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Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Spider-Man 2": Sizzling sequel is as good as it gets

Seattle Times movie critic

"Spider-Man 2"


****
With Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, Donna Murphy. Directed by Sam Raimi, from a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the Marvel comic-book series by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. 127 minutes. Rated PG-13 for stylized action violence. Several theaters.

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Summer, along with its other virtues, is the only season to have its very own movie genre. (You never hear anyone talking about "winter movies," do you?) Like fizzy lemonade or a sudden cool breeze, a well-crafted summer movie brings uncomplicated pleasure; fleeting but delicious. And it's my great pleasure to tell you that Sam Raimi's marvelous "Spider-Man 2" is as good as summer movies get. Get in line and pass the popcorn; this is undoubtedly the most fun you'll have at the multiplexes this season, or maybe even this year.

This sequel had some pretty well-stretched tights to fill: "Spider-Man," released back in May 2002, was a terrific jump-start for the franchise. Tobey Maguire, quavery-voiced and sincere, proved to be an inspired choice as Peter Parker, the lonely young orphan who acquires spiderlike powers and great strength when bitten by a radioactive spider on a class field trip. The skinny, pale kid is nobody's idea of a superhero, so he easily slips into a double life as nerdy Peter and the masked "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man." Unsuspected by the girl he loves from afar, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), he learns to accept the great responsibility that comes with great power.

If the first "Spider-Man" was a coming-of-age story, the new film is the portrait of a superhero as a young man. Taking place two years after the events of the first movie (a clever, intricate opening credit sequence reminds us of what happened then), "Spider-Man 2" drops us into Peter's new life, which involves not only part-time superherodom and work as a free-lance photographer for the Daily Bugle, but also college classes, a job delivering pizzas, a threadbare apartment in Manhattan and severe financial problems. (Careful attention has been paid to visual detail, and it pays off in a wealth of character notes: Peter, for example, is exactly the sort of 20-year-old who takes the time to neatly make his bed every day.)

Other aspects of Peter's life are familiar. He still loves Mary Jane, who's clearly his soul mate (her soulful, sky-blue eyes match his), but can't tell her, out of concern for her safety. She, now an up-and-coming young actress, has grown tired of his promises and met somebody else. And there's a new threat to the city's safety: Dr. Octavius, known as Doc Ock (Alfred Molina). Previously a brilliant scientist researching fusion techniques, he is transformed, after a terrible accident, into a multi-tentacled villain.

Meanwhile, Peter's friend Harry (James Franco) is moving into his own subplot: he blames Spider-Man for the death of his father and plots to avenge him — if only he could learn the masked man's identity. "You'd tell me if you knew who Spider-Man was, wouldn't you?" he asks Peter, who avoids his gaze.

All these threads intertwine in Alvin Sargent's screenplay, which stays resolutely true to these characters while leaving plenty of room to show off the film's stellar special effects. A duel between Doc Ock and Spidey, staged on the outside wall of a vast Manhattan apartment building, is magical: Ock's legs have a coiling, leering life of their own. And in a late sequence, Spider-Man wildly swings through the streets of Manhattan as if taking us on an out-of-control guided tour. His swoops and swirls are even more balletic this time around — some of his toe-pointed poses in the air are worthy of Baryshnikov — and the effects are so seamless you feel like you're on a breathless ride with him.

"Spider-Man 2" bubbles over with small pleasures: the high-voltage bellowing of J.K. Simmons as Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson; the all-too-casual introduction of characters sure to play more of a role next time around (a landlord's spindly daughter, a sympathetic professor); Molina's gleeful villainy, under his acreage of eyebrows; the sweet, wistful chemistry between Maguire and Dunst, who play their scenes with an honesty and directness that's rare in any film.

Take out the love story and you'd still have a nifty action flick; delete the special effects and a beautifully acted romance would remain. Put it all together and ... hey, it's going to be a "Spider-Man" summer. Bring on the next one; I can't wait.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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