In the spirit of "Spider-Man 2" itself, let's cut - or rather climb, leap, and swing - right to the chase. The sequel is bigger, bolder, and better acted than its predecessor, a smash success two years ago. This doesn't make it a masterpiece, but Hollywood faces a real challenge if it expects to top this summer-fun offering any time soon.
The trouble with the first "Spider-Man" movie is that it didn't advance beyond the Marvel comic-book series that inspired it. Back in the '60s era, when that series was new, it sparked a commix revolution by introducing a superhero with believable human psychology - at least when he was in secret-identity mode as Peter Parker, a lovelorn adolescent nerd.
Peter and his would-be girlfriend have grown up a bit since their last wide-screen excursion. He's a college student now, working his way through Columbia by selling exclusive Spidey photos to the obnoxious editor of a New York tabloid. Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is pursuing her dream of becoming an actress, working as a waitress between auditions that rarely pan out.
All these story aspects, plus various family scenes, are handled about as well in the sequel as similar stuff was in the first movie. What propels the new picture to new heights is the great Alfred Molina as its sensational villain: Otto Octavius, a peace-loving physics genius whose crucial experiment goes awry, putting him under the control of four artificial tentacles he's invented.
He's now Doctor Octopus, or Doc Ock, as the Daily Bugle promptly dubs him.
And he'll do anything to get the money he needs for his new hydrogen-fusion energy scheme - even deliver his former friend Spidey to the evil capitalist who despises him for deeply felt personal reasons.
Suspense specialist Sam Raimi, who directed both "Spider-Man" movies, makes Doc Ock a more frightening foe than Willem Dafoe's cartoonish creep in the first film. He also gives portions of the story a dank, gothic look that suits its mood to clammy perfection. On the downside, newcomers to the saga may be momentarily confused by some of the character relationships, and many of the screenplay's jokes and gags fall as flat as one of Spidey's leftover webs.
In all, "Spider-Man 2" is an entertaining warm-weather spectacle. Fans will be pleased that the ending leaves several doors wide open for uncountable sequels to come.
• Rated PG-13; contains fantasy violence.