*** (out of four)
By Daniel Kraus

Making a super-hero flick?  Well, there's two basic ways to go about it.  The first is the Superman route, wherein the humble beginnings and awkward growing period of our soon-to-be bad-ass are addressed sequentially, from childhood to super-adulthood. The second is the Batman route, wherein we jump right into the action, and the "how I got this way" back-story is later revealed as part of the hero's mysterious past.

Spider-Man opts for the lighter, simpler Superman route. Even better, Spider-Man never really strays from the "humble beginnings" part—it could've easily been titled "I Was a Teen-Aged Spider-Man." It's almost solely about learning how to BE a super-hero, and this gives the movie a pleasant edge of doubt—not only is this super-hero fallible, but he hardly knows how to work his darn web-slinger!

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a nerdy high school loser who gets bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider and develops arachnid capabilities. To this movie's credit, this preposterous genesis is quickly forgotten—okay, now he's Spider-Man, great. Let's get on with it.

And move on it does, with an easy-going, unpretentious attitude courtesy of cult director Sam Raimi. Raimi cut his teeth on comic-book horror films (the Evil Dead trilogy, Darkman) and was the ideal candidate for Spider-Man. At one point in time, James Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic) was attached to the project; thankfully, instead of Cameron's cold, awe-inspiring "vision" we are treated to Raimi's warm, bubble-gum pop sensibilities. This is Spider-Man like we remember him—fast, colorful, and fun.

Actors don't come much more low-key than the baby-faced Maguire, who mumbled his sleepy way through indie films like The Ice Storm and Cider House Rules and, in this movie, seems honestly amused to be around. He's way out of place as an action hero, which is exactly why he's inspired casting—Peter is a geek who isn't SUPPOSED to be a crime-fighting stud. In fact, he's more like "Underwear Boy" for a while, making do with a hilarious red shirt and slacks before creating the eventual, far more impressive Spider-Man get-up.

As fun as Maguire is to root for, you never really believe that he's the guy swinging through the city like Tarzan. In no way does his body language hint at any sort of physical ability and when we cut to a close-up of Maguire wearing a Spider-Man costume, that's exactly what it feels like—"Okay, bring in Maguire for the close-up. Van Damme, take five."

This is partly because the digital Spider-Man effects are pretty poor. There's not one instance where you mistake the computer-Spidey with the real Spidey. Raimi knows this and tries to keep the action moving so fast that you never get a clear look at the characters, but it doesn't work. What we end up with is a really good movie spliced together with a half-way decent video game.

Fortunately, this doesn't matter that much. One of the first lines of the movie is "This is a story about a girl," and it succinctly outlines where Raimi's real interests lie—not in redundant shots of a computer-generated acrobat, but in the juicy, timeless story about a boy going through "changes" and falling in love with a girl.  

Kirsten Dunst plays the girl in question, Mary, and she's as welcome a surprise as Maguire is. Finally, a female lead that isn't required to wear the feminist weight of the world on her back—Mary isn't a powerful, successful super-model like one of those hideous Charlie's Angels robots. Instead, she's a sweet, unassuming waitress who refrains from making even one ugly sarcastic comment. Both she and Peter seem like genuinely good people who deserve each other and Raimi decides that this is enough to make us care. Who needs the usual "Evil That Threatens All Of Mankind!" when you've got two believable, loveable leads?  

The big trick for Raimi will be pulling off the inevitable sequels without wringing all the juice from this wonderful romantic tension. His action sequences will by necessity grow larger and, for better or for worse, they have never been Raimi's strong suit. Spider-Man, for all its innocent charm and exciting, Frankensteinian "creation" sequences, is little more than a Saturday afternoon reading a comic book, and that's exactly as it should be. Once it starts taking itself too seriously, the delicate web on which it's balanced may break with the added weight.

Daniel Kraus is a syndicated columnist and filmmaker. Information on his newest film, "Ball of Wax", can be found at