The pleasure is doubled in "Spider-Man 2." Crackerjack entertainment from start to finish, this rousing yarn about a reluctant superhero and his equally conflicted friends and enemies improves in every way on its predecessor and is arguably about as good a live-action picture as anyone's ever made using comicbook characters.

The pleasure is doubled in “Spider-Man 2.” Crackerjack entertainment from start to finish, this rousing yarn about a reluctant superhero and his equally conflicted friends and enemies improves in every way on its predecessor and is arguably about as good a live-action picture as anyone’s ever made using comicbook characters. The 2002 original grossed $822 million worldwide in theatrical release — $404 million of that domestically — and there’s no reason to believe this one won’t generate that much and more.

In one of those occasional examples of sequelmakers setting their sights higher the second time around and mostly hitting the mark, director Sam Raimi, producers Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad & Co., rather than equating bigger with better, have conscientiously applied themselves to improving all aspects of the franchise. Conspicuously, the action sequences are more exciting, the visual effects — particularly Spider-Man’s swings through the canyons of Manhattan — are far more natural and compelling and even Danny Elfman’s score is improved.

Most importantly, however, the script provides a depth and dramatic balance quite rare in this sort of fare. Alvin Sargent, a distinguished vet screenwriter best known for such estimable character-driven fare as “Paper Moon,” “Julia,” “Ordinary People” and “Unfaithful,” did uncredited rewrites on the first “Spider-Man.” Here, working from a story devised by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, he makes at least five characters into tortured souls with momentous decisions to make and places them all in a narrative frame within which the related elements are adroitly proportioned. Result is an object lesson in how, even for this sort of fare, the script can very much be the thing.

Unlike the last round of “Batman” films, which got sillier with each installment, “Spider-Man” is on the upswing, an impression fostered even by the opening credits, which resemble the comicbook style of those in the original but incorporate arresting renderings of key scenes to recapitulate the first picture’s story.

At the outset, Spider-Man is on a sort of hiatus, taking a back seat to the bumbling efforts of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) to juggle his studies at Columbia with part-time gigs taking pictures for the tabloid Daily Bugle and delivering pizzas on a strict schedule, which even Spidey’s best web-swinging can’t manage successfully.

Opening section quickly pulls the viewer close to Peter by sympathetically and amusingly detailing the difficulties of his struggle to make ends meet in a tough city. He’s constantly reminded of his inexpressible feelings for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), whose face on a perfume campaign is plastered all over the city and who’s enjoying success onstage in a revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Driven by a deep need to succeed where his father Norman failed, and still tormented over his death, Harry Osborn (James Franco) has invested heavily in the research of scientific genius Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who believes he’s on the verge of creating a source of perpetual energy through sustained fusion. As the altruistic Octavius tells the admiring Peter, who intends to write his thesis on him, this breakthrough will put “the power of the sun in the palm of my hand.”

But just as Norman Osborn’s experiment turned him into a demented villain, so does Octavius'; in front of numerous onlookers, his electrical gizmos bust a gut and his four enormous metal “activators” turn into murderous tentacles of staggering speed and strength, and capable of transporting the creature soon to be dubbed Dr. Octopus, or Doc Ock, up and down walls with ease.

Even here, however, there is internal tension. Octavius is dreadfully aware of the tragic implications of his transformation as the evil-minded tentacles assume control over his mind, rendering him powerless to halt their rampage. He is, therefore, an arch-villain in violent disagreement with the mantle he’s suddenly inherited. To some, perhaps, this will make Doc Ock less than the ideal bad guy, but to others it could make him more interesting than the standard-issue doomdealer.

Spider-Man’s first spectacular battle with Doc Ock takes place in and on a bank the latter has decided to rob; for hardly the last time, Spidey is sent plunging from high off a building, only to save himself at the last second. Upping the stakes is Doc Ock’s having turned Peter’s beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) into an unlikely Harold Lloyd, dangling the poor woman off a skyscraper by her umbrella. The new verisimilitude with which the visual effects are executed gives this sequence, as well as others, a special thrill.

But for Peter Parker, unlike the audience, the thrill is gone. Crushed when he realizes his own reticence has induced a frustrated Mary Jane to become engaged to another man, astronaut John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), son of Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (the ever-punchy J.K. Simmons), Peter finds his superpowers occasionally failing him. This subconscious manifestation of his misgivings about fully assuming the responsibilities of society’s savior provides a dramatic act-one climax, as, at the story’s precise midway point, Peter tosses his Spider-Man costume in the trash.

A light-hearted interlude, cheekily accompanied by “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” illustrates the more balanced and happier young man Peter is able to become without the specter of Spider-Man constantly hovering over him; he hopes his fresh approach to life will win Mary Jane over before it’s too late, and in the bargain confesses to Aunt May his guilt for his part in the death of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, seen in one quasi-dream sequence).

