What's Bugging Spider-man? His Love Life. College. A Friendship. As The Sequel Shows, Things Can Get Sticky Even For A Superhero.

Posted: June 29, 2004

Much as I enjoyed watching Peter Parker develop his arachnid alter ego in Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire was still something of the Spider-Boy.

This time around the web he's lost the teen angst and, all spinnerets firing, he untangles the contradictions of being a student, a superhero and a man in love.

So what if Peter hasn't learned to sort the laundry and his Spidey suit bleeds pinkish splotches on his tidy whities?

Spider-Man 2 is a deeply satisfying and involving sequel, one that builds upon the complications of the first but stands on its own.

With director Sam Raimi at the helm and Maguire in the hot seat, this franchise is about the challenges of simultaneously mustering moral and physical strength.

Just as Spider-Man struggles to strike a balance between doing what's right for others and what's right for himself, Raimi and Maguire struggle to find the balance between psychological and physical action. In doing so, they subvert the conventions of the action flick. Who would have imagined that stillness and silence would be so dramatically effective in a genre that typically plays at hyper-pace and eardrum-shattering din?

Maguire, that improbable star, possesses a spiderlike calm. The globe spins off its axis, the subway car hurtles off the tracks, but his Spider-Man holds on by a thread, the still point in a turning world. Without visibly emoting, the puppy-eyed performer suggests a richer spectrum of feelings than a rainbow of screen actors. He is enormously moving, and his deadpan delivery makes him enormously funny, too.

The humor in Spider-Man 2 is mostly of the rueful variety. Depleted from saving New Yorkers in jeopardy and also from working as a pizza delivery man, Spidey/Peter cuts classes at Columbia, much to the consternation of his professors and friends. If anyone took the time to look into his transparent eyes, they would be able to see that he's got a secret.

Peter can't tell his best chum, Harry Osborn (James Franco), that he's Spider-Man, because Harry wants to kill the superhero who killed his father, archvillain Green Goblin. Peter can't tell Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the girl he loves, because he worries that she might become a target for his enemies.

And before Peter can tell his secret to his new mentor, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), the scientist's latest invention takes over the inventor. The machine meant to harness energy through fusion instead fuses to its creator, turning him into a four-tentacled madman whom Spidey must subdue. Doc Ock is a more formidable, less cartoony nemesis than the Green Goblin, but I'm speaking as one more interested in Spider-Man 2's emotional affects than its special effects.

I also like that when Our Hero starts swinging from skyscrapers, he's not just emulating Tarzan, but is working out the Newtonian physics of action and reaction.

Despite cheesy sequences in which Doc Ock holds Manhattan in the grip of his mechanical tentacles, from conception to execution Spider-Man is an unusually well-wrought film. Working from a story developed by novelist Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and action-film scribes Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Shanghai Noon), screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People) powerfully imagines the ordinary struggles and domestic dilemmas of a superhero.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/carrierickey/.

Spider-Man 2 *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad; directed by Sam Raimi; written by Alvin Sargent; story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; photography by Bill Pope; music by Danny Elfman, distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Running time: 2 hrs.

Spider-Man/Peter Parker. . . Tobey Maguire

Mary Jane Watson. . . Kirsten Dunst

Dr. Otto Octavius. . . Alfred Molina

May Parker. . . Rosemary Harris

Parent's guide: PG-13 (action-film violence)

Showing at: area theaters

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