- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

Sam Raimi's movie homage to the Marvel comic-book hero Spider-Man begins with a dynamic flourish. The credit sequence gorgeously interweaves a pattern of webs, phantom figures and skyscrapers with lush, surging music the main-title theme by Danny Elfman.

The expository episodes also are promising. Tobey Maguire is introduced as mild-mannered high school senior Peter Parker, who resides in Queens, N.Y., with a kindly aunt and uncle (Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson). He carries a torch for classmate-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and finds himself strangely transformed after suffering a bite from a genetically enhanced spider during a science-class field trip to Columbia University.

At the outset, a second transformation also occurs. This one is self-inflicted and calamitous. A captain of industry named Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) becomes his own guinea pig to test "performance-enhancing" chemicals as part of a defense contract that could be in jeopardy if his company, Oscorp, falls short of its promises.

While Peter endeavors to master overnight spidery attributes that portend superhuman physical prowess, Osborn becomes a schizophrenic destined to be overwhelmed by his Mr. Hyde alter ego.

A despotic fiend called the Green Goblin emerges. It reduces Osborn to a whimpering slave, flies around on a souped-up skateboard terrorizing New York City and recognizes Peter's emerging crime fighter, Spider-Man, as the only obstacle to an insatiable lust for power.

After a proficient start, the movie begins displaying ill-timed and persistent schizophrenic tics of its own. What gives? Mr. Raimi erupted onto the movie scene almost 20 years ago as a precocious specialist in hair-raising horror. His calling card, "The Evil Dead," which eventually justified a pair of elaborate sequels, came at the audience like a supernatural predator.

Mr. Raimi chooses a bad time to mellow. He lacks practice with the sincere, banal forms of depiction that become familiar to most directors because they're obliged to make more or less realistic pictures about more or less normal people during their formative years.

Mr. Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp indulge a sappiness that weighs down the scenario as grievously as twin lead balloons when endeavoring to generate a budding romance between Peter and Mary Jane and to dote on the virtues of Peter's Aunt May and Uncle Ben.

Conversations between the characters of Miss Dunst and Mr. Maguire that are meant to be tenderly tentative prove sluggish and excruciating. A powerful undercurrent of grief and guilt is meant to flow through the protagonist when his Uncle Ben is killed suddenly, but it's a relief just to get rid of Mr. Robertson. He's a platitudinous bore with a laughable hairpiece.

Miss Harris is easier to take as Aunt May, but Mr. Raimi's judgment has gone so berserk by the climactic episodes that he can hurl auntie into intensive care in one scene and then instantly reverse the prognosis to show her as a smirking earwitness to further halting endearments between the youngsters.

The movie begins to inflate in perilously laughable ways when Mr. Dafoe is allowed to torment himself to a campy fare-thee-well as the Goblin. Or, to be precise, the voice of the Goblin issuing groveling orders to a pathetic Mr. Osborn. Although the Goblin comes with a supposedly scary mask, it's not remotely as scary as Mr. Dafoe contorting his own mug into a mask of agony.

Given the lulls that accumulate around the plot-heavy scenes, it's usually a blessing when a thrill sequence intervenes. Even these pick-me-ups lack staying power, however. The spectacle of Spider-Man swinging through the canyons of the city on his elastic tendrils grows repetitive as a pictorial wonder. It might have helped to emphasize his wall-climbing skills a bit more.

Mr. Raimi's timing is also terrible during a Goblin raid on a Times Square celebration. Miss Dunst is kept shrieking and clinging to a collapsing ledge well beyond a decent rescue interval.

Aunt May gets one telling sarcastic line, although she directs it to Peter in a fondly cautionary tone: "You're not Superman, you know." Say no more.

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