[Screen It]

(2004) (Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: A young man tries to balance his personal and superhero lives while dealing with his new nemesis, the multi-tentacled "Doc Ock."
It's been two years since high school student Peter Parker (TOBEY MAGUIRE) was bit by a genetically altered spider that turned him into a teenager with superhuman powers. He no longer lives with his widowed Aunt May (ROSEMARY HARRIS), but still feels guilty about not stopping the robber who eventually shot his uncle dead. He also feels torn between fighting crime in the big city and trying to lead a normal life.

The latter includes his unfulfilled feelings toward his former next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Watson (KIRSTEN DUNST), who's now a stage actress. Then there's his best friend, Harry Osborn (JAMES FRANCO), who hates his alter-ego, Spider-Man, whom he blames for his father's death. With Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. SIMMONS) putting more pressure on Peter to deliver new photos of the web-slinger, Peter faces an identity crisis as his dual-end candle burning increasingly takes a toll on him and his personal and academic life.

It's with the latter that he meets Otto Octavius (ALFRED MOLINA), a scientist employed by Harry's inherited company who's trying to create a fusion energy source. During a demo of his latest experiment -- where he uses robotic, tentacle arms that are temporarily attached to his spine -- things go terribly awry. Those sentient tentacles not only become fused to Otto's body, but also take over his mind, creating a villain known as Dr. Octopus or "Doc Ock."

As Peter tries to work his way through his identity crisis and feelings toward Mary Jane, he must contend with Harry wanting Spider-Man dead and Doc Ock's quest to resume his fusion experiments that soon threaten everyone in the city.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Back in the spring of 2002, I had a conversation with another movie reviewer about a certain pending release. She was excited about it since she was a big comic book fan. While I used to be, I hadn't read one in decades and simply felt that the comic book movie craze had run its course.

After all, the Superman films were long done and the last Batman picture was considered a failure. Besides, just how many people really wanted to see another such film, this time about Spider-Man? Apparently, there were more than I imagined as the film went on to gross more than $400 million domestically and generally received good remarks from critics (including yours truly).

With this year's release of its sequel, the appropriately titled "Spider-Man 2," I wasn't making any such predictions, particularly on any sort of low-end of the box office spectrum. That said, I attended the press screening with heightened expectations, which is usually a foolhardy approach since that usually means they're about to be dashed.

Yet, with most of the cast and crew returning -- and in particular director Sam Raimi -- I was hoping for a bona fide summer blockbuster that wasn't dumbed-down or simply all special effects. I'm happy to report that my expectations were met and then some. Simply put, this is the sort of comic book adaptation for those who have no interest in seeing such films.

This is the rare cinematic sequel that equals and often exceeds its predecessor, as it's bigger and better than the original in most every fashion. With the introductions and back story now out of the way courtesy of the first film, Raimi ("The Gift," "A Simple Plan") and screenwriter Alvin Sargent ("Unfaithful," "Anywhere But Here") are free to do as they please. That is, as within the parameters of Marvel Comics' Stan Lee & Steve Ditko's original characters and stories. Whatever the case, they seem to have had as much fun making the film as we do watching it.

The film obviously picks up where the original left off and continues the various story threads. That's all done in a satisfactory and credible way (for a fantasy action pic), but the cast and crew surprisingly bring more depth to the proceedings than the first time around.

Sure, the action scenes are also bigger and more elaborate than before (with improved special effects), but there's more humor and more substance to the characters as well.

In fact, and while this may be sacrilegious to the diehard Spidey fans, you could jettison most if not all of the action and still have a very good, enjoyable and engaging film. Let's just call the action, stunts and effects the tasty icing on a surprisingly robust cake.

As both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire ("Seabiscuit," "Wonderboys) brings further nuances to the character that make even him more endearing to viewers than in the first film. Add in a continuation and broadening of his physical and emotional fallibilities and you have a movie creation that's perfectly designed to make you care about his well-being. Maguire is so good in the role that I fear it might become his defining onscreen persona, but considering the salary that must come with that, I guess that wouldn't be such a bad curse (at least not now).

Kirsten Dunst ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Mona Lisa Smile"), James Franco ("The Company," "City By the Sea") and Rosemary Harris ("Blow Dry," "Sunshine") return to reprise their roles from the original. All are good, even if Franco's character is perhaps a bit too cartoonish or at least one-dimensional in his desire to avenge his father's death.

As was the case the last time around, however, J.K. Simmons ("The Ladykillers," "Hidalgo") steals the show as the curt Daily Bugle editor who can change his mind at the bat of an eye and delivers some of the film's best lines (which are only accentuated by his delivery of them).

The main attraction in any comic book adaptation is the villain, of course, and this one's a doozy, at least from a visual standpoint. With four robotic tentacles that can be used to snatch victims, scale walls and otherwise give a superhero four times the grief, "Doc Ock" is something to see.

And as played by Alfred Molina ("Coffee and Cigarettes," "Identity"), he's an interesting character, at least until those arms take over. His related storyline -- of trying to restart a powerful and revolutionary nuclear fusion reaction -- is the weakest element in the film. Yes, it provides for various encounters with Spider-Man as well as the obligatory, big finale, but I just wish the rest of the film's magic had worn off on that subplot.

Of course, since so much revolves around the Peter Parker/Spider-Man identity crisis, the villain is really just a plot device and one that, like the effects, almost could have been jettisoned with little ill effect. Doing so, however, would have lessened the fun of such a big-budget, comic book extravaganza, and the criticism is minor at most.

The end result is nearly all I could wish for in a summer blockbuster. With more character development then action, but enough of the latter to satiate those looking for just that, the film is exciting, fun, funny, engaging and simply a heck of a lot of fun to watch. "Spider-Man 2" delivers the goods and thus rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 24, 2004 / Posted June 30, 2004

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