That Sam Raimi is a real yokel. Watching his Spider-Man movies, you can tell the director thinks New York is full of burning buildings whose trapped and terrified residents perpetually await rescue. And that subway riders eagerly come to the aid of costumed vigilantes, no matter the risk to their own life and limb. And that actresses (like Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson) get lead roles in Broadway plays a mere two years after graduating from high school, just because they want it so darn bad.
This tendency toward the earnest shadows Spider-Man 2, afflicting its long and bumpy narrative with enough gee-whiz moments to make even a true believer roll his eyes. Yet Raimi's lack of critical distance is simultaneously his greatest strength. Enough of a dweeb to accept his characters' colorful portfolios without question, he can invest equal faith in their soap-operatic personal foibles and their brick-loosening rooftop battles. Most of the time, that's just what the franchise needs.
Playing like one of the conflict-surfeited Marvel comics of the late 1960s, the sequel has plenty of daytime drama for Raimi to wring his fanboy hands over. Peter Parker's (Tobey Maguire) secret life as Spider-Man is wreaking havoc with his work and relationships: Chronically underperforming in his roles as a Daily Bugle photographer and pizza-delivery boy, he's also in danger of fatally alienating Mary Jane, his best friend and secret crush, due to his prolonged, unexplained absences. Pal Harry Osborn (James Franco) is nurturing an all-consuming hatred of the wall-crawler, who he believes murdered his father. Meanwhile, Peter's beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) faces a financial crisis that could get her tossed out on the street like yesterday's web fluid.
On top of it all, Peter's spider-powers are exhibiting periodic, panic-making brownouts, putting his life in danger every time he takes to the skies. It's the worst possible moment for the arrival of Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), a fusion researcher who emerges from a failed experiment with four mechanical tentacles attached to his spine and pumping his head full of maniacal ambition.
Doc Ock as he's christened by Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, more hilarious than before) is one of Marvel's most brilliantly conceived menaces, and Raimi fashions him into a cinematic monster for the ages. On two occasions, we see him crawl, Kong-like, up the side of a building, a female hostage clutched in one of his metal arms. Far from being quaint, though, the good Doctor is consistently terrifying, beginning with a hospital-room sequence that turns into bedlam and continuing through a handful of Spidey-baiting showdowns that crackle with malevolence.
Much of the credit goes to Molina, who invests even the scenes prior to the transforming accident with an undercurrent of beetle-browed menace. Sealing the character's metamorphosis are special effects light years beyond the first film's: As Ock and our hero duke it out in the streets, you'll need quick eyes to spot the seams between CGI and live action.
The villain's appearances, though, seem fewer than we're entitled to, and only partially because you can never get enough of a good thing. Raimi, ever the acolyte of Marvel melodrama, refuses to put any of his subplots on hold to focus on the super-powered rivalry that should be at the story's center. His indulgent parity gets fairly unwieldy as the film approaches its intended climax. At least no one can accuse him of selling out his supporting players.
The movie includes two teasers one overt, one obvious only to the initiated that indicate where the series may be headed when Spider-Man 3 arrives in 2007. Raimi has already agreed to direct. He just can't stop caring, bless his cornball little heart.