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Armed and Dangerous 

First things first. The question that seems to be on everyone's mind is how the sequel compares to the original. But to say that Spider-Man 2 blows Spider-Man out of the water is a little simplistic and a little strong, so allow me to wax on this.

I thought the first film was pretty good, but didn't feel that it went where it could have gone. Good action, good character development -- at least in the case of Peter Parker -- and a well-directed living comic book. But aside from the big fight scene at the end, the Green Goblin just wasn't a very convincing villain. Most of the problem there was that Willem Dafoe had his face covered up with that silly mask, which eliminated the possibility of any fearsome emotional output from him. It was a worst-case scenario for the second-most important character in a film like this: He wasn't scary.

Of course, Spider-Man went on to bring in more than $800 million at the box office, proving me wrong.

But if that's the case, this one's going to earn even more, because it really does blow the first one out of the water. The action is ramped up, as is the film's measure of angst. Sure, some folks are going to have a problem with that second part; they're going to want action scene upon action scene. But if that were to happen, this wouldn't have been true to the Marvel Comics code: Make the hero an emotional wreck, then have him do all kinds of good for mankind, and don't even bother to thank him.

Poor Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). Nothing is going right for the guy. He's got a job delivering pizza, but can't hold on to it; he's regularly put down by editor J. Jonah Jameson (a riotous J.K. Simmons), who can't get enough Spidey photos from him; Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is about to be evicted for non-payment of rent; Spidey's web shooters are malfunctioning (or is the problem more than just a malfunction?), resulting in a series of wall crashes instead of wall climbs; and after the two years that have gone by since the last story ended, Peter still has the hots for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) but still can't do anything about it.

All of that comes in just the first half of the film. In the second half, from his perspective at least, it gets worse.

But let's go back to what the sequel has over the original - namely, the villain.

Although I wasn't a big-time fan of the comic, I did read it, and always thought Dr. Octavius ("Doc Ock") was one of the coolest bad guys -- if not for what he could do, then for his physical presence. But I was convinced that, despite today's astounding abilities with visual effects, the filmmakers weren't going to pull it off to a degree that would satisfy me. I was wrong.

Played by Alfred Molina -- currently in the best scene in Coffee and Cigarettes, but so memorable as the coked-out drug dealer in Boogie Nights -- Doc Ock is the film's most outstanding success. He's presented -- in classic Marvel style -- as an innocent guy who goes mad when an experiment goes wrong. And his look -- his own body fused to four "living" metallic tentacles that move him around and either do or make him do awful things to others -- is both believable and very frightening. For those who need to know, his onscreen appearance is a combination of model work, CGI effects, and in some cases, Molina's body hanging in the air in front of a blue screen while puppeteers dressed in black are moving the big silver arms around.

Money was well spent in this film, with about a quarter of the reported $200 million budget going to special effects. And a big chunk of that quarter obviously went to the stunning elevated subway fight sequence that outdoes anything of its ilk in film history, going back to the time, about 70 years ago, when King Kong knocked the 'ell out of the New York el. If this havoc on the New York line of today looks a little odd, it's because some of the sequence was shot in Chicago -- all for the better of the film.

There's also a great deal of humor involved here. One totally goofy moment has a street busker singing the theme song from the 1967 animated Spider-Man TV series. It's so random, and it's so perfect.

All comes together in the end, even for poor Peter. And while the conclusion is sufficiently satisfying, the script leaves it set up with (eight) open arms for Part Three. (Sure enough, the story is currently being written; it will be released in 2006).

Just remember this about Sam Raimi, who directed the first installment and will do the third. In 1987, he made Evil Dead 2, a bizarre combination of ultimate horror and whacked-out comedy. This time it's a mixture of frenetic action and overwrought emotionalism. And he does it even better.

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