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Eight Legged Freaks 

Operatic Spider-Man 2 improves on predecessor

As Spider-Man 2 swings into cinemas and more men in tights arrive on film seemingly every month, it's strange to recall that comic book heroes didn't used to rule the multiplex. Tim Burton's Batman was an iffy proposition before it opened in 1989, and at the time fans dreaded the possibility of a big-screen version of Adam West's silly, kitschy TV series.

Since Batman, superhero films have frequently gone for gothic self-importance, but Spider-Man 2 brings camp back into the formula. The operatic, at times overblown adventure enthralls and amuses the audience without overtly winking at it.

We get reacquainted with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as the amazing ... pizza delivery boy. Peter resorts to his spider-powers to get some pies delivered on time in a hilarious spoof of beat-the-clock superheroic action scenes. But the undignified effort also represents the pathetic state of Peter's life.

Repeatedly the film emphasizes that for Spider-Man to be a success, his alter ego has to be a loser. Spider-Man spends so many hours protecting New Yorkers that Peter has no time to earn money, study for college classes or maintain a social life. The film captures his unglamorous dilemma with plenty of hard-luck humor: He washes his spider-suit at the Laundromat, and the red ink ruins his white clothes.

He also refuses to admit his love to Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), now a successful actress and model, lest she become the target of supervillains. Peter resents the demands of his double life until, in a metaphor for repressed emotions, he suffers not from ulcers, but the random loss of his spider-powers. He tries to spray webs but literally "shoots blanks."

To be Spider-Man or not to be Spider-Man? That is the question. As in Hamlet, the story hinges on an ambivalent hero's mixed feelings. There's even a second Hamlet surrogate in Peter's best friend Harry (James Franco), who blames Spider-Man for the death of his father -- not realizing that Dad was the first film's murderous Green Goblin. At one point moody Harry threatens Spider-Man armed with a Shakespearean dagger.

Emotions build to a higher pitch with Spider-Man 2's primary villain, Dr. Otto Octavius, a fusion expert whom Alfred Molina plays initially as a level-headed potential mentor to Peter. But when a test goes spectacularly wrong, not only does Octavius lose his wife, but the four metal arms he used to control the experiment become fused to his body. Creepy, segmented things with snapping metal beaks and amoral minds of their own, the tentacles turn Octavius into a deranged supercrook nicknamed "Dr. Octopus."

When Octavius' arms attack the surgical team attempting to remove them, director Sam Raimi uses silence and shaky cameras for a terrific, terrifying sequence. Octavius resembles Frankenstein and his monster rolled into one, and when he runs amok, he scales buildings, tears car doors off their hinges and throws them like Frisbees. The energy and sense of risk in all the Doc Ock scenes suggest Raimi's heart belongs to freaky tales like his early Evil Dead movies.

Like in the first Spider-Man, the CGI effects frequently look weightless and cartoony. The special effects guys can get away with computer-enhanced monsters or natural disasters, but not when they replace flesh-and-blood actors with pixels. Fortunately the sheer velocity and ingenuity of the action scenes propels the viewer along, especially when Spider-Man fights Octavius on the sides of skyscrapers and atop a speeding subway.

Molina and Maguire fare best with their understated moments -- Molina in his avuncular, pre-tentacled scenes, Maguire when he considers "outing" himself as Spider-Man to his friends and family. But during the film's most melodramatic moments, both actors put on unintentionally comic expressions, with eyes popping and lips bulging.

Spider-Man 2's cast frequently strike poses while caught in spotlights or buffeted by unseen winds -- it's strangely easy to imagine the material as a musical. J.K. Simmons, returning as tabloid publisher J. Jonah Jameson, proves most comfortable with the film's heightened nature. Simmons plays the brash, cheerfully arrogant role to the hilt, like one of His Girl Friday's motor-mouthed newshounds, and leaves the milder characters, like Bill Nunn's level-headed editor, looking lost.

Raimi labors to bring grace to the film's quieter scenes. Maguire and Dunst bump into lines like, "I'm not an empty seat any more!" and Peter's sweet Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) clucks endlessly about the nature of heroism. Raimi rarely evokes New York in the droll, effortless way the Men in Black films do, but Spider-Man 2 does find an unexpectedly tender moment when bystanders protect a wounded Spider-Man on a subway car.

The filmmakers' appreciation for comic book iconography frequently pays off. The opening credits recap the first film's big moments through the work of acclaimed comic book painter Alex Ross. When Peter throws his spider-suit into a trashcan, the shot and dialogue evokes the cover for the old "Spider-Man No More!" issue. Despite some campy excesses, Spider-Man 2 brings the classic comic book character to life more vividly than the previous film. In the words of the wall-crawler's old theme song, "Action is his reward," and whenever Spider-Man 2 gets up to speed, audiences will feel the same way.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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