Sam Raimi raises the bar of excellence with Spider-Man 2, a highly evolved sequel that brims with superb comedy, heartfelt characters, and dazzling visuals that nail the wall-crawler's universe in a fully respectable and exciting way. With the luxury of having the origin story behind them, the filmmakers let loose with this one, all the while still staying true to the character-driven focus that made the first film so fresh and appealing. Tobey Maguire again holds the spotlight amazingly well, this time comically tortured by his director, who seems to finally be having fun with the franchise. Back is Raimi's energetic visual style, something that has been missing since his Darkman days and one thing that the original was sorely lacking. Of course, the hero always needs a villain, and this time it's Alfred Molina playing a Doc Oc that isn't over-the-top in the usual flamboyant way, but brimming with a conflicted sense of sadness mixed with maniacal purpose. His tentacles deserve credit as well, as they add little touches of flair even when they aren't throwing Spidey through walls or bashing up city streets. Kirsten Dunst delivers another charming performance, while James Franco takes the Harry Osbourne character through the next step in his tragic arc, pointing straight toward events in the third film. The real surprise is Rosemary Harris as a truly touching Aunt May, who ends up being the emotional backbone of the story. Her speeches to Peter are devastating and resonate throughout the film as the events are played out. Again, it's this kind of attention to character that really makes the series shine. While Spider-Man 2 is a visual feast brimming with action, it never plays dumb to its characters or the audience. Raimi and company have effectively expanded on the world they created, making every scene essential to what has happened before and a building block of what's to come. Eagle-eyed fans will appreciate the nods to various other characters in the universe, the most immediate being Dylan Baker as Dr. Curt Connors (who eventually becomes The Lizard in the comics), along with Daniel Gillies's John Jameson, whose character is a direct setup for canine villain Man-Wolf. However close to perfect the final film is, there are a few things that don't ring so true -- Harry Osbourne needs a little more sympathy instead of being angry from the get-go, while Peter's tall and skinny neighbor supplies a great laugh, but doesn't end up serving much of a purpose in the end. Still, those are nitpicks and very well might end up paying off by the time the third movie rolls around. With advanced effects, a much more satisfying Danny Elfman score, and a filmmaker at the top of his game leading the charge, Spider-Man 2 is a classic superhero movie that deserves the near-unanimous praise that it has garnered.