Spider-Man's got problems. In Spider-Man 2, his powers are acting wonky; the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), is engaged to another man; his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), blames Spider-Man for his father's death; his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is about to be foreclosed on; he's been fired from his job as a pizza delivery boy; and he's failing his college science class. This guy is a superhero?
He is in Sam Raimi's world. The director's sequel to his 2002 Spider-Man is just as much about insecurity, inner turmoil and finding yourself as it is about big fights and fancy special effects, and that's what makes it the best big-budget movie of the summer so far. Raimi picks up nearly two years after the events of the first film, with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) a fixture in New York City as the crime-fighting Spider-Man, stopping robberies and saving people in peril wherever he goes. In the meantime, he's trying to make ends meet and keep his grades up in college, but the demands of being the sole savior of a city of millions are starting to take their toll.
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Desiring to keep his loved ones safe, Peter hides his love for Mary Jane and keeps quiet as Harry demands to know the identity of the masked man who killed his father (the original film's villain, the Green Goblin, although Harry doesn't know that). It sounds like a soap opera, and in many ways it is, with the intricate plotting and continuing stories that writer Stan Lee (who has a brief cameo) brought to the original Spider-Man comic books in the '60s. Unlike other superhero sequels that function merely as another stand-alone adventure, Spider-Man 2 goes far in developing its characters, and showing the consequences of their actions both in this film and the previous one.
Of course, there's also a villain, and all the soul-searching never gets in the way of good old-fashioned action and adventure (Ang Lee, take note). This time around it's another mad scientist of sorts, Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius, a brilliant researcher working for Oscorp, the company previously run by Harry's villainous father and now run by Harry himself. Peter looks up to Octavius, just as he did to Norman Osborn before Osborn became the Green Goblin, so you know that the future is not bright for the good doctor. Indeed, his fusion experiment goes horribly awry and leaves him with four robotic tentacles melded to his body, a dead wife, and a healthy thirst for vengeance.
As the newly-christened Dr. Octopus, Molina is not as maniacally villainous as Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, but he brings a subtly sinister quality to Doc Ock's obsession to re-create his experiment, no matter who he has to kill along the way. He's also got the advantage of a much less silly-looking costume, making him a slightly more effective villain than the Goblin. Everything else in the film improves on the original in bigger ways, taking advantage of the audience's familiarity with the characters to deepen the complex relationships Peter has with Mary Jane, Harry and Aunt May. As Peter, Maguire has really found the role of his career, and it would have been disastrous to replace him with Jake Gyllenhaal as producers briefly planned when it looked like Maguire would have to sit it out with a back injury. Maguire brings a perfect balance of confidence and insecurity to the role, so you can just as easily believe him to be the shy nerd as the muscle-bound hero of millions.
Part of that assured portrayal is Maguire growing into the part, and the whole cast and crew generally seem more comfortable in the second installment. It has a perfectly balanced tone that includes a great deal of humor (especially the wonderful J.K. Simmons as cigar-chomping newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson), romance (nothing matches the upside-down-in-the-rain kiss of the first film, but there are many Peter-Mary Jane moments that come close) and even, going back to Raimi's roots, horror (a chilling scene of Doc Ock's robot arms attacking surgeons and nurses as they try to operate on him). The film also feels more like something that's distinctively Raimi's, whether it's with obvious nods, like another cameo from Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell, or subtler touches, like Doc Ock smoking a cigar much in the same manner as the villain of Raimi's Darkman.
There's also a great sense of the epic scope of Spider-Man's world, and a nice bit of irony that comic-book fans will spot, as Peter is surrounded by supporting characters who, in the comics, later become villains: best friend Harry, college professor Curt Connors, even Mary Jane's fiancé, John Jameson. As hard as it has been for Peter to deal with Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius becoming his adversaries, you can only imagine how he'll deal with what's in store for him in future installments.
As a summer blockbuster, Spider-Man 2 is unassailable, the most you could possibly ask for from a film of its type. It's also one of the funniest, most romantic and exciting films of the year, period, and proof that Raimi belongs with Peter Jackson as a director who can take popular entertainment and turn it into wonderful, expressive filmmaking.