Spinning Gold

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What a dork! Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is behind in his rent, behind in his classwork, doing too many part-time jobs badly — and that says nothing about his intimacy problem. It's dangerous for his beloved Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) to know he's Spider-Man, so he has to keep his true, agonized self distant from her yearning heart. Every once in a while, this affects his superheroic night job: he loses the ability to spin the sticky webs that permit him boinging passage through the New York City skies, and — splat! ouch! — he tumbles to the concrete.

Is this any way to manage a franchise film? You bet it is. Written primarily by Alvin Sargent (who the credits indicate had a lot of help) and directed by Sam Raimi with his heart on his sleeve and his tongue in his cheek, Spider-Man 2 is 1) a sequel that's much better than the original movie and 2) probably the best special-effects extravaganza since Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is because the effects, though handsomely managed, don't overwhelm the story and characters.

The latter include a soulful scientist (Alfred Molina) who, having fooled with Mother Nature, is somehow transformed into a great, clanking mechanical octopus; back from Spidey I, Peter's spunky, sweet-spirited aunt (the divine Rosemary Harris); and the meanest newspaper managing editor in movie history (J.K. Simmons). Occasionally, a street singer shows up to croak awful ballads about Spidey's exploits, and poor Auntie can't even get a toaster premium, much less a desperately needed loan, from her bank.

That's the thing about this movie. It takes the time — all right, sometimes too much time — to meander up paths that are not strictly germane to its main narrative. But mostly that pays off — in funny tossed-off lines and quirky situations and a nice warm glow at the end. We're not dealing with Jamesian complexity here. But we do have something almost as rare to contemplate: a big Hollywood machine that's unexpectedly full of wit and — dare we say it? — intelligence.