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The arachnid versus the giant mollusk


By its very nature, the summer blockbuster so beloved in Hollywood demands not only amplitude and grandeur but also a hero of a commensurate stature, who will not be dwarfed by the spectacular context of his story. Borrowing heavily and recklessly from Homer, the makers of Troy attempted to glorify the pivotal decision of their chief character, Achilles, who consciously chooses death in battle and a subsequent immortality.

            Despite its origin in the comic books, Spider-Man 2, oddly, appears to derive its inspiration from another, later epic, Virgil's Aeneid, which chronicles the adventures of a very different sort of hero.

            The title character of the picture, played once again by Tobey Maguire, exhibits a most unheroic tendency toward introspection, self doubt, depression, and an enormous self pity --- no wonder the comic books captured so large an audience of teenagers. Spider-Man, unlike the true heroes of the past, frequently questions his gifts and his mission, and even temporarily abandons his quest to defend the powerless and defeat evildoers (pretty much the usual agenda of the common or garden variety superhero).

            Unlike Achilles, he chooses, at least for a while, to abdicate his responsibility, ceasing his heroic deeds, choosing instead the ordinary life of his "true" identity, the college student, pizza delivery man, and newspaper photographer Peter Parker.

            That choice occurs within the context of the familiar comic book adventure, the continuing battle with a supervillain, in this case, another Mad Scientist, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). Through the usual remarkable experiment gone wrong --- another staple of the comics --- the brilliant Octavius grafts four giant, powerful mechanical arms to his body, goes nuts, and chooses evildoing as his profession: he becomes Doctor Octopus, Doc Ock for short.

            The only person who can stop him, Spidey, has unfortunately thrown out his costume and quit the masked-avenger business, which reflects the continuing dilemma of the character and the comic books.

            Peter Parker faces a multitude of problems in Spider-Man 2 --- he loses his job delivering pizzas, he neglects his studies, good old Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) faces foreclosure, and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the love of his life, now a successful actress, plans to marry an astronaut. On top of all that, when performing heroic deeds, he experiences web failure, falling frequently and painfully from great heights when his powers fizzle, suggesting a kind of impotence. Unlike Achilles, he renounces heroism for the quiet life of Peter Parker, a choice that transforms him into a contented, well adjusted young man, but also raises the important issue of identity, questioning whether he is really Peter or Spider-Man, and which persona is really the secret self.

            Like that very modern classical hero Aeneas, who constantly consults otherworldly advisers, including the spirit of his father Anchises, Peter receives advice from everyone around him, including the ghost of his own father figure, Uncle Ben. They counsel him about the responsibilities that accompany great gifts, the responsibilities of a superhero, which naturally inspires him to resume his costume and his customary behaviors and once again become the Spider-Man so many know and love.

            Aside from the frequent scenes of Peter Parker's internal anguish, the picture once again shows a number of great battles between Spider-Man and his adversary, who often throws large objects, chiefly taxicabs, around Manhattan, and destroys a number of historic buildings. In a succession of spectacular and thrilling moments, Spidey soars and swings through the canyons of the city, pausing occasionally to rescue victims of various crimes. The movie now and then consciously copies the angles and poses of the comic books, with Spider-Man repeating his familiar postures, odd foreshortening and perspectives, even characters sticking their heads comically into frames.

            The mawkish adolescent love story of Peter and Mary Jane also reflects the comic book approach to emotion, while much of the dialogue and acting imitates the simplistic exaggeration of the original. Tobey Maguire's creaky voice and constant weepiness grow quite tiresome quite early and poor Alfred Molina, flabby and corpulent, looks ill at ease, as if he would rather be wearing more clothes and behaving less foolishly. Perhaps in the next movie --- and there will be one, depend on it --- the new menace will seem more physically fit and more fully committed to deliberate nastiness.

            The special effects, by now an obligatory phenomenon of the form, maintain a high level of excitement and should satisfy the most jaded fan of the summer blockbuster, as well as the dedicated Spider Maniacs. For a genuinely troubled, self-doubting, insecure, and yet immortal hero involved in great adventures and facing enormous difficulties, however, one might be better advised to read Virgil.

Spider-Man 2, starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn; based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; screenplay by Alvin Sargent; directed by Sam Raimi. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.