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Summer nights are meant for sequels -- rehashed, hack jobs that took the best elements of the first films and regurgitated to any audience's dismay (Does anyone remember when the word Matrix evoked wonderment?) So this year, Sony brought out its biggest warhorse, "Spider-Man," but they broke the rules. Not only is "Spider-Man 2" vastly cleverer than the original, but it touches the heart and soul with complex relationships and layered meanings.
Two years after the first film, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has not adapted to superhero-dom well. Like my favorite vampire slayer, Buffy, in season six, Peter finds that despite working 24-hours-a-day saving lives, no benefactor pays his rent and most of his family and friends mistakenly consider him a slacker upon whom no one can depend.
In retaliation, he focuses his energy away from his valiant responsibilities and back towards his true love, MJ (Kirsten Dunst), who has long dismissed Peter and is now engaged to an astronaut. When a physicist's experiment goes awry endangering MJ, his aunt and the entire city, Peter must select his path once and for all.
Scripted by two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent ("Ordinary People," "Julia") from a story by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar, the artistic success of the sequel was not a fluke, but a perfectly executed masterpiece with crisp dialogue, smashing effects and a love story that make Noah and Allie from "Notebook" appear to have the sexual chemistry of Dick and Pat Nixon.
The regulars from the first film (Maguire, Dunst, JK Simmons, Rosemary Harris and James Franco) keep the material fresh and dig deeper into their characters' psyches. Wild card Alfred Molina adds menace as Dr. Octopus, a decent scientist driven insane by his serpent-like claws.
Sam Raimi directs again with glee. An avid comic book fan, he instills the film with equal parts whimsy, thrills and pathos.
The effects continue to dazzle, particularly the embodiment of Octopus. His claws react with a slithering grace of the most deadly snakes, seducing their landlord into devilish acts of terrorism. Your film is only as compelling as your villain, and Molina's hulking beast brings dread to Peter's world.
But audiences come to see Spider-Man swinging through the city like Tarzan on a sugar high. Part of the joy of both films is that Peter Parker is a man-child, buoyant and compassionate. You want him to succeed because he represents the super-kid in us all.
Unlike a gangrene green giant from last summer, this superhero actually convinces the audience to reach inside itself and give more to the world than they get. To say that "Spider-Man 2" is the best movie so far this year is an understatement; to say it belongs in the echelon of the top ten films of the new millennium is accurate. Grade: Notebook: A-; Spider Man 2: A+
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