- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Director Sam Raimi admits, a bit playfully, that his mother makes him put his brother Ted in all his films.

It’s no wonder, then, that the director feels an affinity for Peter Parker, the man who can do whatever a spider can but would chuck it all to make sure his Aunt May is safe and sound.

Mr. Raimi proved the right man for the right job in 2002, bringing Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man to the big screen with the kind of commercial applause that would make the character’s adjective-obsessed creator, Stan Lee, blush.

Now Mr. Raimi is in the unenviable position of needing to top himself.

“Spider-Man 2,” opening Wednesday, is the kind of film that could make “Shrek 2” look like “Gigli” at the box office.

With great hype comes great expectations, and plenty of fans will be sitting anxiously in theaters, their arms folded snugly across their chests, daring Mr. Raimi to prove himself anew.

The director, during interviews earlier this month to promote the film, said the studio displayed a rare trait the first time around. It trusted him completely.

“I had a tremendous amount of freedom, a little bit unearned, on the first movie,” says Mr. Raimi, 44, stylishly clad in a dark suit to meet the press. “When I got the job, I really thought the studio clamps were gonna come down.”

When they let him create the movie he wanted to make, “I just kept my mouth shut and enjoyed myself,” he says.

This time, he focused on what the original film’s admirers found so enchanting: more of the love story and character growth, less of the extravaganza-style effects.

“I really wanted to please the audience,” he says, sounding more like a loyal fan himself than a shrewd promoter. Later, he mocks DVD companies for releasing multiple versions of hit films to squeeze every last dollar from the marketplace.

“Spider-Man 2” takes place two years after the original. The web slinger (Tobey Maguire) still pines after Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but now he has to deal with a new supervillain, the multiarmed Dr. Octavius (Alfred Molina).

Creating a sequel to the first film — which grossed more than $800 million worldwide — came a bit easier because Mr. Raimi could draw upon all the Spider-Man stories that came before it.

“We’re given so much help by the Marvel comic-book writers who have gone before … we could stand on the shoulders of these giants. We have these great stories and visuals to call upon,” he says.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Mr. Raimi identifies so closely with young Parker.

“I know the character really well, like a good friend,” he says. “Maybe closer than a good friend, since I’ve spent so much time getting into his head, pretending to be Peter Parker like any writer or any director.”

The Michigan native made a name for himself, or at least became a deity to cult film lovers, with 1981’s “The Evil Dead.” The pulp auteur cast longtime pal Bruce Campbell as the film’s hero, an iron-jawed survivor fighting off an ancient curse.

Horror fans howled over its giddy effects, even if the project reeked of artistic immaturity.

“I was trying to make the picture as interesting visually as possible,” he recalls. “I knew I didn’t have a good story or movie stars, and it was 16 millimeter, so it was gonna be really grainy.”

Mr. Raimi used the film to experiment with lighting, sound and camera techniques that would serve him well on subsequent features.

Starting a career with a supernatural thriller had its perks, he says.

“Your job is to create an unseen world,” Mr. Raimi notes. “For a young filmmaker, it’s a great learning ground.”

He first took a crack at comic-book-style heroes with 1990’s “Darkman,” a naive but crackerjack yarn starring Liam Neeson as a scarred antihero. He shot two more “Evil Dead” films but soon began looking for more dramatic stories to tell.

Mr. Raimi’s quasi-revisionist 1995 Western, “The Quick and the Dead,” employed big stars such as Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman, but beneath its sumptuous set pieces was a heartless creation.

That changed — and how — with 1998’s “A Simple Plan,” a twisted morality play of murder and greed starring Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton and Bridget Fonda. The film announced to Hollywood that Mr. Raimi could handle top-tier acting as well as adult themes.

With the “Spider-Man” franchise, Mr. Raimi found a balance between his maturing vision and his youthful tastes.

Actor Tobey Maguire, who reprises his role as the title character/Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2,” says the director’s sense of humor defuses any possible stress building around the franchise, and his working style gets everyone involved in the finished product.

What lies ahead?

Though Mr. Raimi’s fan base might want an “Evil Dead 4” more than any future “Spider-Man” installments, they shouldn’t hold their breath. Mr. Raimi is contractually linked to “Spider-Man 3.”

“I’m still fascinated by the technical aspects of film, but now only as a device to tell these stories,” he says.

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