'Spiderman' swings back into action

Posted: Thursday, July 01, 2004

More is more and we're not talking about Michael Moore, for once with ''Spider-Man 2.''

The web-slinging sequences are bigger-better-brighter-faster than the already spectacular ones in 2002's ''Spider-Man,'' and at the same time, the film's smaller emotional moments are denser, richer and more resonant than those in the first.

Summer blockbusters aren't supposed to make you think or feel they usually dazzle and deafen for a couple of hours of air-conditioned numbness before sending you back out into the blinding sun.

Much of what makes the ''Spider-Man'' movies more engaging has to do with Tobey Maguire, whose big, blue eyes and boyish face ooze vulnerability when he's not wearing the Spidey mask, that is. You want to take him in your arms and protect him from the world's cruelties, even though as a comic-book superhero, it's his responsibility to protect everyone else.

When he's just regular-guy Peter Parker, he's even more of a sad sack than he was in the first film. Director Sam Raimi needed time with ''Spider-Man'' to establish Peter's back story and the thrill of discovering his new powers. With the sequel written by Alvin Sargent from a story by Michael Chabon, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar Raimi has room to explore the details of Peter's daily life, which can be simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.

He's always late with the rent on his shabby, one-room apartment; with his job delivering pizzas, which he loses at the film's beginning; and with assignments for his college science courses, where his professors have written him off as brilliant but lazy.

He's wracked with guilt over the death of his uncle Ben, for which he feels responsible. He tries but fails to financially support his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who's on the verge of eviction. And he constantly disappoints best friend Harry (James Franco) and secret love Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) when his secret life takes him away from them.

Peter Parker, in essence, is just like us struggling to keep it together while juggling a million tasks at once. Some of those tasks just happen to include stopping crimes and saving lives.

That becomes more difficult when Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a scientist Peter admires, turns into the menacing, multitentacled Doc Ock during a fusion experiment that goes horribly awry.

Doc Ock is a more intimidating villain than Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin was in the original film, partly because his face isn't obscured by a dark mask and partly because his capacity for destruction is so much greater.

He first unleashes his fury in a truly horrifying scene in a hospital operating room that harkens to Raimi's ''Evil Dead'' days in the '80s. The four metal arms that snake and whip from his back have minds of their own, and they often want to wreak havoc on Manhattan when the human being they're attached to wants to do the right thing.

And yet, because Doc Ock is such a complicated creature, trying to figure out exactly how he's doing what he's doing can be distracting, and it sometimes takes away from the action itself. (Molina, however, has no trouble conveying warmth and humanity as his character fights his newfound evil urges.)

At its core, though, ''Spider-Man 2'' is a love story, fully realized and with a believable, effortless chemistry between Maguire and an adorably redheaded Dunst.

The most moving moments take place when Peter and Mary Jane are on the verge of professing their hidden ardor for each other or at least sharing their first face-to-face kiss, having famously smooched in the rain in part one while Peter was upside-down, disguised in his red-and-blue get-up.

Stricken with doubt, Peter even temporarily abdicates his Spideyship to be with Mary Jane, until crime and chaos ensue to the delight of Daily Bugle tabloid editor J. Jonah Jameson, played again with campy, cigar-chomping glee by J.K. Simmons.

Something always stands between them, though like Mary Jane's fiance, or a car that comes flying at her and Peter through a coffee house window.

And who in the audience can't relate to that?

''Spider-Man 2,'' a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for stylized action violence. Running time: 122 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 No one under 17 admitted.

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