Even more than its delightful predecessor, Spider-Man 2 is that rarity in summer blockbusters: an escapist entertainment where the human element is every bit as important as the visual effects and big action set-pieces. The chemistry between stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst remains sparkling, and the storyline actually progresses in gratifying directions, rather than showing signs of desperation to generate another windfall. This spectacularly engaging comic-book fantasy is a textbook example of what a mass-audience movie ought to be.

One key to the movie's success is its screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, an accomplished film veteran whose credits include Julia, Ordinary People and Paper Moon (and who did uncredited work on the first Spider-Man). Sargent's touch ensures that the audience becomes genuinely involved with the characters and their relationships, despite their comic-book origins. (And among those receiving a story credit is Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the wondrous, comics-inspired novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.)

Spider-Man 2 mines all the comedic and poignant possibilities in the dilemma of Peter Parker, the shy middle-class kid from Queens, New York who, thanks to a bite from a genetically enhanced spider, finds himself endowed with the power to sling sticky webs from his fingers and swoop across the city. The noble Peter realizes that to reveal his super-skills would lure enemies to those he loves, and so he continues leading the exhausting double life of secret crimefighter and struggling student, all while harboring a doleful crush on his childhood friend, Mary Jane Watson. The daily humiliations of this genial superhero--a relentless landlord, sagging grades, the constant badgering of his boss, Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson--take their toll, prompting Peter to throw his red suit in the trash and attempt a normal life.

But as long as there are scientific geniuses gone haywire, there will always be a dire need for Spider-Man's services. In this outing, that genius is Dr. Otto Octavius, whose experiments with a perpetual energy source run amok and turn him into a creature fused to powerful metal tentacles with a murderous will of their own--"Doc Ock," as the Bugle dubs him. Spider-Man is forced out of retirement when Doc Ock makes a deadly pact with Peter's friend Harry Osborn, who has sworn vengeance against Spider-Man for the death of his father, Norman (aka The Green Goblin).

The Spider-Man films wouldn't be half as successful without their invaluable star, Tobey Maguire. This young actor delivers just the right combination of vulnerability, self-effacing humor, soulfulness and strength, generating tremendous audience empathy and goodwill. Who cares how many of his masked action moments are provided by doubles or CGI magic? It's the boy behind the mask, Peter Parker, who makes the movie.

Dunst, meanwhile, continues to be the ideal girl-next-door as M.J., who is equally drawn to Peter but can't fathom his awkward reticence. As the film begins, M.J. has moved on with her life and become a successful actress and model, and accepts the marriage proposal of Jameson's astronaut son, but there's something about Peter that finally makes itself known during a finale that's all the more satisfying thanks to the palpable rapport of Maguire and Dunst.

Alfred Molina brings his formidable talent to the tragic role of Dr. Octavius, who's as much a hapless victim of his weird science as he is a public menace. James Franco ably heightens the darkness of Harry, the neglected son out to avenge a father he never knew as a diabolical arch-villain. The great Rosemary Harris lends her warmth to Peter's Aunt May, and even startles with her participation in a wild action sequence. And J.K. Simmons is even more hilariously hyper as the craven Jameson.

John Dykstra's visual effects, which looked a little bumpy in the first film, are smoother and more convincing this time around, abetted by director Sam Raimi's bold, kinetic, pulse-pounding camera moves. Spider-Man 2 has all the flash audiences could want in a summer blockbuster, but ultimately it's Raimi's ability to turn comic-book characters into endearing flesh-and-blood creations that pulls the viewer into his web.

-Kevin Lally