by Ray Pride

The worry is not whether Spider-Man has the PG-13 thrills and spills to satisfy a popcorn-happy audience for a couple of weeks before the new Star Wars stomps into town. No, the real worry is whether 40 years of comic book readers are going to think that this Peter Parker -- sensitive, neurotic boy genius and unlikely hero -- lives up to the image they have of him in their heads.

Superman, the movie that Spider-Man most resembles in the annals of sleek, superhero origin stories, isn't a story most of us could relate to. Who among us was born on another planet? Stan Lee, for one: a planet called the Outer Boroughs. Throughout the checkered history of Marvel Comics, Lee and the editors, writers and artists working under him and his successors have understood that wherever their characters are, that's the world: it's when you get out of your teenage bedroom that things get strange and funky.

Like most of the Marvel Comics antiheroes, Peter Parker is the self-pitying underdog who must overcome both whining and a physical handicap to wow the world and win the girl. Tobey Maguire, an actor who has seemed to specialize in wide-eyed naifs, in films like The Ice Storm, Ride With The Devil and Wonder Boys, brings all his self-serious youthful gravitas to the role of the high school photographer whose world changes for worse and better when he's bitten by a radioactive super-spider.

Maguire helps sell many moments drawn from the comics that would otherwise turn to camp. He first defines his character in a wrestling match, shot with the goofy pizzazz of earlier Sam Raimi pictures like The Evil Dead movies. His dealings with his newspaper editor when he sells exclusive photos of Spider-Man's deeds are authentic to the smart-alecky universe created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, as well as Raimi's love of Three Stooges-like inane humor.

Maguire's chemistry with Kirsten Dunst is sweet and endearing, despite her M.J. character having little to do but be the pass-along girlfriend. (At least they get the kinkiest, wettest first kiss you'll ever see in a summer action picture.) Dunst, at 19, has proven herself to be an actor with substantial screen presence, even in Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow, a 1920s-set murder mystery in which she plays a real-life 28-year-old actress. Her fizz in Spider-Man, sometimes fouled by her own unlucky turns, is less strenuous than ardent. This is a confused young woman who could love a confused young man like Peter, and she's someone who could, should, ought to tease a secret or two out of him.

Screenwriter David Koepp has the fortune of drawing from hundreds of stories to create Parker and Spider-Man's world, and there are passages early on that are as crisp as you'd want. From the roster of baddies through the run of Spider-Man comics, it would have been a mistake to throw too many into one movie. Willem Dafoe does interesting work as the father of Peter's schoolmate, best friend and eventual roommate, yet where Spider-Man falls flat is when Dafoe becomes a computer-generated Green Goblin. It's as if a teen counseling clinic had a trap door where you fall directly into aisle nine of a Toys 'R Us. We're supposed to be scared of that shiny meanie? Darth Vader? Scary. Green Goblin? Sigh. The mind wanders. The stomach rumbles. But then Spider-Man takes flight once more, shooting his webbing from rooftop to rooftop, from pillar to post, and Spider-Man literally, genuinely, gratifyingly soars.

A combination of locations in New York and Los Angeles, soundstages in Southern California and computer work propel us across the skylines of Manhattan, sharing the vertigo, the illicit thrill and smooth rush of being as airborne as the world's greatest acrobat. The movie cannily parcels out his self-training: he keeps getting better and better as he learns how to navigate this new life no one has led before.

There are other elements worth talking about, but they should wait until the parking lot. Let's just say that the ending of a movie like this may be the toughest tightrope any filmmaker can walk, making light entertainment that works as an entryway into a series of hits, but also bears its own satisfying, cathartic weight. Watch the movie. Watch Dunst's face in her last scene. Watch Maguire's in his final close-up. And wait until the very end of the credits for a small, dopey in-joke that might just send you out smiling.

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