OK, let’s get the harsh criticism out of the way first. The ending is problematic. Moving? Unquestionably. But it also has that “too-calculated-for-the-sequel” feel that’s becoming quite bothersome in modern action-adventures. Granted, “Spider-Man 3” is already staking out a May 2007 release date, and Sony’s already announced they have plans for a 6-7 movie cycle. But do we need a reminder that a sequel’s on the way? The movie’s that’ve done that over the years? “Van Helsing,” “Godzilla,” “Underworld,” “Hulk,” “X2: X-Men United.” How many of these have definite sequel plans? Just “X-Men,” which is, not surprisingly, the best of the bunch. Not that “Spider-Man 2” is in the same league with these movies (save for “X2”); it’s just disappointing they felt they had to be so heavy-handed in the approach. You’re also waiting for the other shoe to drop to subvert the emotional high achieved. Maybe it’s just my experience of watching “Buffy” and “Angel”- who could always be counted on to pull to rug out from under you- over the years that’ve gotten me conditioned the think that way. Plus, Aunt May’s speech about why the world needs a hero? Noble sentiments, but they drive the point home when it might be better to sneak it in there.
But I’m nitpicking and stalling- this is an f-ing great movie. Everything that worked the first time- and everything that didn’t- is improved upon 10 times over. What did I love in “Spider-Man 2?” Where do I start? I love the identity crisis Peter Parker faces when his attempts to do what’s right as Spider-Man effect his personal life. I love the estrangement that grows naturally between Peter and his best friends- love-of-his-life Mary Jane Watson and bitter best friend Harry Osborne- as his responsibilities as- and loyalty to- Spider-Man stand in the way of keeping in touch with those closest to him. I love the honest-to-goodness human feeling felt when Peter finally reveals to Aunt May his unwitting part in Uncle Ben’s death. And I love how when the film lives up to its’ shocking tagline- “A hero will be revealed”- the revelation is given the emotional weight it deserves instead of being glossed over.
But most of all, I love “Spider-Man 2” for one reason- that for the first time since this comic book-turned-movie phenom started for real (that would be with 1978’s “Superman”), but especially since 2000’s “X-Men” rejuvinated the idea, a comic book movie has shown me what only “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” did during their combined 12 seasons of television.
What’s that exactly? The consequences of being a superhero. The sacrifices that must be made. The dangers of revealing your true identity to those closest to you. The constant struggle between being who you want to be and accepting who you are. The dangers of being a superhero in general.
With such a subject, I’m grateful for Sony for bringing in great talent instead of great starpower, both in front of and behind the camera. In his second time out as the franchise’s director, Sam Raimi (the “Evil Dead” trilogy, “A Simple Plan,” “The Gift”) exudes a newfound confidence that as entertaining and ingeniously made as the first one was, is now clear was lacking from the 2002 original. Call it the Bryan Singer effect- director makes comic book film debut after a string of lower-budget successes (“The Usual Suspects,” “Apt Pupil”), and makes a better-than-average film first time out (“X-Men”), but when the sequel rolls around, studio fears of failure are relieved by way of box-office success and fan popularity, resulting in an even stronger and bolder film (“X2: X-Men United”) the second time around. With his second time out as “Spider-Man” director, Raimi not only pushes himself onto the A-list of modern filmmakers, he’s also made a distinctly Raimi-esque “Spider-Man” movie (the moment when Doc Ock takes apart an operating room will bring fond memories of “Evil Dead 2.”
And what a great script! Admittedly, David Koepp’s screenplay for film one doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny- the dialogue in particular (especially for Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin) is pretty bad, and the story- though involving- is thinly-written for an origin tale. So what did the filmmaker’s do? They hired Alvin Sargent, who’s best known for writing the Oscar-winning “Ordinary People” back in 1980, as well as cowriting 2002’s “Unfaithful.” Sargent is “Spider-Man 2’s” secret weapon, elevating the intelligence of the dialogue, but also giving the story a natural progression rarely seen in comic book movies where every scene and every development is warrented, and the story builds on what was established in the first film, and enriches it, taking it to new heights.
The chief benefactor of this treatment is the story between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, the woman he loves. Personally, I never felt Koepp’s treatment of this thread got the credit it deserved in film one. This isn’t an instance of two friends gradually falling in love and ending up together in the end. Peter and Mary Jane don’t even have a relationship as the film starts, but as Peter’s powers grow and his responsibilities become clear, we see how these two are thrust together, and form a bond that resonates into film two. And the truth is, they’re not even supposed to be lovers by the end of film one, as much as both may want that. Peter knows what the dangers of his responsibilities mean to Mary Jane, and as much as he wants to, he can not let her know the truth. Mary Jane, meanwhile, goes through a natural development of her character, first, not even knowing Peter exists to being so involved in his life she needs to know how he really feels. The pain in Kirsten Dunst’s eyes at the end of the original when Peter tells her he can only be her friend is palapable.