But Peter’s good deeds on a strictly interpersonal level can’t compete with the life-saving contributions he can make as Spider-Man. The Bugle blares that, in Spidey’s absence, crime has risen 75%, and when the now-alcoholic Harry agrees to provide Doc Ock with the ingredient he needs to complete repairs on his fusion machine in exchange for Spider-Man on a platter, the stage is set for a renewed showdown.

Most elaborate — and geographically the goofiest — set piece takes place when Manhattan is suddenly transformed into downtown Chicago to enable Spider-Man and Doc Ock to fight it out on an elevated train. Once this considerable poetic license is swallowed, scene is a doozy, as Spidey eludes a barrage of tentacled probings before struggling to slow down the runaway train by flinging webs onto nearby buildings. In the process, Spider-Man is unmasked to the public, the beginning of an unveiling that will have private implications as well.

In an equally nifty intimate scene, Mary Jane puts her own feelings to the test by repeating her unforgettable upside-down kiss of Spider-Man on her fiance, the result of which will determine her destiny henceforth. The action climax, which could have ended the picture in a routine way, is followed by a satisfying emotional exchange between Peter and Mary Jane, as well as by a strong setting-up of the presumed central conflict for the next installment in the series.

The new emotional levels and increased opportunities provided by the script give the actors a chance to stretch, and they all respond, none more than Maguire. Running the gamut from heroic knight to heartbroken suitor, thesp is a constant delight, his lightness of touch providing many grace notes to what was already a lively characterization.

Dunst gets more screentime than before and fleshes out the damsel-in-distress aspects of her part with a nice portrait of a young woman trying to figure out where her future lies. With Aunt May finally, after two years of mourning, trying to move on, Harris has much more to do and does it with her customary excellence, and Franco pushes Harry into an unanticipated dark realm.

Molina’s initial geniality morphs into a determined but unmaniacal evil, although the lack of a specific focus for his destructiveness makes Doc Ock real purpose a bit fuzzy.

Raimi’s direction is more assured than before and often downright stylish, with Bill Pope’s lustrous lensing combining on a finished picture that provides constant visual delight. With the speeded-up herky-jerkiness gone, the effects now are all but perfect, and numerous point-of-view shots add to the pop of the web-flinging. Bob Murawski’s editing is very tight, and, at six minutes, even the end credits are shorter than the norm for this kind of crew-heavy picture.

Spider-Man 2

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Marvel Enterprises/Laura Ziskin production. Produced by Ziskin, Avi Arad. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, Joseph M. Carraciolo. Co-producer, Grant Curtis. Directed by Sam Raimi. Screenplay, Alvin Sargent, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko; screen story, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Bill Pope; editor, Bob Murawski; music, Danny Elfman; production designer, Neil Spisak; art directors, Steven A. Saklad, Thomas P. Wilkins, Jeff Knipp, Tom Valentine, Scott P. Murphy (New York); set designers, C. Scott Baker, J. Andre Chaintreuil, John Chichester, Mick Cukurs, Daniel R. Jennings, Jeff Markwith, Patte Strong-Lord, Robert Woodruff; set decorators, Jay Hart, Susan Tyson (New York); costume designers, James Acheson, Gary Jones; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Joseph Geisinger; supervising sound mixers, Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell, Jeffrey J. Haboush; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Paul N.J. Ottosson; visual effects designer, John Dykstra; special visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks; additional visual effects, Radium, Zoic Studios, Barbed Wire; visual effects supervisor, Scott Stokdyk; assistant director, Eric Heffron; second unit directors, Dan Bradley, Jeffrey A. Lynch; second unit camera, Jonathan Taylor; New York unit camera, Peter Menzies; stunt coordinators, Bradley, Scott Rogers; fight choreographer, Dion Lam; additional camera, Anette Haellmigk; casting, Dianne Crittenden. Reviewed at the Village Theater, Los Angeles, June 22, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Spider-Man/Peter Parker - Tobey Maguire Mary Jane Watson - Kirsten Dunst Harry Osborn - James Franco Doc Ock/Dr. Otto Octavius - Alfred Molina May Parker - Rosemary Harris J. Jonah Jameson - J.K. Simmons Rosalie Octavius - Donna Murphy John Jameson - Daniel Gillies Dr. Curt Connors - Dylan Baker Joseph "Robbie" Robertson - Bill Nunn Louise - Vanessa Ferlito Mr. Aziz - Aasif Mandvi Green Goblin/Norman Osborn - Willem Dafoe Ben Parker - Cliff Robertson Hoffman - Ted Raimi Miss Brant - Elizabeth Banks Snooty Usher - Bruce Campbell

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