Expanded version of a review in the Wednesday, June 30 Oregonian....
If you're of a semi-ripe movie-geek vintage, you'll recall the thrill (and relief) of seeing "Superman II" back in 1980.
"Superman: The Movie" had set a gold standard a couple of years earlier; the sequel was theirs for the filmmakers to screw up. But "Superman II" ended up sending audiences into wild applause spasms -- in part because it harvested narrative fruit seeded in the first film. With no origin story to tell, S2 got down to business, exploring the consequences of being a superhero. Clark Kent waffled between love and duty when he gave up his powers for Lois Lane -- at the same time three evil superbeings showed up, ready to rumble.
"Spider-Man 2" succeeds in the exact same way as "Superman II" did -- only more so. In every meaningful way, returning director Sam Raimi has made a better sequel: The fights are more exciting, the special effects are better, the characters have deepened, the performances are meatier, the comedy is funnier -- and the director's love of raw, unbridled cinematic superhero geekery is positively unleashed. Fans of comic-book movies will very likely gnash their teeth with joy.
If Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) learned that "with great power comes great responsibility" in the first "Spider-Man," in "Spider-Man 2" he learns what it means to accept that responsibility. As the sequel begins, Raimi (working from a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, with story help from Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and novelist Michael Chabon) heaps abuse on Puny Parker with a sadistic glee we haven't seen since the director put Bruce Campbell through his paces in the "Evil Dead" flicks. (Parker is always knocking things over or getting bumped around this movie -- to the degree that you start to wonder if Raimi was punishing Maguire for threatening to quit the production over a back injury.)
The genius of the original Marvel comics is that the hero of the story is Peter Parker, not Spider-Man -- and when he's not wearing those homemade tights, Petey's, well, kind of a loser. "Spider-Man 2" takes that conceit and runs with it, further than even the first movie did (right down to a scene where the Spidey suit turns all Peter's clothes pink in the wash).
Torn between his superhero duties, his schoolwork, his jobs, his aunt's poverty, his unrequited love for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and his best friend Harry (James Franco) looking to avenge his father's death, Peter's so stressed-out that he's starting to lose his powers. Everyone's writing him off as a talented flake; when MJ does so, taking up with an astronaut who also happens to be the son of his jerkwad boss (J.K. Simmons), Peter throws the tights in the trash and quits the superhero biz.
The movie spends the bulk of its time on this little soap opera; it's nearly 40 minutes before an industrial accident fuses four robotic arms to the back of Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) -- turning him into the criminally mad scientist Dr. Octopus and kicking off an incredible series of battles on skyscrapers and trains. The movie gets off to kind of a slow start (so did "Superman II," come to think of it), but the emotional payoff is pretty much unprecedented in superhero movies -- leaving a pile of jaw-dropping loose ends too good to spoil here.
It is possible to nit-pick "Spider-Man 2." The storyline's a bit of a ramble; the Doc Ock plot plays a bit too much into the usual mad-scientist tropes; and the screenplay doesn't really know what to do with Peter's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) -- sticking her in the middle of a super-battle that should break her hip three times over and forcing her to deal with a confession by Peter that doesn't really go anywhere.
But that feels like quibbling in the face of such a generous entertainment. Raimi obviously had more free rein this time around, and he relishes it with nothing-to-lose abandon. All the cinematic energy of his "Evil Dead" movies is back -- particularly during a terrifying sequence where the Doc's robot tentacles come to life, slaughtering a roomful of doctors. (Putting it another way, "Evil Dead" fans: A chainsaw is involved.) The movie's also packed with smart little surprises: a hilarious elevator ride; references to as-yet-unmined comic-book characters; street buskers singing the classic Spidey TV theme; the hijacking of a song from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"; even an unlikely thematic parallel drawn from an Oscar Wilde play.
There's a stunning battle on (and in, and around) a train, about an hour-and-a-half in, that really gives the lie to similar digital stuntwork in the "Matrix" sequels. The train-fight, which even gives a couple of nods to "The French Connection," is devastatingly great -- possibly the best sequence of its kind in movie history -- for a couple of reasons. First, it's a true comic-book fight come to life, right down to the camera angles. But second, and most important, the scene has a surprising emotional gravitas. After the fight, Raimi uses the thrills to twist an emotional knife, as innocent bystanders gently cradle a wounded, unmasked hero in a fit of empathy. The mêlée and its aftermath remind us that special effects, used properly, are simply another tool to move the spirit.
Raimi has said that his inspiration for 2002's "Spider-Man" was the first hour-and-a-half of "Superman: The Movie" -- and he's obviously taken "Superman II" as his narrative model for the second go-round. Both movies have a credit sequence that recaps the first film; both pit their heroes against a nastier, more complicated villain; both have heroes losing their powers and living to regret it; both feature key characters discovering the hero's secret identity; both feature the return of previous foes; and both even feature conversations with long-dead parental figures about shirking responsibility for love.
And both are also that rarest of animals -- a sequel that works. "Spider-Man 3" is Raimi's to screw up. Let's hope he doesn't model it on "Superman III."
(127 minutes; rated: PG-13 for stylized action violence) Grade: A-minus