To see what was wrong with Van Helsing, the mess of a film that started this summer's blockbuster season, go see Spider-Man 2, in almost every way its polar opposite. The Spider-Man franchise continues to prove that big movies with broad appeal can be done well.
Spider-Man 2 (rated PG-13 for stylized action violence) improves on its successful predecessor, a surprise hit in 2002. Key players are back -- stars Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man) and Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), and, most importantly, director Sam Raimi. Mr. Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent (who was aided by novelist Michael Chabon) go even further this time in grounding their superhero tale in both the personal and the transcendent. Basic comic-book conventions fuel the plot (as Spider-Man battles a deranged scientist with massive mechanical arms), but it's these subtler elements that should expand the film's appeal beyond the Marvel and DC crowd.
Mr. Raimi is not afraid to use a popcorn movie to deal with grand themes, like the nature of heroism, the need for self-sacrifice, the responsibility of power. This, truly, is a remarkable feat in a modern film -- more so, even, than Spider-Man 2's spectacular special effects. Many smaller, supposedly intelligent films end up with the same platitude: Follow your heart. Spider-Man 2 recognizes that there may be bigger things at work -- not just in the sense of Doc Ock (the excellent Alfred Molina) threatening to destroy New York, but at an even more fundamental level. Mr. Maguire's Parker engages in an intense struggle between personal desire (for good things: a family, a steady job, a little sleep) and a sense of responsibility, as a steward of the gifts he's been given.
Moviegoers (and the fictional residents of New York City) ought to be deeply grateful that Peter Parker does more than follow his heart.