Revenge of the Nerd

The eight-limbed villain eclipses the hero in this comic-book sequel. Couldn't glum, self-doubting Spidey afford to loosen up just a bit?

Remember when comic books were cheap and fun? I'm not sure Sam Raimi does. Having directed the initial 2002 smash-hit treatment of the venerable Marvel Comics superhero (who first appeared in 1962 as a mere spider-teen), here he faces the franchise-freighted challenge of moving Peter Parker beyond adolescent angst and through an unresolved crush on girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson. In Spider-Man 2 (which opens Wednesday, June 30, at the Cinerama and other theaters), Spidey still hasn't outgrown his growing pains, although he (Tobey Maguire) has graduated to college. He's also a freelance photographer— specializing in Spider-Man photos, natch—for a tabloid, and he delivers pizza in Greenwich Village to help pay his tuition. Oh, and he's also covertly, single-handedly keeping the city's crime rate down, despite the daily condemnation of Peter's boorish newspaper publisher. MJ (Kirsten Dunst) is now a successful actress and model who wonders why Peter's so distant, so distracted, so disorganized and frazzled. He can't keep a job. His grades are suffering. Even his beloved outer-borough aunt (RosemaryHarris) is clucking her tongue in disapproval.

In other words, Peter Parker is a loser. Forget the crap soundtrack featuring Train and others; they should've just reused the Beck anthem. And it's on that pessimistic note that SM2 begins, stalls, starts again, then fitfully lurches toward . . . part three, which is already projected for completion in 2007. (You even get a trailer tacked on the end, insidiously appended before the final credits—now there's a Sony marketing coup.) Part two seems primarily intended as a bridge film; its main drama is the "Will they or won't they?" of Peter and MJ's formerly puppy-love romance.

But, speaking for women across America, what would any self-respecting girl see in Peter Parker? Tardy, slovenly, and fatally wishy-washy, he can't make a date, can't commit, can't even pucker up when the occasion demands. MJ's soft spot for Peter would make a lot more sense if he were a little more dashing, dynamic, and self-confident during his off hours from crime fighting. Unlike Lois Lane and Clark Kent, who at least shared adjacent cubicles, MJ and Peter seem to be in two different movies for most of SM2; it's difficult to imagine them as sweethearts when they occupy such separate spheres. She's pining, he's pensive, but nowhere do their interests meet—until Doc Ock arrives, a much more interesting freak than Spidey.

This new villain reminds us that the first Spider-Man was an "origin story" explaining how Peter's radioactive-spider-bite powers became both a blessing and a curse—which is pretty much where he's stuck for the bulk of this movie. Brimming with hubris but no less conflicted than Spidey, superscientist Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) is armed with four AI– enhanced metal tentacles with a broadband connection to his brain. It's Arms and the Man as he begins a schizophrenic contest with his four new feelers, which come equipped with eyes, pincers, needles, and the like, as well as a number of nasty ambitions. The pity is that the arms can't talk, since they so resemble the fiendish fronds of alien plant Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, snapping and snipping at his ears like four Iagos. Doc Ock goes schizo under their influence; he's Jekyll and Hyde on steroids and steel, unlike Peter's dull arachnid Hamlet. Good versus evil—now there's a debate. But with Peter we get good versus career sabbatical to raise one's GPA—which brings us back to MJ's basic quandary in the movie: What's she doing with him?

For a while, MJ dates an astronaut. For a while, old pal Harry (James Franco) conspires with Doc Ock to kill Spidey (rent part one on DVD if you really need to know why). For a much-too-long while, Peter wrestles with the responsibility of his powers versus his unhappy double life vis à vis Mary Jane.

Meanwhile, Doc Ock is merrily robbing banks, taunting Spidey, and building some infinite-fusion device in a dilapidated pier on the East River. (Why wasn't he invited to join Cheney's energy- industry task force?) The movie sags whenever he's off-screen, which is far too much of its lethargic 125-minute running time. It doesn't really even start moving until about 45 minutes in, when this new character is introduced.

Granted, Doc Ock is no Joker, nor even the Green Goblin from two years ago. There aren't a lot of laughs in SM2, unlike Men in Black or the recent Hellboy, two comic-book adaptations that are looking a lot better during these summer doldrums. Unlike Spidey, at least Hellboy knows how to mock his own mopery. Here, there's not a trace of humor or irreverence. When does Spidey ever crack wise like a real 20-year-old? Maguire's habitual solemnity doesn't help matters. The last interesting thing he's done on-screen was Wonder Boys (whose author, onetime Seattle resident Michael Chabon, had a hand in SM2's script), where he allowed some craziness to leach from beneath those furrowed brows.

In addition, the movie feels anachronistically stuck in 1962. Peter resorts to a pay phone, not a cell phone, to confess his love to MJ. At The Daily Bugle, they paste up the front page with glue and paper (right next to a flat-screen monitor). Apart from one gag about eBay, the movie keeps Spidey in an innocent, undersexed, unsophisticated world that I suspect most real 20-year-olds will find ridiculous.

Meanwhile, Dunst is left to say things like "I don't know you" and "You're such a mystery" to Maguire. Problem is, we know him all too well. His big secret is a drag—on him, on the audience, and on the movie. Despite all its CGI acrobatics through the canyons of Manhattan, SM2 labors under the burden of its own teen-angst mythos without capturing the giddiness of coming of age. It's more like The Sorrows of Young Werther than a dime-store thriller.

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