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Sam Raimi weaves a tangled, tantalizing web of comic-book action and B-movie camp for "Spider-Man's" much-anticipated first outing on film.

Charming and without a hint of guile about him, Maguire perfectly embodies 99-pound science geek Peter Parker, who's just as bewildered and bemused as we are by the super powers he possesses. With his trademark soulful eyes, previously displayed to great effect in "Cider House Rules" and "The Wonder Boys," Maguire makes our suspension of disbelief painless. We never doubt for a second that he pines for redheaded girl next-door, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), or that a bite by a genetically engineered spider while on a school field trip turns the mild-mannered teen into a superhero.

The same goes for the next morning when Peter Parker awakens to a whole new world. Maguire keeps us right there with him, experiencing his confusion and delight as he discovers he's not the boy he used to be. Not only does he no longer need glasses, but somehow his body has turned buff overnight. But those bewildering turns of events are nothing compared to the discovery of some newfound abilities: clinging to any surface, making giant leaps and spinning tough-as-rope webs. The irony of it all doesn't escape poor Peter, who now realizes that he really is a freak of nature. Raimi and Maguire have a lot of fun with Peter as he explores his new powers. A research scientist at heart, Peter decides to test himself in a wrestling ring, taking on a gigantic challenger with equally huge comic results.

Orphaned at an early age, Peter has been living with a dear older aunt and uncle. When his uncle is carjacked and fatally wounded, Peter's Spider-Man gets serious. Goodbye, parlor tricks; hello, crime-fighter.

His main opponent in this first outing is industrialist Norman Osborn, father to his best bud, Harry (James Franco). Norman actually takes an active interest in Peter's education and career, so when the two boys share a Manhattan loft after high school, the two become rivals for the attention and affection of both Mary Jane and Harry's Dad. Harry, of course, seems to get the girl first, but we all know goodness and virtue will be rewarded.

Complicating matters, Norman has his own lab "accident," which also imbues him with superhuman strength. It also leaves him criminally insane. (Don't ya just hate when that happens?) Before you know it, "Evil Dad" is running amok all over the Big Apple dressed in an armor-plated reptile suit. He is dubbed the Green Goblin, and newspaper editorials ponder if there's a hero among the citizenry who can stop this reign of schizophrenic terror.

Of course there is. But now, like all tragic heroes of Greek drama and legend worth their salt, Peter is conflicted. This raving, raging lunatic is also what's left of his best friend's father and a man who offered our young hero encouragement and support. What's a boy-turned-superhero to do?

With the help of David Koepp's screenplay (based on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Marvel comic-book series), Raimi proves he was the perfect choice to helm this long-awaited big-screen adaptation. Avoiding the overblown epic style of the "Superman" movies and the brooding, dark vision of Tim Burton's "Batman" series, Raimi keeps "Spider-Man" rooted in comic-book sensibility. Most importantly, Raimi never forgets that Spider-Man is the hero of his yarn, not some highfalutin, computer-generated special effects.

"Spider-Man's" two hours zip by with ease, thanks to the likable cast and the cumulative imaginations of the filmmakers, starting with Raimi and ending with Danny Elfman's full-bodied movie scoring. It's so entertaining, you won't mind the blatantly dangling loose ends intended to set up future "Spider-Man" movies. If they're as infectious and comic-booky as this first in the franchise, no one will be disappointed.

From the clever cobwebby opening credits to the upside-down kiss finally shared by Peter and Mary Jane, "Spider-Man" nonchalantly shrugs off its implausible aspects and concentrates on fun. It's only the first week of May, but "Spider-Man" is the first big hit of the summer. S


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