It's been a long time between comic book superheroes, and "Spider-Man" isn't quite the blockbuster to make it worth the wait. Still, the film has a lot going for it, primarily the wit we also saw in the first "Superman" and the first "Batman," each of which spawned sequels that forgot to be funny.
The story is simple: Skinny, timid Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), nerdy Queens high-school senior on a class trip to Columbia University's research building (sic), is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and acquires his, well, spider-like powers. He can throw a strong silken line from his wrist, he can climb walls, and leap effortlessly across the canyons of Manhattan's skyscrapers. But the film wisely takes its time getting us there, and so we see Peter being bullied in school, at home with his dear aunt and uncle (Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson), sketching out possible costumes for himself, and entering a competition to stay in the wrestling ring for three minutes with a huge opponent in order to win three thousand dollars and buy himself a car so that the girl he has a crush on, MJ (Kirsten Dunst), will like him enough to go out with him. The outfit he wears in the ring is a deliciously pathetic version of a child's homemade Halloween costume.
But soon enough - probably too soon for the good of the film - he must face his nemesis, the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), who himself has been transformed into a superpowered villain because - well, you know how comic books do things. Just accept that Gobby flies around on a winged surfboard that has bombs, grenades, and rockets shooting out of it. More important, he is the father of Peter's best friend and, after graduation, roommate Harry (James Franco, who bears a startling resemblance to Dafoe and in the upcoming sequel will obviously replace him as the villain).
Tobey Maguire has a sweet boyish appeal, as we have seen in "The Cider House Rules" and "Wonder Boys," and in the first part of "Spider-Man" it serves him well. But he also has an annoying actor's mannerism that undercuts all three of these performances: he does not respond to verbal cues. When someone speaks to him he just stands quietly, unmoving, as though he hasn't been switched on yet; and when he does this, all momentum in the scene is lost. It simply stops dead until he deigns to react.
Another quibble: I realize that Peter Parker begins his Spider-Man odyssey as a high school senior, but the only way Maguire, who is about to turn 27, could make us believe him in the role is to have been left back six times.
The film is directed by Sam Raimi, who broke out of the horror-film genre three years ago with "A Simple Plan." He sets his action sequences best, with too little care for the relationships, but here that is not a very serious failing. The script is by David Koepp, who has written everything from "Panic Room" to the first and third "Jurassic Park" films to "Mission: Impossible." In other words, we have two pros at work, with no seams showing. "Spider-Man" was always a favorite comic strip of mine, primarily for its odd wit and human touches, and I only wish this film had lived up to its heritage.