Spider-Man 2

Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and Alfred Molina. Rated PG.

How much weight can a comic-strip movie bear? Well, how much stress can a superhero handle? Both questions are answered, and in surprising depth, during the lengthy course of Spider-Man 2, the rare sequel that is better than its predecessor--and more enjoyable than most popular entertainment of an expensive stripe.

Tobey Maguire is back as Peter Parker, whose personal life--never exactly flourishing in the first place--has taken a nosedive in inverse proportion to his success as a web-slinging crime fighter. He can't keep up with his job delivering pizzas, newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (the scene-stealing J. K. Simmons) will only buy his photographs if they are of you-know-whoí‚ ­Man, and his college grades are in the toilet. Even indulgent Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) thinks he's a bit of a loser. And Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the love of his life? She's screening his calls and is probably set to marry a handsome astronaut--Jameson's son, to make matters worse.

So if Peter, noticing that his powers are getting a bit unreliable anyway, wants to ditch his main gig and get back to being a semi-ordinary schmo, you can't really blame him. He gives that a go, and things start to look up, at least initially. But when you've got a calling, well...

Directed by B-movie maven Sam Raimi, the film touches all the Marvel Comics totems and then some. Marvel's post-'60s protagonists are wracked by modern neuroses--same as us, but super-sized. And the filmmakers here (including a raft of writers, although Alvin Sargent gets the only screen credit) have gone a step farther, giving the saintly Peter extra burdens. Not only does he embark on a classic hero's journey in the Joseph Campbell sense, but there are messianic implications in his ambivalence about taking on the holy duties assigned to him by his Father--okay, Uncle (Cliff Robertson, in a heaven-shrouded cameo). When Spidey is wounded at one point, it doesn't take a theology doctorate to recognize the pietíƒ  like imagery that follows.

The main agent of evil in this "Passion of the Spider-Man" is Dr. Otto Octavius (deliciously played by Alfred Molina), a scientist wrestling with his own religion: science. With comic-book wisdom, he has implanted in himself a set of tentacles to do work better suited to a freestanding machine. No matter. This allows a techno-wonk to be festooned with arms that combine the creepiest elements of Alien and Jurassic Park. The results aren't nice.

Some viewers may find the story a little too freighted with purpose. This, after all, is a pulp effort in which characters use lines from Oscar Wilde to get their points across. (Mary Jane has become an actor and model since last time.) And the ending is practically a trailer for Spider-Man 3. But the film is loaded with the elements that explain why people get so high on low culture. It is precisely this layering of meanings that makes a cartoon character pop off the page and, in this case, fly with exhilarating freedom.