Spider-Man 2 (PG)<br></br>Woman of the Dunes (15)

The anxiety of impotence (aka the nerd's revenge)

Despite received wisdom, sequels often are better than the original films they follow: it sometimes takes that bit longer for an idea to get into its stride. Such a case is Spider-Man 2 - or, to give the film its technical title, Spider-Man® 2. Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man, released two years ago, was about a man acquiring the strength and web-spinning abilities of a spider, but that premise is only interesting as far as it goes. The second chapter of the franchise is far more concerned with what the original Marvel comic, at its early Sixties outset, was really about: the daily travails of a put-upon teenage nebbish.

Spider-Man 2 fairly faithfully recreates the mood of the first Spider-Man strips, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko (ah, but if only Raimi had found a screen equivalent for the strange boxy scratchiness of Ditko's style). But the film is just as faithful to the spirit of the Charles Atlas body-building ads that used to run in the comics. They dealt with the troubles of skinny young Mac, whose beach trips were ruined by a muscular jock kicking sand in his face.

Transformed by an Atlas course, a newly-bulked Mac took revenge, winning the approval of his lamentably fickle girlfriend: "Oh Mac, you are a real man after all!" A bite from a radioactive spider did for high-school science nerd Peter Parker what Atlas did for Mac - yet the comic subverted the ad by reminding us that however tough Mac got, the world would continue to gang up on him. Spider-Man 2, therefore, is far more interested in Peter Parker as the eternally disappointed Mac than as Spider-Man.

Played by Tobey Maguire, Peter is so thoroughly humiliated throughout, that the film comes across as an extended ritual of comic martyrdom. Despite being a superhero on the side, Peter hustles to make ends meet by delivering pizzas but gets fired because, even using his spider powers, he can never reach the client on time. Victim of an often startlingly hostile world, he is berated by monstrous tabloid proprietor J Jonah Jameson (the bracingly ferocious J K Simmons), bullied by a theatre doorman, given up as a dead loss by his beloved über-girl-next-door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and publicly slapped by his best friend (James Franco) at a reception where he can't even manage to grab a canape. He also loses his superpowers: ready to swing around New York in a fit of explosive pique, Spider-Man crashes to the ground with an ignoble thud.

I can't remember any Hollywood film so preoccupied with anxieties of impotence, but Parker's puppy-like resilience in the face of trauma certainly makes for a more likeably vulnerable protagonist than you usually find in superhero films. Raimi successfully maintains the first film's sense of outright ordinariness, both of Spider-Man's off-duty life and of his existential predicament. Unlike other Marvel or DC characters recently transferred to screen, Peter Parker doesn't inhabit a world that's shiny, or sci-fi, or Gothic: he lives in a drab Manhattan apartment, is coddled by his sweet, homily-spouting, suburb-dwelling Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), and takes his Spider-Man costume to the laundry, where it bleeds into the wash, ruining his underwear. All this makes his tragedy - so much power, and no emotional gain - the more poignant, giving Spider-Man 2 the edge over all those self-consciously moody and significant comics movies, such as Burton's morose Batman, Ang Lee's oedipally traumatised Hulk, and Bryan Singer's flashily unfocused X-Men.

Raimi and his various writers - among them, sharing a story credit, novelist Michael Chabon - are smart enough to realise that even a punchdrunk blockbuster audience will welcome a splash of the everyday to leaven the thrills and glamour. In fact, the film appears to give us rather more of the domestic tragi-comedy than it does of the all-out action: the most memorable episode is a droll encounter in a lift, with Maguire (at least, I assume it's him) managing to convey acute embarrassment even while fully suited and masked in Spider-Man's latex.

Maguire's sweet, eager awkwardness is what makes the film truly distinctive. In one shot, riding a moped, he looks as stiffly gawky as Private Pike of Dad's Army; as he tries to maintain some dignity fending off the contents of a broom cupboard, his poker-faced earnestness gives off the faintest flash of Stan Laurel. Kirsten Dunst's usual hearty, peachy glow seems to have been toned down to match Maguire's pallor: here, she looks as if she's been locked in a dark room reading J D Salinger for weeks.

The film's snappy, staccato action sequences are all the more enjoyable for functioning like sporadic musical routines to punctuate the sour romantic comedy. Their occasional slapdash quality - some of the digitals have a hasty, unpolished arcade-game look - actually makes the film more approachable. The film's most imposing design creation, however, is its villain Dr Octavius, who is driven mad by Science Gone Too Far and turned into the multi-tentacled Dr Octopus. He's played with relish and no little warmth by Alfred Molina, as a bluff, faintly European fellow with a bohemian bent, married to an Eliot scholar.

Octavius is taken over by his own flailing metal limbs, demonic possession being something of a preoccupation of Raimi, who made his name with The Evil Dead; in an absolutely inspired touch of creepiness, the tentacles' claw-like ends keep snapping and hissing at their owner, like malevolent hydra heads.

It has been customary since Burton's Batman to talk about comic-strip movies being "dark", but that's usually just a way of giving adolescent material a spurious grown-up patina. Spider-Man 2 is better than just dark, it's touched by authentic teenage paranoia and neurosis. Oh Mac, it is a real Marvel Comics movie after all!

One of the strangest and most fascinating films to be re-released of late is Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1964 Woman of the Dunes, written by novelist Kobo Abe and featuring a chilling, austere score by the great modernist composer Toru Takemitsu. Its premise is so simple that you could almost call it a high-concept film - but then you'd have to call Sartre's Huis Clos a high-concept play, and "Hell is other people" an all-time great tag-line. The hell facing Teshigahara's hapless entomologist hero (Eiji Okada) is the prospect of living the rest of his life in a rickety hut at the bottom of a pit, forever shoveling away the encroaching desert sand alongside its enigmatic female inhabitant (Kyoko Kishida).

"Of course," the young woman comments - in what may well be the great one-liner of Japanese cinema - "this place isn't as interesting as Tokyo." Yet for the purposes of the film it is, far more interesting, and the couple's grimly inescapable dilemma becomes hugely complex and terrifyingly resonant - a sexualised version of the Sisyphus myth, recounted with a distinct touch of Buñuelian absurdism.

Teshigahara - a somewhat unsung director now due for rediscovery with his current NFT retrospective - called the film a "documentary fantasy", and by all accounts, the film exemplifies a Taoist philosophy of existence. What's most immediately striking, however, is the way that Teshigahara exploits a simple nightmare situation for oppressively sensuous effect - not only is the sense of confinement and geographic isolation horribly palpable, but the film also creates a very tactile eroticism of sweaty bodies covered with itchy sand. Hiroshi Segawa's black-and-white photography is so starkly haunting that you could be watching cinema from another planet, one where the insects make movies.

The visual compositions sometimes approach the condition of sculpture: seen in close-up and in beautifully textured detail, sand trickles, cascades, crumbles, flows like lava, or simply sits inert in vast rippled surfaces. Woman of the Dunes could have been made to illustrate the correspondence between grains of sand and the grain of film, though I suspect the wordplay might not work in Japanese.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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