Spider-Man 2

Since the enormous success of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie two years ago, the neighborhood multiplex has begun to resemble the headquarters of a low-rent Justice League of America. Comic book heroes ranging from Marvel stalwarts Daredevil and the Punisher to Alan Moore’s offbeat League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have made the leap to the big screen and landed with a THUD and a SPLAT. Ang Lee’s ambitious take on The Hulk was a worthy effort but it too sank quickly at the box office, while the Batman series collapsed under the weight of garish excess.

Is it a coincidence that the two comic book franchises still riding high are the ones that manage to mix a bit of the human element in with the superhuman heroics? The success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies suggests that identifiable characters and coherent storytelling still have a place in CGI extravaganzas, and with his second take on everyone’s favorite web-slinger, Raimi proves it.

The sequel finds Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as he was in the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics: nerdy, lonely and flat broke.He is alienated from his only two friends in the world: Harry Osborn (James Franco), who blames Spider-Man for killing his father and resents Peter for his loyalty to the webhead, and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the girl Peter loves but feels he can never be with due to his double life.He is fired from his pizza delivery job and scrapes by on the money he earns snapping pictures of his alter ego for the Daily Bugle.(Can’t Spidey pick up a little extra cash doing personal appearances at the mall or endorsing insect repellent or something?)

Having taken over Oscorp from his deceased father, Norman “The Green Goblin” Osborn, Harry is now funding an experimental fusion project spearheaded by Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina).Octavius gives a demonstration of the process, handling the unstable radioactive material with four enormous mechanical arms he controls with a neural link to his brain.Even a casual Marvel comics reader knows what happens next; the experiment goes awry and the robotic tentacles are permanently fused to Octavius’s body.Dr. Octopus is born.

While Doc Ock rampages through Manhattan, robbing banks to fund another attempt at the fusion process, Peter Parker finds himself sapped of his spider powers.He retires the mask and costume and resumes life as a civilian, hoping to win Mary Jane’s heart.MJ, however, has accepted a marriage proposal from astronaut John Jameson, son of Daily Bugle publisher and Spider-Man foe J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons).

There is, of course, a climactic showdown loaded with special effects, but Raimi finds a way to weave Peter’s personal travails into the action, giving the climax some emotional heft.It’s too bad he couldn’t find a way around reducing Dunst to damsel-in-distress status yet again, but the chemistry between her and Maguire is still the key to audience investment in these characters.Molina has his moments too, but he’s handicapped by the movie’s conception of Doc Ock.In this version of the story, his mechanical arms are imbued with some sort of artificial intelligence, with the result that Molina spends a lot of time reacting to these appendages.In addition, the self-doubts and justifications that are generally expressed through thought balloons in comic books are here transformed into spoken monologues, resulting in awkward scenes for both Molina and Maguire.

At their best, the special effects convey the vertiginous thrill of swinging through skyscraper canyons, but the fight scenes sometimes blur the line between play-acting and Playstation.For the most part, however, Raimi has crafted a rousing rollercoaster ride that never feels bloated or gets bogged down.His light touch includes plenty of humor, with no shortage of in-jokes and surprise cameos for the fans. (He’s certainly left his options open for future sequels, setting up no less than three future super-villains, as readers of the old comics will note.) And he finds time for moments other superhero flicks never bother with, like a sweet encounter late in the film between Spidey and his public.None of this makes Spider-Man 2 a movie for the ages, but if the Hollywood studios are going to keep raiding comic book shops for inspiration, maybe they will learn the right lessons from its inevitable success.

Scott Von Doviak