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Photograph by Melissa Moseley

Web Surfing: Tobey Maguire almost spins out of control in 'Spider-Man 2.'

Crawl Space

In 'Spider-Man 2,' director Sam Raimi creates a true working-class superhero

By Richard von Busack

THE ADS SAY, "The Story Continues." That's a bold claim for a movie that cost as much to make as Spider-Man 2 did. Who thinks about stories anymore? Scriptwriters are considered the scum of the film industry precisely because they fight so hopelessly for characterization, depth and meaning.

But Spider-Man 2's emphasis on story shows in the bold step of hiring an old-time screenwriter like Alvin Sargent (Julia, Ordinary People) to work from material by Berkeley novelist Michael Chabon and the team of Alfred Gough and Miles Miller (of TV's Smallville).

This top-drawer movie is exactly what they used to call Peter Parker's adventures: amazing and uncanny. But the film is built upon serious concerns. This time, director Sam Raimi crosses the line between reliable comic-book violence and a different realm of narrative. It's more of a monster movie than a superhero movie, but it's more of a drama than either.

A series of drawings by the celebrated illustrator Alex Ross recap the first Spider-Man. Two years after Peter Parker's (Tobey Maguire) renunciation of M.J. (Kirsten Dunst), his life is a wreck. Parker lives in a hole-in-the-wall Manhattan apartment, unable to hold down a menial job as a pizza boy—at least Travis Bickle had the solace of porno and peach brandy. One lovely joke of everyday humiliation: Peter's red-and-blue spider suit leaks in the Laundromat washing machine, bleeding dye onto his socks and underwear.

Our hero is also a freelance photographer for the tabloid The Daily Bugle, where he's taunted by a jesting creep of an editor, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Parker is failing his classes at Columbia. M.J. is on the way out of his life in pursuit of a career as a model and an actress. (She's playing Cecily in a revival of The Importance of Being Earnest; the lines about the risks and pleasures of a double life have a particular significance to young Parker.)

Moreover, Peter's friendship with the young industrialist Harry Osborn (James Franco) is strained. Harry correctly guesses that Parker is withholding information on the death of his father (Willem Dafoe, the villain in the first Spider-Man). For a while, Parker has a mentor, the physicist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a hard-edged scientist mellowed by a gentle, motherly wife (a well-cast Donna Murphy).

When an experiment goes drastically wrong, the protective equipment Octavius uses melts into his spine. The improvement in this version of Dr. Octopus is that these tentacles have minds of their own. They weave in front of Octavius, hypnotizing him, like cobras. Molina's Dr. Octopus will inspire a whole new generation of nightmares.

Like all great villains, Octavius is a grotesque mirror-image for the hero. Where Spider-Man scurries up skyscrapers, Octavius punches his way up them, knocking out chunks of stone. He's a bigger, worse spider.

Right when you're wondering how our undersized hero is going to stop this metal windmill, Spider-Man is stricken with psychological impotence. The troubles of his life are crushing the alter ego out of him. Part of his stress is the clash with the woman who raised him, Aunt May. What Rosemary Harris brings to the role is a steely WASPiness. (I was miffed at the scene in the first Spider-Man of Aunt May saying the Lord's Prayer. Surely, if any superhero was Jewish, it was Spider-Man. What else could he be? A New York boy, an undersized kid bullied so terribly, yet who was so unworldly? Who still believed in public service and was so devoted to the law of his elders?)

Once upon a time Harris played Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine onstage. She hasn't forgotten how to freeze a fellow actor: in one bold moment, she walks off mutely, without a word of consolation, after Peter tells the real story of how her husband was murdered.

Spider-Man 2 is a technological triumph, with magnificent effects and a swaying "Spidercam," with 2,000-foot-long crane shots that cause elevator drops to the stomach. One longs to study the battles frame by frame, as you can in the comic books.

The most stunning sequence is a fight atop a busy elevated train after Dr. Octopus has ripped out its throttle. Our hero is almost torn in half by the effort to stop it. He weaves and faints from the effort. The riders on the train wordlessly pick him up and pass him over their shoulders to find a space on the floor for him to rest. He comes to, maskless, to see the faces of the people he saved peering down at him. A child hands him his mask and murmurs, "I won't tell nobody."

Raimi has done a phenomenal job of visualizing the comic book's old dream of freedom, of looping and speeding through the skyscrapers. And Raimi has done this without ever—and I loved the film for it—without ever losing sight of what it's like to live on the ground.

Spider-Man 2 (PG-13; 125 min.), directed by Sam Raimi, written by Alvin Sargent, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, photographed by Bill Pope and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, plays valleywide.

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From the June 30-July 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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