Dir:Sam Raimi. US. 2004. 127mins.

There'sas much soul searching as web spinning in the sequel to summer 2002 box officechampion Spider-Man. Revealing more (literally as well asmetaphorically) of its superhero's human face, Spider-Man 2 - againdirected by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire as the comic book New Yorkcrime fighter - is an expertly crafted mix of drama, romance, humour and actionthat outdoes its more conventionally generic predecessor in most of thosedepartments. The mix might frustrate some hardcore action fans but it has beenearning the sequel enthusiastic buzz and glowing early reviews and it shouldallow Columbia and Marvel to secure the kind of all-inclusive audience theyneed to attract to this $200m-plus bid for the summer 2004 box office title.

Inits US launch this week the sequel certainly has a shot at beating the originalfilm's record-breaking $114.8m first weekend take, since it opens in the run-upto the Independence Day weekend with no immediate competition. Matching thefirst film's eventual domestic gross of $403.7m might be tougher, given thatthe first film (which opened in early May) had a head start on the rest of thesummer pack.

Internationalprospects are very healthy, though again, equalling the first film's $403moverseas take will be a challenge. Later release dates - the sequel opens thisweek in Asia and Latin America before moving on to Europe in mid-July - willmean more competition and the film might even be affected by changing attitudestowards the US in some international markets.

WithOscar winner Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People) as screenwriter, it's notsurprising that the sequel spends a lot of time following dramatic threadsintroduced in the first film. Two years after his fateful encounter with a mutantarachnid, mild-mannered Peter Parker (Maguire) is trying to balance hisSpider-Man duties with his pizza delivery job and college classes. Moreimportantly, he's struggling to keep his superhero identity secret from hiswidowed Aunt May (Harris), his best friend Harry (Franco) and his longtime loveMary Jane (Dunst).

Thevillain of the piece is Doc Ock (Molina), a well-meaning scientist who, afteran experiment goes awry, is turned into a deranged madman with four mechanicaltentacles attached to his back. Doc Ock makes a worthy physical adversary forSpider-Man but he comes into the action fairly late and serves mainly to bringthe film's dramatic themes to a head, often in surprising and quite daringways.

Theemphasis on exploring relationships from the first film - and dropping hintsabout the already planned third film - sometimes makes Spider-Man 2 feela bit aimless and meandering. But the approach also produces some trulyaffecting moments.

Particularlyeffective are the sweetly funny moments, like a sly joke about the back injurythat nearly got Maguire replaced in the title role and the revelation thatPeter's Spidey suit runs in the wash and rides up at the crotch.

Thewould-be romance between Peter and Mary Jane has moved on a bit from the firstfilm - she's now a budding actress with a new man in her life - but nothinggets resolved until the sequel's climactic sequence. In place of the firstfilm's instant classic rain-soaked kiss, the sequel offers a less sexy butalmost as memorable scene when the world of Spider-Man literally comescrashing down on Peter's romantic hopes.

Comparedto most pumped up summer effects movies Spider-Man 2 is light on pureaction. When the film does get kinetic, however, the results are moreimpressive than they were two years ago, thanks to the widescreencinematography by Bill Pope (The Matrix trilogy) and more believable CGflying effects as Spidey swings through Manhattan's skyscraper canyons andbattles with the equally agile Doc Ock hundreds of feet above the city streets.

Significantly,though, the film's best action sequence actually relies as much on emotion asvisceral thrills for its effect. When Spidey tries to stop a crowded runawaytrain from hurtling off its elevated tracks, he appears, for a moment, to bedefeated; it's only when the tough New Yorkers on the train lend him moralsupport that the superhero is able to complete the job.

Ashe did in the original movie, Maguire delivers a nicely vulnerable performance,giving the film a sensitive side that most summer pictures lack. Dunst is quiteaffecting in a slightly more developed part and Molina makes Doc Ock a moreinteresting baddie than the original's Green Goblin. The sequel hints that thecharacter played by Franco (best known from his cable movie James Dean) willemerge as an important figure in the third movie.

Prodcos: ColumbiaPictures, Marvel Enterprises
US dist:
Int'l dist:
Col TriStar/Sony
LauraZiskin, Avi Arad
Exec prods:
Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, Joseph M Carraciolo
Prod des:
Neil Spisak
Visual effects des:
John Dykstra
Cost des:
James Acheson, Gary Jones
Main cast:
Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, RosemaryHarris, J K Simmons