Day of the arachnid

Film - Philip Kerr watches a new superhero dangle against an old skyline

There are only two spiders that I regard as famous. There is the perseverant Scottish spider that inspired Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314; and there is the large hairy Jamaican spider that crawled across the large hairy chest of Sean Connery in Dr No. Back in the early 1960s, when I was still a schoolboy, I asked my father what kind of spider it was that could bring James Bond out in such a cold sweat, and he told me it wasn't a spider at all, but Sean Connery's hairpiece. This prompted me to open a few books and I quickly learnt enough to know that if Bond had consumed one less Martini, he might have realised that his nocturnal visitor was a tarantula spider, and hence not lethal at all, merely creepy and crawly and even more interested in birds than Bond himself. So, having owned a few hairy spiders, albeit dead ones in glass cases, I am not nervous of these creatures. However, watching Spider-Man, the new movie from Sam (Evil Dead) Raimi, it was not very long before I was experiencing a severe attack of arachnophobia, not to mention a strong sense of deja vu.

Spiderman is the latest convert in a seemingly interminable line of franchise comic-book heroes (Superman, Doc Savage, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, Dick Tracy, The Phantom, Judge Dredd and the X-Men, to name only a few) which appear in our cinemas every few years, like a new strain of hepatitis. These films are almost universally dreadful, and there was only one that had a modest amount of merit: Tim Burton's Batman. Or I should say Jack Nicholson's Batman, because, as The Joker, Nicholson was the best thing in it, committing the most perfect crime of all by stealing the whole picture from under Michael Keaton's abbreviated nose. Willem Dafoe is the chief villain in Spider-Man, but with dialogue that sounds as if the writer had not been bitten by a genetically altered spider, but rather injected with a formula 30 years past its sell-by date, there is no chance of anyone stealing this picture.

Peter Parker, a college kid (played by Tobey - couldn't the poor boy's parents spell? - Maguire), is bitten by the said GM spider and, before you can say "little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet", he discovers that he possesses some unusual powers: he is endowed with the strength and agility of a spider, along with an ESP-like spider sense and a neat trick of being able to ejaculate from his wrists. Fortunately for our superhero, it's only spider silk that squirts from these twin orifices, but even so, it threatens to become an embarrassment, and Parker is swiftly obliged to pick up a pencil and sketch pad, and design himself an outrageous but identity-concealing Lycra suit. (Could this be how John Galliano got started?) Days later, Parker is swinging around Manhattan on lianas of squirted gossamer like an incontinent Superman.

Famously, a shot of Spider-Man dangling from a web spun between the twin towers of the World Trade Center was edited out of the final cut, but there is still a lot that's wrong with this picture. Post-11 September, the whole concept of a Manhattan superhero looks more than usually dubious. If Spider-Man is on the scene to catch his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) ,when she falls off a collapsing tall building that has been attacked by an airborne terrorist (one who chooses - for some obscure reason - to dress as a green goblin), then why wasn't he there to save any of those poor New Yorkers who were defenestrating themselves from the upper floors of the WTC? With the shine very much off the Big Apple these days, superheroes like Spider-Man look very out of joint with the times.

But for 11 September, the film would seem merely dated, as opposed to irrelevant. Director Sam Raimi's ersatz New York looks about as vertiginous as a tall skinny latte at your local Starbucks. Elsewhere, tracking shots of Spider-Man crawling up the side of a tall building - or Maguire crawling along a studio floor that looks like the side of a building - are no more impressive than when Adam West and Burt Ward were doing the same in the TV version of Batman back in the Sixties - which is to say, not impressive at all.

Most underwhelming is that part of the film which handles Parker's transformation from geeky kid into a man with arachnid attributes. Compared to David Cronenberg's The Fly, or An American Werewolf in London, this transmutation sequence is laughable. The explanations for the change that has occurred in Parker's body are non-existent; and it's no good saying that the film is for children. It's a 12 certificate, and we live in a post-Crichton cinematic era when kids of 12 and younger are expected to be able to handle not just lectures on DNA, but chaos theory as well.

To me the only marvel about this Marvel Comics cinema hero is that Americans should be going to see him in such large numbers. Frankly, I've seen more interesting stick insects. If I might bowdlerise a phrase of Orwell's, "Two legs bad, eight legs, terrible."

Spider-Man (12) is on general release