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Spider-Man 2

(2004) *** 1/2 Pg-13
125 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris.

Spider-Man 2, the hotly-anticipated sequel to the $821-million-dollar worldwide blockbuster Spider-Man, meets every reasonable expectation. From the recap artwork of the opening credits (commissioned from comic artiste Alex Ross) to the final scenes which tease the planned second sequel, director Sam Raimi's work seems freer and more commanding, even as it serves the grand designs of a superheroic trilogy.

More money helps, and while the stuntwork, design, and special effects are staggering, the best-spent green went to Alvin Sargent (two-time Oscar winning screenwriter of Julia and Ordinary People) and earlier script contributors Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (Smallville) and Michael Chabon (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay), who now share screen-story credit.

Thanks in no small part to the passion provided by Raimi, the writers, and stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco, Spider-Man 2 is a hugely satisfying comic-book movie, a vastly superior sequel, an emotionally charged expedition to pop-operatic heights. Dunst plays budding actress-model Mary Jane Watson, true love of Maguire's Peter Parker; fearing reprisals by Spider-Man's enemies, he denies them the opportunity to be together. Dunst's M.J. becomes a slightly dubious actress, distracted in her performances of the secret-identity comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. M.J. wrestles with her own romantic problems, exacerbated by Parker's inability to commit; in the home stretch, Dunst plays soulful Fay Wray to Doc Ock's Kong, before capping the movie with a super-sexy parting shot.

Maguire steps up his act with a believably wounded, fragile character arc for Parker, whose quiet desperation runs to statements like "I want a life of my own." This time, Parker is as put-upon as can be, and alter-ego Spider-Man consequently begins to lose his mojo (along with his ability to shoot his sticky effluence of webs). In the assured opening scenes, Raimi balances good humor, action, and the seeds of pathos, reestablishing the leading man's dual identity and initiating a vertiginous downward spiral of dire financial and emotional straits which lead Peter to face a tough decision: to be Spider-Man no more.

This proves to be inopportune timing for New York, which not only suffers a resurgent crime spree but also faces destruction at the hands of another mad scientist. Peter Parker's scientific idol, Dr. Otto Octavius, botches his invention of a fusion-based energy source. Though he promises that the tridium-fueled contraption will provide safe and renewable energy, the experiment runs rampant, and Octavius finds himself an unhinged slave to four maniacal, mechanical limbs. This diabolus ex machina doesn't stand up sensibly to scrutiny, but suspending your disbelief unlocks a wild thrill ride with dramatic consequences.

In what may be his best screen performance, Alfred Molina plays the rechristened Doctor Octopus with well-calculated gusto anchored in personal turmoil. Like Spidey and Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, Doc Ock is a split personality, his tentacles seductive serpents whispering into his brain (this Biblical allusion trumps a Christ figure pose for Spider-Man which, while compatible with the theme of sacrifice to the greater good, prompted what I can only assume was unintentional laughter from the preview audience).

Raimi obviously gets the comics, with their realistic doldrums—highly identifiable working-class problems and painful relationship issues— contrasting an escape into an airy world of quippy heroes and villains. Though Raimi gets amped up by his super-charged action, he also clearly relishes the intimate dramatic scenes, like a long-take close-up of Peter making a painful admission to Aunt May (the marvelous Rosemary Harris). Unfortunately, Raimi doesn't know when to ease off of the emotional gas, and the films' tendency to get speechy long after we've gotten the point is a minor detriment (Parker even enthuses corrupted Shakespeare to Watson: "Punch me, I bleed").

The truly spectacular action sequences never falter, more seamlessly blending live-action performance and stunt work to CGI marvels: a rampaging battle staged on the side of a building and a runaway train sequence easily trounce the efforts of the first film, and Raimi's effects team (again supervised by John Dykstra) also subtly improves upon the hero's web-slinging transit high above the city streets. Franco, as Parker's tenuous buddy with daddy issues, smolders efficiently, and supporting players Harris (who gets, amazingly, in on the action) and J.K. Simmons (as cigar-chomping editor J. Jonah Jameson) shine yet brighter the second time around. For the fervent faithful, Raimi fits in return cameos by lucky-charms Bruce Campbell and Spider-Man creator Stan Lee.

With sly humor and gut-level thrills and chills, Raimi should manage to entertain and move a wide audience while significantly advancing, and deepening, the Spider-Man mythology. Spider-Man 2 will be a much-tougher act to follow, but I can't wait for Raimi to try. Oh, what a tangled web he weaves...

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