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The itsy-bitsy spider 

A review of Spider-Man 2

click to enlarge Spider-Man, a superhero with doubts.
  • Spider-Man, a superhero with doubts.

Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)
Sony Pictures Classics

The second entry of the Spider-Man film franchise is earnest to a fault, spotty in its action sequences, corny as Kansas in August and the perfect entry for July 4 weekend blockbuster status.

What's to hate? The sweetest of superheroes, Spider-Man is Peter Parker by day, a poor bumbling guy who represents the inner geek in all of us. As played by Tobey Maguire, he's innocent to the core, sleepless, guilt-ridden and, well, a little whiny.

As the film opens, Peter loses his job delivering pizzas, is having trouble keeping up at school despite being a bona fide scientific genius, and is growing more alienated from love interest Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and good friend Harry Osborn (James Franco). His Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is about to lose her humble home in Queens to bank foreclosure, and poor Peter is about to lose his remaining job as a photographer for The Daily Bugle, taking pictures of Spider-Man.

Worse, when Peter is in Spidey mode, his powers are failing him as his resolve waxes and wanes. At moments, flying high above New York City, he's unable to ejaculate that magical string of web material that sticks him to tall buildings -- oops.

So Peter decides not to be Spider-Man any more. Right. And director Sam Raimi isn't already frantically at work on Spider-Man 3.

This is where the movie flounders almost irretrievably. When Peter witnesses a mugging in a New York alley, he walks away, trembling like a little wimp. We are supposed to understand that this is a tough decision for him; that he must decide between a normal life with a chance at romance with Mary Jane and the life of a sometime superhero with absolutely no room for bravery or moral fortitude in between. Lesson to all those little boys filling the theaters: You too can be brave in the face of danger and evil, but only if you are ... Spider-Man!

Luckily, the city is faced with a crisis of nuclear proportion as mad scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) has gone wacko in a fusion experiment gone wrong and now stalks the streets on the four mechanical arms of a mini-power plant, an intriguing creature with snake heads stronger and only slightly less flexible than Spider-Man. Molina lends the film a Monty Python-esque hilarity with his bad-guy blubbery belly jiggling against the metal framework as he chases Spidey around the city.

Several mini-lectures about courage and trust and reliability are patronizingly placed throughout the film, especially in a couple of scenes involving Aunt May. And when Spider-Man is put to his toughest test -- stopping a speeding, packed elevated train before it plunges into the East River -- his exhausted body is carried backward into the stopped train by passengers' hands stretched overhead, in the manner of the classic Trust Exercise born at '70s Outward Bound camps. All we need is a rousing chorus of "Kumbaya" to complete the scene.

The computer-generated special effects are lovely, if a little too dependent on cars being dropped on other cars from ridiculous heights. It's fun to watch Spidey glide through the sky, and he has a wonderful moment near the end with Mary Jane, perched high above the river and its rusty industrial waste on a glistening spider web. But overall, Spider-Man 2 lacks the glamour, sly humor, darkness, tense plotting and overblown emotionality that drives its superior film counterparts, Batman, the X-Men movies and, most recently, Hellboy. Compared to those superheroes, this spider is itsy-bitsy.

Tinseltown, Cinemark 16, Carmike 10, Chapel Hills Cinemas

  • A review of Spider-Man 2

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