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Spider-Man 2 spins a compelling tale: A superteen squeezed between his awesome abilities and existential questions about what it all means

Stop the world! Spider-Man wants to get off! The exasperating double life, the repression of his eternal flame for Mary Jane, the tights -- it all has to come to an end. He has to be free to be Peter Parker: college kid, science enthusiast, amateur photographer./p>

So halfway into Sam Raimi's exuberant "Spider-Man 2," Peter (Tobey Maguire) has tossed that trademark blue and red costume, complete with mask, into the garbage. He's going to take his studies seriously and make a real effort to tell the betrothed Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) he loves her -- things he can't do when he's running all over New York City fighting crime.

The first hour of Raimi's first installment, which came out in 2001, was a valentine to anyone who'd ever read the Marvel comic or been an unpopular 17-year-old boy. When the bite of a radioactive arachnid gave him superpowers, his first impulse was not to save the world, but to impress Mary Jane. But somewhere in the middle, Willem Dafoe appeared as the Green Goblin and the movie fell into the quicksand of saving distressed damsels.

This sequel is a more complete, not to mention more complex, experience. Most of the time, it's better, too. For one thing, the vil-
lain, Alfred Molina's mad scientist -- Otto Octavius, who becomes Dr. Octopus -- has four mechanical tentacles and feels no need to hide himself behind a pesky mask. But more important, Raimi seems more comfortable being his outlandishly jokey, B-movie self, letting entire sequences play on the line between carefree schlock and Hollywood blockbusting. The escape of Dr. Octopus from an operating table is a ripsnorting piece of retro splatter-trash.But the movie's soul belongs to Peter and his existential doubt about whether Dr. Octopus -- let alone garden-variety muggers and purse snatchers -- is worth fighting. Suddenly, he's falling off the sides of buildings instead of scurrying up them. His senses don't tingle the way they should, and he can't shoot a web from his wrists to save his own life, let alone anybody else's. Sounds like a nasty case of Spider's block. His identity crisis is a superhero rite of passage. In their own movies, Batman and Superman have flirted with the idea of hanging up their capes. The whole secrecy of this Spider-Man business comes at too high a practical and emotional price. So rather than out himself to anyone, he quits. The movie is at its best in depicting Peter's self-doubting misery without wallowing in it. Of course, these pleasures can't last forever: Once Dr. Octopus has kidnapped Mary Jane, the comic-book formula leads back toward action, complete with obligatory showdown.

Alvin Sargent wrote the screenplay for "Spider-Man 2," but the novelist Michael Chabon is credited with making some contributions to the story. And Peter Parker's struggle with the morality of being a superhero is grounded soundly in the sort of personal but accessible angst of the young men whom Chabon dreamed up in "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." Peter's friends have embarked on their brilliant careers -- Mary Jane is a stage actress and model; his pal Harry (James Franco) is running his late father's technology company, which is funding Otto Octavius's breakthroughs in fusion. Poor Peter, meanwhile, is a flop at everything from his pizza-delivery job and his classes at Empire State University to getting to Mary Jane's Broadway show on time. He's behind in the rent for his cave of an apartment. To make ends meet, he has to exploit himself, chiefly by snapping pictures of Spider-Man to sell to the amusingly gonzo Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). And the superhero stuff is a job whose very social necessity robs it of its glamour and chic -- like schoolteaching and trash collection.

Dr. Octopus is more necessary than he is exciting. Molina is good in the part, keeping the hammy villain stuff to a minimum. He always seems kind of sad doing mundane stuff such as robbing a bank and snatching Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). Molina is a sideshow here and he knows it. The menacing archfoe is the only means the movie has to rid Peter of his demoralization and restore his sense of greatness.

The stern talking-tos, from the fed-up Mary Jane and stormy Harry (who has no idea his father was the Green Goblin and hates Spider-Man for killing him), don't help. If ever there were an actor built to handle the sniping, it's Maguire, whose boyishness has a real urgency here. Seeming forever 18 has never suited him better. There's a Hall of Fame encounter involving Spider-Man, a speeding train, and its passengers that seems more like a job for Superman -- but Maguire is up to the task. Beneath all the ennui and indecisiveness beats the heart of a young man of steel.

Spider-Man 2Directed by: Sam Raimi.
Written by: Alvin Sargent
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, J.K. Simmons, and Rosemary Harris
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs.
Running time: 127 minutes.
Rated: PG-13 (For stylized action violence)
***

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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