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Spider-Man 2

Attack of the Tentacled Menace

Spider-Man 2 comes two years after its predecessor first wowed audiences with its lifelike depiction of the heroic but humble web crawler swinging his way across Manhattan's skyline in search of villains large and small. As in the first installation, this film balances exhilarating special effects and violent action scenes with slower-paced, introspective moments as characters confront everyday issues of truth, love, and responsibility.

In the two years since he lost his beloved Uncle Ben, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is running out of steam. His daily deeds of derring-do wreak havoc on his personal life and he remains unable to commit, or explain himself, to the one person who gives him a lift in life, his next-door neighbor and wannabe girlfriend, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). His hard-nosed boss at The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), chews him out at every opportunity. He fails to deliver pizzas on time for his side job. His rent is perennially late. He even suffers from back pains (a nod to actor Maguire's real-life bad back?). No wonder his web-throwing abilities sometimes fail him, plunging him earthward on occasion.

Time for another villain to stir things up and give Spidey a chance to prove himself yet again. Rich buddy Harry Osborn (James Franco) heads OsCorp, the inexplicably wealthy company that his split-persona father (Green Goblin) founded, and places all his bets on Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), an ambitious scientist who aims to harness the unlimited potential of fusion power for the good of mankind.

Of course, any scientist who hoped to create a new energy source single-handedly would be derided as a fool. So Octavius takes a creative approach: He welds four long, multi-jointed appendages to his body to give him more hands to help with the heavy lifting. Sure, he could've built robots or hired a team of able assistants but then he wouldn't look like much of a monster when things went haywire, would he?

As a group of onlookers stands by to witness history, including Peter who's there to photograph the event for the Bugle, Octavius dons cool-looking goggles and throws the switch. Naturally, the experiment goes awry. Sparks fly, Octavius' tentacles take control, and "Doc Ock" is born. Even though Spider-Man saves the day once more, Harry sees him as having contributed to the project's failure, as well as his financial ruin. (Towards the end, we see how his dark obsession with Spider-Man forms the starting point for what will inevitably be called Spider-Man 3.)

With the deranged Doc Ock now on the loose, Spidey finds his daily routine harder than ever to manage. One minute he's rescuing a frightened Aunt May while battling Doc on the side of a skyscraper; the next he's rescuing frightened passengers while battling Doc on top of a speeding commuter train. All this time aspiring actress Mary Jane wonders why Peter never attends her off-Broadway play.

The actual plot driving Spider-Man 2, not to mention some of the details, may leave you questioning the logic behind it all, let alone the physics, but that does not detract significantly from enjoying this second installment in what will presumably become a long-term, lucrative franchise for Marvel Comics and Sony Pictures. What makes an impact is Peter's seeming ordinariness amid his extraordinary circumstances, as well as his ability to come to terms with his dueling desires to make good use of his special powers while living a normal life with the woman he wants to love. Along the way, the identity of his alter-ego is unmasked in unexpected places.

Running just over two hours, Spider-Man 2 devotes much time to characters waxing philosophic and ruminating about their future. But all that talking helps round out the characters and nicely balances the frantic action that overtakes the rest of the film. Also enjoyable is the film's cinematic quality: From the wind-swept cemetery where Peter and Aunt May visit Uncle Ben's grave to the alleyway where Peter throws his Spider-Man costume away in a vain attempt to unburden himself, Spider-Man 2 respects the comic book genre without ignoring reality altogether.

Stars: 4 out of 5