’s hard not to when the cream of the US special effects wizards labour alongside hard-working thesps like Tobey Maguire (from The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil and Pleasantville), Kirsten Dunst (rapidly making a name for herself with films like The Virgin Suicides) and the ever-reliable Willem Dafoe coming up with the latest in a long line of grotesques.

The plot, a formulaic storyline culled straight from the comic, centres of geeky college kid Peter Parker (Maguire), who finds he has picked up some rather odd traits when he is bitten by a ‘super spider’ while on a trip to a science lab.

Within days he is climbing walls, leaping huge distances and, best of all, casting yards of sticky spider web from his wrists. Something of a good guy, Peter decides to put his new powers to responsible use and starts tackling crime – foiling robberies and the like.

So far, so good. What Parker, aka Spider-man, can’t know, is that he is about to meet a very special foe. Scientist Norman Osborn (Dafoe) is labouring on a superweapon for the US military. Scared that he might lose the contract, he experiments on himself with a drug that enhances strength and the senses. It works, but it also turns Osborn insane.

Driven to punish those who ruined him, Osborn emerges as The Green Goblin – au übervillain who speeds through the New York skies on a glider armed with rockets, which he then uses to explosively remove his enemies.

The scene is set for a titanic confrontation between Spider-man and the Goblin, with all of New York as witnesses.

Like Batman before it, Spider-man benefits hugely from a visionary director, two perfectly cast stars and the type of eye-popping special effects that have become the big Hollywood studios’ trademark.

Maguire in particular dominates the film as exactly the right sort of nerdy hero. He wears a look that says he is permanently bewildered by his new persona, and the move from weedy swot to muscular tough guy is handled with panache.

Similarly Dafoe’s transformation from business leader to cackling psycho (a la Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman) needs a theatre actor to do it justice rather than a Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Van Damme. And Dafoe succeeds in spades.

Dunst succeeds in holding her own as resident babe Mary Jane Watson, actually performing handsomely in a role that, in other actresses’ hands, would have translated into nothing more than eye candy. Male pulse rates will noticeably quicken as she stands in a soaking wet, plunging dress, just as females will catch a breath as they witness Maguire’s buffed-up physique.

Then there’s James Franco, the rising young star who gave a sensational portrayal of James Dean in the TV movie of the same name last year. He has a limited amount to do as Osborn’s neglected, poor little rich boy of a son, yet he more than holds his own in a story dominated by CGI and technical trickery.

Spider-man’s main fault is that it is far too reminiscent of every other comic strip caper that has come before it. The comic book violence is occasionally rib-crackingly nasty, and parents should be aware that the film is packing a 12 certificate despite the fights and stand-offs within it.

The one-on-one battles between good guy and bad guy are obviously the focus of the flick, yet Dafoe is often off screen for a lengthy period while the Maguire/Dunst love affair occupies centre stage. It’s a bad move.

Best moment: watching Dafoe, in full Goblin get-up, scythe through the sky on his glider. Worst moment: when a band of New Yorkers pelt him with missiles while chanting ‘If you pick on one, you pick on us all.’

Even post-September 11, it’s an emetic the film just doesn’t need.

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