In “Spider-Man 2,” we see the consequences of Peter’s decision that they can only be “just friends.” They’re estranged from each other- he’s too busy fighting the city’s criminals to even make an 8pm curtain for her role in “The Importance of Being Earnest” (where we see Bruce Campbell’s wonderfully curt cameo as “Snooty Usher”), she’s tired of waiting for him, which leads to a romance with astronaut John Jameson, the son of “Daily Bugle” editor J. Jonah Jameson (the hilarious J.K. Simmons strikes again)- and it almost seems as though Peter hasn’t just blown a chance at love with MJ, but a friendship as well. How they come back together is one of the year’s most wonderful treats, as is the honesty with which Dunst- who continues to impress with smarts and spunk to match her sexiness- and Tobey Maguire as Peter- a role Maguire has made his own with and feeling- continue to bring these beloved comic book characters to life onscreen.
MJ isn’t the only one feeling estranged by Peter, however. There’s Aunt May (the wonderful Rosemary Harris), whose situation in a financial sense is almost as bad as Peter’s, and whose loneliness as the anniversary of Uncle Ben’s death comes closer inspires Peter to make a bold confession to his beloved aunt. But there’s also Peter’s friend Harry Osborne, who’s father- you’ll recall- was Norman Osborne (aka the Green Goblin), whom Spider-Man defeated in the original film. Since then, Harry has taken over Oscorp, and has become bitter that his best friend has continued his “friendship” with Spider-Man even after what he did to Harry’s father. Continuing the stellar work he started in film one as Harry is James Franco, who fully inhabits Harry’s cynicism and sense of betrayal and makes it known how he feels about Peter. Some might say too well known; though more a writing problem than with Franco, Harry’s betrayal is pretty heavy-handed in the way it’s depicted, and comes to define the character with less subtlety than was given the topic at the end of movie one. Granted, it’s a setup for the sequel- when Harry truly follows in his father’s footsteps- but Harry- and the talented actor who plays him- deserve better.
That’s something a lot of people said about the first film in terms of its’ visual effects as well- that it deserved better. And “Spider-Man 2” delivers the goods. Aided by a thrilling, more epic look to the film as shot by Raimi and cinematographer Bill Pope (“The Matrix” trilogy lenser gets a script to match his startling visuals this time around), the visual effects designed by a team led by John Dykstra (“Star Wars,” “Batman Forever”) avoid the cartoony quality of the first film and give- along with Pope’s camerawork- Raimi a more fluid ability to create exciting action sequences- that subway fight is one of the best recent action scenes in movies, ditto the bank- that go above and beyond what we’re used to…
…which leads me to why Spidey’s fighting- the villain. The first film had Willem Dafoe (“Platoon”) as the Green Goblin, probably Spidey’s most famous nemesis to those unfamiliar to the comic book, which Dafoe played as well as the original script would allow him. For “Spider-Man 2,” the filmmakers chose Otto Octavius, a mentor of Peter’s who- when an experiment in fusion goes arwy- is left with eight limbs, four of which are mechanical arms he was using in his experiment armed with an advanced form of artificial intelligence that begins to dig into Octavius’ psyche, turning him into the criminal Doctor Octopus (aka Doc Ock). Credit Raimi for once again rangling a great actor for a role rather than a major star, and casting Alfred Molina (“Frida,” the opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and a classic sequence in “Coffee and Cigarettes”) as “Spider-Man 2’s” heavy. Molina not only has the authority of presence to bring Octavius- both the charming scientist and the villainous sociopath he becomes- to life, he also brings the emotional gravity necessary for both the character’s tragic psychic demise and eventual redemption at the end. It’s one of the year’s best performances, and one of the most indelible of comic book movie villains, up there with Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and Jim Carrey’s Riddler.
Finally, there’s Danny Elfman. For one thing, is he not one of the best composers in the business today (his “Big Fish” score deserved to upset “Return of the King” at the Oscars). For another, do you even contemplate calling up another composer when first making a comic book film (his “Batman” and “Men in Black” scores are classics)? Now, you may recall I gave short shrift to Elfman in my review of the original “Spider-Man” by saying he wrote no memorable themes along the lines of his “Batman” scores. I have since eaten those words (check out the group audio commentary for “Spider-Man” on this site), and will continue to digest them until they dissolve after hearing “Spider-Man 2.” OK, it’s not all Elfman- some last-minute changes were made by John “The Passion of the Christ” Debney and Christopher “The Gift” Young when Elfman had to bolt for reasons unknown- but it’s classic Elfman nonetheless. As it was with the first “Spider-Man,” the ingenuity of Elfman’s score is more noticeable when you listen to the score soundtrack than it is when heard with the film, but once you hear it separate from the film, Elfman’s strengths as an inventive composer- no doubt brought out by Raimi’s equally-inventive direction- are shot in focus with razor-sharp clarity. It’s one of the true musical gems of the summer and the year.
“Spider-Man 2” leaves you with a high. Not only is it one of the elite films of this mediocre year (to say nothing of the most entertaining), but it leaves you with an emotional high unmatched by any movie this year. It leaves you in the same emotional place Peter is when- at the end- he’s not only reaffirmed his personal destiny- and lived up to his late uncle’s saying that “With great power, comes great responsibility.”- but he’s come to a crossroads that has opened up his life to possibilities seemingly impossible at the start of the film. In the end, “Spider-Man 2”- like the story it has told- leaves you with the belief that anything is possible.