(PG-13) 3 1/2 starsEd Johnson-Ott

Remember when Spider-Man came out in 2002 and everybody went nuts? I wasn't as enthusiastic as most. Sure, I liked the movie - the actors were well-chosen, it was fun finally seeing Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan and I appreciated the brightness of the visuals. But superhero origin movies generally follow roughly the same story path and I found portions of the film dull. And some of the computer-generated swinging scenes were less than convincing.

Now, the much-anticipated Spider-Man 2 is here and the situation is much the same. I had a good time - the cast continues to work together well (with J.K. Simmons of Law & Order and Oz handily stealing scenes as tyrannical newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson) and the CGI swinging scenes look better, though there are more of them than are needed. Director Sam Raimi and company use sunlight very well - some of the visuals are quite striking - and the fight scenes are well-choreographed. Watch for a car crash into a diner that will make your eyes bug out and a beautifully done segment between Spider-Man and a group of train passengers that might make your eyes well up (mine did).

The screenplay is credited to Alvin Sargent, from the screen story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko. Apparently they all watched Superman 2 just before sitting down, because that's what ended up on screen.

Acknowledging the passage of time, Spider-Man 2 begins two years after the original, although for all practical purposes, it could have been two weeks. Despite all his good work for the people of NYC, the Daily Bugle still calls him a "masked menace." (How does this keep happening? By now, surely one or more of the other papers would have attacked the Bugle for routinely smearing the name of a home-grown hero.) Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) continues eking out a living at the Bugle as the only person who can snag good shots of the webslinger (apparently this NYC exists in some alternate universe without cell phones that take pictures).

Peter frequently dines with loveable Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), but not Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the radiant love of his life. Wearing the words of his late Uncle Ben (Cliff Robinson, who makes a cameo) - "with great power comes great responsibility" - he sees little of Mary Jane, thus protecting her from his crazed super villains (apparently crazed villains aren't interested in loveable elderly ladies).

So what else do you need to know? Peter's best pal Harry Osborne (James Franco), whose father was killed while serving as crazed super villain in the first movie, has hired the brilliant Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina, very effective in the role) to find a new energy source. He's come up with a corker - a controlled fusion machine. Alas, whilst working on the project with four mechanical arms grafted onto his spinal column, something goes wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. And thus does Dr. Octavius become Doctor Octopus, a crazed super villain determined to take out Spider-Man.

But wait, there's more! After finding out that Mary Jane is going to marry an astronaut (and perhaps watching Superman 2), Peter decides to hang up his Spider-Man suit and go for the girl. Good news for Peter, whose powers were suffering due to his ongoing angst. Bad news for everybody else, especially the writers of Superman 2, who didn't even get a credit.

Of course, even an overly familiar story can succeed if it is well-told and, for the most part, Raimi and his crew do very nice work. Except for the overabundance of Spider-Man-swings-through-the-city scenes. Enough, already.

One last question. What happens to the leftover webbing? This gooey stuff generated by Spider-Man's body (at least that's how they explain it in the films) that is sticky enough to adhere to far away objects and strong enough to support hundreds of pounds - this sticky, tough goo is discarded after one swing by Spider-Man, leaving it hanging off of rooftops, rails, gargoyles, fire escapes, etc. all over New York City. Is it self-dissolving? Does Spider-Man retrieve it late at night? Does the city employ a clean-up crew? Or does it just remain where it was left, dangling in the Manhattan heat?

You know, this just might explain why the Daily Bugle still calls Spider-Man "a masked menace."


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