June 28th, 2004
Gorgeous, spellbinding, and electrifying, "Spider-Man 2" launches itself up to the level of "The Empire Strikes Back" and "X2" as a genre sequel that builds on its forefather, eventually surpassing it to become something much more special and dynamic. Emotionally and thematically as deep as any richly layered drama, yet packed with stunning CGI to please the kids, "Spider-Man 2" is the finest comic book adaptation to come down the pipeline yet, and easily one of the best films of the year.
Two years after killing the Green Goblin, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (pitch-perfect Tobey Maguire) has settled into a lackluster life of continual unemployment, habitual tardiness at school, and heartbreak, watching his beloved Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) move on to other relationships. When a scientist named Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) loses control of a radical energy experiment, it leaves him with four mind-controlling robotic tentacles and a thirst to control the world. Now, for Peter to find true happiness, he must choose between his two personas; a decision which is made all the more urgent when “Doc Ock” comes calling at the bidding of a vengeance-seeking Harry Osborn (James Franco), the Goblin’s son.
One of the first things you notice about “Spider-Man 2” is the new widescreen aspect ratio the film was shot in (unlike the first film), which only hints at all the sprawling delights yet to come. Building, not retreating, from the groundwork laid in 2002’s sublime “Spider-Man,” the new sequel is a complete triumph of filmmaking and moviegoing, rivaling “The Empire Strikes Back” and “X2” as an epic follow-up genre masterpiece that meets, then swiftly surpasses, its forefather with an effortlessness that makes going to the movies such a treat.
“Spider-Man” was a delightful recreation of the superhero experience, cleverly mixing director Sam Raimi’s love for the ink and paint with the demands of the summer blockbuster, shaping the best comic book adaptation to come along since Richard Donner’s 1978 classic, “Superman.” “Spider-Man 2” starts things off on the same note, with an incredible opening title sequence which presents comic book illustrations (by Alex Ross) of the events in the first film, set again to Danny Elfman’s restrained, pulsing score. From there, the audience is given a treat of a sequence showing Peter’s state of employment (pizza delivery boy), and the abuse of his powers attempting to make sure delivery times are met. Watch this blitzkrieg opening, and that old electrifying Spider-Man feeling comes rushing back to the senses; the picture is off to an outstanding, brisk start.
Then our expectedly peppy and happy-go-lucky wall-crawler movie takes an unusual turn and begins to burrow into Parker’s psyche; questioning his dual role in the world, and the emotional damage he’s inflicting on himself due to his superhero status. “2” is actually more of a poignant character drama than a summer fireworks display, if you can believe it. Alvin Sargent’s (“Paper Moon,” “Unfaithful”) rich, deeply layered screenplay takes its time exploring Parker’s conflicts and pain, and also of those close to him, to whom Parker cannot reveal his secret. The picture is superbly acted by Maguire and the rest of the cast (most of which are a little hammy, but in a good way), giving the supporting actors more meaningful roles, as if they had just as much at stake here as Parker. “2” doesn’t resemble the traditional Hollywood thrill ride, and the enormous emotional investigation here is breathtaking (again, reminiscent of “Superman”), enriching the already scrumptious comic book flavor. The time is well spent understanding and appreciating the characters, and not worshipping the visuals. Raimi, one of the best and most underrated filmmakers working today, shows real adulation for his characters and actors, which pays off outstandingly in the overall film, deepening the relationships, finding the comical realities of Parker’s situation (Parker in a Laundromat washing his Spider-Man outfit), and upping the emotional ante in ways the genre rarely sees. In fact, the Spider-Man sequences act as more of an interruption to the central drama than the main attraction they’re intended to be. How funny is that?
Though I do label them as interruptions, they should really be called glorious eye-candy, goose bump-inducing interruptions. Buoyed by an enormous raise in budget and two years of hindsight to work on the special effects, “Spider-Man 2” burns the retina with the sheer beauty of its CGI and the complexity of the general visual scheme. Raimi, a natural born visualist, gets an opportunity to be his old self again in “2,” seen clearly in a simply bananas surgery-gone-wrong sequence with Doc Ock that could easily pass for an outtake from his classic, furious “Evil Dead” films. Punctuated with Raimi-trademarked snap zooms and swirling Spider-Man web-slinging photography (along with cameos by Raimi regulars Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, and Scott Spiegel), “2” preserves that pixie-stick joy of watching Parker swing from rooftop to rooftop, with the action escalated this time to the city buildings (thanks to Doc Ock’s wall-crawling tentacles), and the film’s best action sequence: a fight on an elevated train where Spider-Man must balance trying to exterminate Doc Ock and saving the passengers of the train as they speed toward certain doom
To write that “Spider-Man 2” is a delight from start to finish is underscoring the magnificent accomplishments on display here. Raimi hasn’t dumbed things down or gotten carried away with his new sandbox of money. The film doesn’t lazily try and emulate what’s come before, but instead builds on relationships and themes, even opening them up deliberately for the upcoming third installment (which, I angrily report, doesn’t come out tomorrow, but May, 2007), promising an even more complicated emotional spiderweb for the next sequel. If Raimi continues in this direction, he might be well on his way to the greatest superhero trilogy of all time.
My rating: A+