"This wasn't about being a storyteller," director Sam Raimi said when he unveiled 2002's Spider-Man. "It was about being at the service of a myth." Sure enough, the movie, which raked in over $400 million in this country alone, seemed a little too beholden to the Spider-Man legacy. Raimi, who'd come out of horror-exploitation movies and had created one of the best comic-book movies of all time with Darkman, was unable to put his personal stamp on Spider-Man, which started strong but quickly degenerated into blandly anonymous action-traction filmmaking. Well, maybe the guy got bitten by a radioactive spider, or maybe $400 million gave him the courage he needed, but with Spider-Man 2, Raimi has finally fulfilled his destiny. He's brought this mega-franchise to squirming life. And he's done it the old-fashioned way, with story and character development, motion and emotion.
With all the origin-story stuff out of the way, Spider-Man 2 is able to devote a lot of time to Peter Parker's identity crisis -- am I a spider or a man, a superhero or an antihero? -- and Tobey Maguire responds with the kind of soulful performance that you just don't expect in a movie like this. His line readings are so soft and slow that it almost seems like he's been hit over the head with something; and Kirsten Dunst, who returns as Mary Jane, the love of Peter Parker's life if only he had a love life, matches him word for word. There's such a sense of longing between these two that it nearly throws the movie off balance, but Raimi has injected just enough humor to remind us that the original comics were actually kind of snarky (a '60s teenager's idea of alienated). And he's totally nailed the action scenes this time around. Each one is a minor masterpiece of wit, grit, grace and timing.
Most of them involve Dr. Octavius, an increasingly mad scientist given just the right amount of menace by Alfred Molina. As a result of one of those experiments gone bad, without which the comic-book industry would have gone bankrupt years ago, Dr. Octavius turns into Dr. Octopus, a multi-limbed baddie who's bent on, I don't know, taking over the world or something. The motivation's a little fuzzy, but the tentacles -- snake-like, with mouths that snap shut like steel traps -- are a cinematic wonder, climbing up the sides of buildings like a certain reluctant superhero we know. That's the core of Spider-Man's appeal: We feel like we know him, like he's one of us. Dazed and confused and refreshingly wimpy for a superhero, Maguire's web-master may not be the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man we all remember from the Stan Lee days. And Spider-Man 2 may not quite be one for the ages. But both get the job done.