Title: Spider-man 2
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenwriters: Stan Lee
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina
To follow-up Spider-Man, one of the most elegant and precisely constructed superhero films ever made, was a tall order, and director Sam Raimi responded by giving us bigger, better, more — though not of what you might expect. If anything, the sequel tones down the volume of action, though what is here is uniformly amazing. What’s cranked up, instead, is sheer ambition, as Raimi uses his comic book universe to explore some serious themes with a surprising amount of depth. Here’s an unlimited-budget blockbuster that’s engaged in its characters and its premise, that cares about the implications of people’s actions; a movie whose every move is calculated to serve a function beyond audience bloodlust. Spider-Man 2 may not be quite the tidy, polished package its predecessor was, but in its head-spinning sprawl, it suggests the potential for a monumental continuing saga.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” the first film asserted, and the second one is genuinely interested in figuring out what this means for its hero and the rest of us mere mortals. There will be complaints about the relative dearth of action set pieces, but I’ve seen the action — Raimi generates just as much suspense and excitement by deconstructing the concept of heroism, delving into what it means to do right and the costs and rewards of that decision. If it were easy, we’d have a thousand little would-be Spider-Men running around. Nonetheless, as Aunt May insists, “there’s a hero in all of us.” Spidey’s best trick is bringing it out.
As the film opens, Spider-Man is destroying Peter Parker’s life. He is fired from his pizza delivery job, his grades are taking a slow but determined plunge, and the Daily Bugle newspaper, along with head honcho J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), seems determined to paint Spider-Man as a menace to society. What’s more, his best friend/love of his life Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who at last seems to be hitting it big on the acting circuit, begins to get disillusioned with his waffling and unreliability. All are clueless, and all have turned against Peter.
While Peter broods and contemplates, Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent find truth in the rage and confusion of their supporting characters. Aunt May, left virtually alone and without knowing the truth about her husband’s death, struggles with a looming bank foreclosure, surprises herself with her own anger, and does her best to keep her dignity; in a great scene, she tries to give Peter a modest birthday present despite her hardships. Mary Jane is just as bewildered — with the man she loves becoming inexplicably aloof and detached, she desperately accepts a marriage proposal from someone else, a nice, bland “hero” astronaut. And Harry Osborn is still seething over the death of his father, using every waking hour to plan his revenge; James Franco, I must say, finds the precise angle on Harry, smoldering with barely suppressed anger even when he is presumably jubilant.
A superhero isn’t much without a supervillain, and Peter is finally shaken from his stupor by Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), who used to be a well-intentioned nuclear scientist before his fusion experiment went awry and his brain fell under the control of four malevolent metal tentacles. Unlike the Green Goblin, Doc Ock is a complex and impressive CGI creation; unlike the Goblin, too, he seems to have no ambitions of world domination, wanting simply to complete his experiment at any cost.
But that’s all mostly secondary, as it turns out. At the forefront of Spider-Man 2 is Peter’s identity crisis, and his gradual realization that doing the right thing will require the sacrifice of every dream he has — love, companionship, a normal existence. Raimi approaches this with unabashed sincerity and a light touch; a master of montage, he dares to set Peter’s momentary respite from superherodom to “Raindrops are Falling on My Head,” ending the sequence with a freeze-frame both hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking. The film cares about these characters’ lives, and each is allowed to develop a rich character arc. Watch the scene where Peter makes a confession to Aunt May, consider the way it concludes, and then name me another comic book movie that would have allowed it. Raimi even permits a few refreshing and oddly touching moments of — gasp! — inconsequentiality, as, for example, Peter takes a minute to eat a piece of chocolate cake with his landlord’s daughter.
When Spider-Man 2 does indulge us with sequences of web-slinging battle frenzy, it outdoes its predecessor, our expectations, and pretty much the entire genre. Lucid, intricate and breathtaking, the action isn’t edited into oblivion; Raimi doesn’t seek to overwhelm, and the result is fights and chases that seem to actually take place where they’re supposed to, instead of that mysterious movie universe where chop-socky cutting and bad CGI reside. Spidey himself is less cartoonish than in the first film, and his stunts become scary and awe-inspiring, instead of simply neat. Of immeasurable assistance is Danny Elfman’s incredible score, which soars along with Spider-Man and breaks things along with Doc Ock.
And so what happens is that the intense feeling Raimi invests in his characters translates to the action scenes, which may be spectacular but are not about spectacle. When Spidey faces off with Molina’s metal-armed menace, what’s at stake is heroism, and love, and the very goodness of humanity, all painted in broad brush strokes as any superhero movie should be. The emotional climax on the subway train is the culmination of themes running all the way back to Peter’s hospital speech in the first film (“you know what kind of man you want to be”) and even before. It’s a monumental scene, encapsulating everything that is so very right about this complex, moving superhero epic