Photo courtesy Sony Pictures

Whatever else might be said of the first Spider-Man, it was a thrill and a half to see a generation of kids and teenagers reared on antiheroes and grinning irony show up in their millions for a quaintly old-fashioned tale of public service, chaste love and — I barely remember how to spell it — gallantry. Of course, the webbing and scarlet threads and the running up and down tall buildings helped, as did that green meany, trying to take down Manhattan on his natty little skateboard. Still, it’s heartening to know that no amount of chilly hipster CGI action pictures can fully dislodge the ancient human longings for love, community and, as Peter Parker’s rosy Aunt May likes to remind her tortured nephew, “honesty, fairness and justice.” Like all the other superannuated (if hardly dated) heroes of Marvel Comics’ heyday, Spider-Man is a rallying call for the doofus and the charismatic leader in all of us — or at least those of us who are male. In Stan Lee’s creations, boys big and small can live the one and dream of becoming the other, while indulging their longing to rescue damsels, bask in the light of good fathers and kill off the bad ones. As funny and tough as they are, the Spider-Man comics are palpably sincere and soft-hearted. Even the villains, mad scientists the lot of them, are basically nice blokes divided against themselves by their failure to draw the line between ambition and humanity.

Spider-Man 2, made with most of the same cast and by most of the same team as Spider-Man under the direction of Sam Raimi, is if anything more of a charmer than its predecessor. (David Koepp’s serviceable, if corny, screenplay is replaced by Alvin Sargent’s, ditto.) When last we saw poor schlep Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), he was regretfully explaining to a downcast Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who still didn’t know his secret identity, that their love was not to be. Two years on, M.J. has gotten on with her acting career and is dating an astronaut (the son of Peter’s cranky editor, to add insult to injury), as who would not when given the heave-ho by Spider-Man? Still, she’s sighing in the direction of Peter, who is having no fun at all, having been fired twice — by a pizza-delivery service for tardiness and by his boss (the apoplectically funny J.K. Simmons) at the Daily Bugle for not taking enough photos of Spider-Man — and nearly flunked, brilliant young scientist though he is, by his Columbia professor (Dylan Baker) for not doing his homework. Meanwhile his beloved uncle Ben is dead, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is faced with foreclosure in Queens, and poor Peter thinks he caused it all, including the strain on his friendship with young Harry Osborn (James Franco), who holds Spider-Man responsible for the death of his father, a.k.a. the Green Goblin. Serving the masses, it seems, is incompatible with having a life — except, apparently, for Peter’s new role model, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a scientist who has managed both a sparkling career in fusion research and marriage to the lovely Donna Murphy. Until, that is, one of his experiments runs out of control, and he, like the Goblin, turns into a raving monster out to wreak vengeance on the whole of Manhattan, with particular attention to Peter and those he loves.

In other words, the same old story. However, there is a small problem here: Molina is an actor of unusually elastic gifts, but unlike Willem Dafoe, who has only to bare his scary teeth to send us all scampering for the exits, there’s no getting around the fact that Molina has the face of a kindly basset hound even when it’s contorted into a deadly grimace. It doesn’t help that the creature he’s created and is now at the mercy of turns out to be a rather endearing tentacled thingy with inquisitive Medusan serpent heads; when Molina rears up in its slow-moving clutches, one is inescapably reminded of John Cleese, the Minister of Silly Walks. Until, that is, Doc Ock comes up with a fiery hellhole in which to sink the whole city, Spider-Man and M.J. included. At which point there comes the familiar delirious delight of watching Spider-Man — back from a brief and ill-advised hiatus as your average Joe — swing back into gear, up and down from the rooftops, in and out of skyscrapers and, in his way, reclaiming Manhattan from the trauma of 9/11.

Spider-Man 2 has all manner of fancy CGI improvements on its precursor, but in the end it’s the old-style action sequences that carry it: The funniest is Aunt May swatting Doc Ock with her umbrella like some demented Mary Poppins as he scrambles up the side of a building, and the scariest a climactic scene involving an elevated train and some sterling representatives of the American people, who become heroes themselves and remind Peter of his true calling. It is, of course, one thing to save whole cities, and quite another to keep a relationship with a peppy redhead on the boil. In this regard, it must be said, Spider-Man, never a bastion of feminist discourse, steps up to the plate in a minor way by giving the damsel more of a say in the outcome. Dunst is a feline beauty and a remarkably adventurous young actress (if you haven’t seen her as Marion Davies in The Cat’s Meow, you’ve missed a great performance), and notwithstanding a few campy squealing Fay Wray scenes, she invests the lovely M.J. with a sturdy willfulness that leaves us confident she can take perfectly good care of herself, not to mention a few million of her fellow New Yorkers. And so, girls, let us sit, drumming our fingers and waiting for Spider-Woman: The Awakening.

SPIDER-MAN 2 | Directed by SAM RAIMI | Written by ALVIN SARGENT | Produced by LAURA ZISKIN and AVI ARAD Released by Sony Pictures | Citywide

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