Spider-Man 2 (2004) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence
Running Time: 127 min.

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Daniel Gillies, Donna Murphy, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn
Director: Sam Raimi

Screenplay: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon, Alvin Sargent
Review published July 3, 2004

Spider-Man 2 is a bit of an oddity for an action-packed superhero summer blockbuster.  Perhaps no other in the genre has ever bothered devoting so much effort into character development, which is quite the gamble when you have a sure thing sequel that would satisfy fans even if it were just a continuation of Spider-Man (2002).  Due to this shift into more drama about the personal life of Peter Parker (Maguire, Seabiscuit), Spider-Man 2 goes at a slower pace than the first film, with a concerted effort by Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan, The Quick and the Dead) to humanize the superhero character in the hope that we actually feel something for the man behind the mask.  Evidence of this comes from just how often Spider-Man removes his mask, a constant reminder that Peter Parker's heart and mind are there all along.  Of course, if you are going to build up characters this much, you should have a reason, and that reason may be what just might make the Spider-Man franchise do what all other superhero franchises have failed to do -- not run completely out of gas after the second film. 

Unlike most hit sequels, Spider-Man 2 isn't trying to be bigger and better, although it does manage to impress on a grander scale in many ways.  To adequately appreciate it, one has to think more in terms of investing for the future.  The character of Spider-Man has been, since his inception in comics from the 1960s, just as much about Peter Parker's personal foibles as it is about his battles with super-villains.  Behind all of the superpowers is a real young man with real problems, the same problems you and I have.  He has work pressures, financial issues, girlfriend problems, familial responsibilities -- not to mention saving the city from a wide array of malevolent forces.  Raimi keeps his film true to the spirit of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko creation by giving us Peter's story, which is the fuel that drives the action scenes.  This investment does come at a price early on, as much of the film remains static for a while, setting up situations, characters and the romance, and in fact, things seem like they are going nowhere for some time.  Then, just when you're lulled into the small stories, the big picture forms, and all of the build-up starts to pay off, not just once, but again and again, until it seems no matter where the story leads, Raimi can do no wrong.

Wisely, Raimi fleshes out Peter Parker fully, and all but strips away the background of the main villain of the flick, Dr. Octopus (Molina, Chocolat) -- a gamble that eventually reaps big rewards.  Other superhero films do little with their hero after introducing the origin, and afterward, spotlight the villains and their plots to the point where the hero becomes just a means to the villain's end.  Spider-Man 2 turns this formula completely around, and this move turns out to be the wisest decision of all.  Rather than be a study on the roots of villainy, Spider-Man 2 is about the psyche of the hero -- the inner turmoil that goes through the mind of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and his doubts as to whether he can live up to the expectations of his own ideals.  It's simplistically dealt with, yet still quite resonant.  Once introduced, Doc Ock is just as quickly forgotten, reintroduced later as the catalyst for the loose ends of Peter's story to come together in a climax with much more than good vs. evil riding on the line.  This is a battle between love vs. loneliness, and duty to self vs. the community.  There is an adage that says that if you want to change the world, you first have to start with yourself.  For Peter Parker, this battle between whether to take care of his own needs over those of people in real peril rages violently within him, to the point where he can no longer seem to function, either as a person or as a hero.

Raimi has made a conscious decision to inject humanity into his movie, as we see Spider-Man unmask himself many times throughout the film.  No doubt this was an intentional effort for us to always be aware that the Peter Parker/Spider-Man scenario is not a dichotomy, Jeckyll/Hyde scenario.  Spider-Man is always Peter, and Peter always Spider-Man, not a schizophrenic entity like Batman or a disguised persona like Clark Kent.  We want Spider-Man to be victorious not only because we want good to triumph over evil, but because we also don't want Peter Parker himself to fail.

As much as I love the character of Spider-Man, and want to love the movies based on the comic books, I still am not ready to ditch my credibility as a movie reviewer for the sake of unabashed fanboy-ism.  Doctor Octopus isn't a very intriguing villain, although certainly formidable, and the artificial intelligence, with mannerisms akin to serpents, given to his lovingly crafted limbs borders on the ridiculous.  The schmaltz effect does sometimes creep in, as when Spidey decides to try to save a child in a burning building, or when some subway commuters decide to return the favor and help protect Spider-Man.  Then there are the incredible coincidences, such as Doc Ock happening to break into the same vault of the bank that Peter and Aunt May are at, or that every super-villain just so happens to have a personal relationship of some sort with Peter Parker in some way.

But hey, this is the comic book world, after all, so it's really a credit to Raimi's delivery that one might even quibble that things are not always played in realistic fashion.  In a cinematic world full of special effects smorgasbords, all eye-candy and not a heart or mind to be found anywhere, it's refreshing to see a filmmaker try to make real and heartfelt story out of a mythos that came out of an old-fashioned funny book that told all its tales in 22-page increments.

Is the sequel better than the original?  That may be the subject of ceaseless debate, and I'm of two minds about it myself.  Considering that I had proclaimed the first Spider-Man the best superhero film ever made, the fact that I'm conflicted says a lot about Spider-Man 2.  Regardless of the conclusion, at the very least I can state with conviction that this undoubtedly the best sequel of a comic book adaptation ever made.

'Nuff said, true believers.  Now watch and enjoy.

-- Followed by Spider-Man 3.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo