THE blockbuster had lost the plot. Summer after summer, Hollywood put technology first and forgot that any epic, from the Gospels to Milton's poems to Arthur Miller's plays, is driven by the human journey at its core.

Better still, that human should face a dilemma, a battle of the mind and soul, caught between the pre-ordained demands of destiny and the tug of the heart. This is the lot of the super-hero, and the Batman series captured that tone in Tim Burton's movies but eventually lost its way in a surfeit of pyrotechnics and celebrity cameos.

Sam Raimi, the Michigan auteur behind the Evil Dead franchise, may have been a surprise pick to restore faith in the blockbuster but his brace of Spider-Man movies is the best use of spin since the Butler report.

Tobey Maguire, who defied discomfort to retain his lead role from the first movie, is once more perfectly cast as the doubting, neurotic student Peter Parker, a superhero torn between his love for sweet actress Mary Jane Weston (Kirsten Dunst) and his requirement to wipe the scum off New York's streets.

Existentialism in a 21st century blockbuster? Yes indeed, and plenty of it, handled with intelligence, wit and heart by Raimi and his Romeo and Juliet leads in a modern, brutal metropolis.

Peter Parker (Maguire), failed pizza delivery boy, brilliant but distracted science student and harassed paparazzi photographer, is a super-hero in crisis, heavy of heart, out of pocket, depressed and losing his power to spin webs and climb skyscrapers.

Even the colours of his Spider-Man costume run into his shorts and socks in the wash. You half expect to find him a on a psychiatrist's couch as he fights his inner demons as well as the latest in the line of comic-book villains (bitter and twisted nuclear physicist Otto Octavius).

Parker has so much on his plate: the Daily Bugle's stentorian editor, Mary Jane's handsome new boyfriend, and Alfred Molina's leather-clad Octavius, an eight-legged metallic monster all the better for British character actor Molina playing him straight rather in the camp vein of too many American baddies.

All the while, Raimi spins his magical web of computer-generated special effects, as Spider-Man does far more than swing from building to building.

The first showdown between Spider-Man and Octavius on a hurtling subway train is the Hollywood action scene of the year so far, and the final clash is breathtaking too. That just leaves time for a romantic conclusion that would delight Bogart and Bacall.

Updated: 15:22 Thursday, July 15, 2004