When I first saw Spider-Man 2 in theaters in 2004 I considered the film to be a huge quantum leap in terms of character depth and technical sophistication. But after eight years worth of comic book movie "evolution", I don't regard Sam Raimi's second spider-flick to be quite as hallowed as I originally surmised. In fact, it seems to port over some of the more annoying flaws of its predecessor and also introduces a few tonal bugaboos which would eventually go on to overwhelm the third film of the trilogy.
Mercifully, Raimi's undeniable love for the comic book's iconography and lore still shines though. And although no-one should ever believe that a trailer is truly indicative of a film's overall quality, I gotta admit that this one is pretty durned slick:
Two years have transpired since the end of the first film. Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire) is doing his darnest to prevent his Spider-duties from interfering with the rest of his life but it just isn't working. He's chronically late for his pizza delivery job and gets fired. His grades are slipping. He lives in virtual squalor. J. Jonah Jameson is using his position as publisher of The Daily Bugle to turn the court of public opinion against our favorite web-head.
His personal relationships are also in the dumper. When he confesses his involvement in Uncle Ben's violent death to Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), she's understandably disturbed. His tenuous friendship with Norman Osborn (James Franco) is dangling by a thread since the industrialist's son still believes that Spider-Man killed his father and Peter is guilty by association.
To make matters worse, his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is on life support. After foiling a street crime as Spider-Man, he arrives late for M.J.'s performance of The Importance of Being Earnest (natch!). He's barred from the theater by a power-mad doorman (played to asshole-ish perfection by Bruce Campbell) and his absence is the last straw for Ms.Watson. The next thing you know she's engaged to John Jameson, J.J.J.'s pride and joy.
When all of this comes to a head at once, Peter also inexplicably begins to lose his spider-powers. After coming to the realization that his life's been crap ever since Spider-Man came into it, he turfs the costume and instantly finds himself in a comically cheery montage featuring the vocal stylings of B.J. Thomas. I just love how Raimi channels his inert geekyness here by recreating an actual comic panel from Amazing Spider-Man # 50.
Little does he know, there are circumstances brewing that will make Spidey's retirement more premature then that of Brett Favre's. Brilliant physicist Otto Octavius is attempting to create a "manageable" method for nuclear fusion. To accomplish this, Octavius has developed four prehensile robotic arms which posses a form of independent intelligence. As one might gather, the experiment goes horribly wrong, Otto's wife is killed, his robotic arms go rogue and Spider-Man's final intervention makes for the perfect scapegoat.
Honestly, there's reason to check Sam Raimi's fanboy papers a this point. In addition to the example shown above we also get Aunt May's hair in a bun, J. Jonah Jamesons' mathematically precise flat-top, Spidey swinging creatively on his web-line and "Doc Ock" wearing sunglasses, smoking a cigar and stealing sacks of coin-filled bags from a bank. All of these images are gloriously iconic and a real thrill to see up on the screen.
The CGI models for the actors are also vastly superior to anything seen in the previous film. No longer does it feel as if we're suddenly watching an old cartoon whenever a fight breaks out. This vast improvement to the visual effects really helps sell the inventive action set-pieces. Raimi and company clearly put a lot of thought into how these two deadly enemies would use their powers creatively against one another in a fight. In fact, the train car and bank heist scenes make me positively giddy with excitement whenever I watch them.
After the resounding success of the first film, Raimi is also clearly more comfortable in employing his own unique visual style. In fact, if you comped in some strategic gore effects in the scene where Octavius escapes from the hospital, you'd end up with a moment just as intense as anything on display in the first two Evil Dead films. I love his gratuitous use of close-ups, reflections, and shadows as well as the goofy shots which track alongside moving objects. This sequence also features more hyperactive zooms then a Hong Kong martial arts flick.
Again, the performances are quite solid. Although Tobey Mcguire is still playing Peter Parker as if he's Toby Flenderson from The Office, he's still very sympathetic and we really want to see him succeed. This all comes with a very major gripe, however.
The annoying trend established in the first film in which Spider-Man whips his mask off at the drop of a hat almost becomes parody here. In fact, there's at least three scenes where Mcguire willingly unmasks. The only motivation I can see for this is pure actor's ego. After all, you don't see Christian Bale tearing off the cowl every twenty minutes in the new Batman flicks. Frankly, I consider this to be a laughable affront to the character's integrity and one that's barely excusable for such a petty reason.
Macguire's obvious insecurity doesn't make a lot of sense to me since Alvin Sargent's script gives him plenty to do as Peter Parker. Almost too much to do since there are a few baffling moments that really don't go anywhere. For example, what the heck was the point of the Russian girl-next-door/cookies n' milk sub-plot? It really adds nothing to the story and, if anything, seems to herald the Titanic-like mistakes that eventually sunk Spider-Man 3.
There are even more overt signs which presage the coming fall, including some barely-appropriate moments of oddball humor. This isn't completely unheard of in a Sam Raimi flick. Even when he was making some of the goriest movies in cinema history, Raimi just couldn't resist injecting subversive, coal black, Three Stooges-style humor into the proceedings.
Spider-Man 2 is no exception. Tobey Maguire gets serially abused by the background actors. Spider-Man is forced to take an awkward elevator ride during which he tells a fellow passenger that the outfit "rides up in the crotch". Peter Parker also endures a montage which features a barely-ironic application of the brainlessly cheery anthem "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head".
Tonally this makes the film rather schizophrenic; a pall which would eventually consume the third entry. But Raimi seems to know his boundaries here. As a result, we're left with a relatively deep, nuanced and consistently cock-eyed little comic book film. I just wish someone has done an intervention at this point and convinced him show some restraint in the finale.
As for Kirsten Dunst, I honestly would have shit-canned my agent by now if I was her. Although the costumes, effects and action sequences are all vastly improved, Raimi and cinematographer Bill Pope keep finding creative ways to photograph her poorly. Kirsten is still as cute, charming and authentic as ever, but man, they have no clue how to film her. Sometimes she looks incredible but other times she looks as if they only gave her five minutes to get onset after she'd fallen asleep in her trailer.
Harry Osborn continues to de-evolve into a bitter, greedy corporate prick and James Franco does a serviceable job with the material, even though delivering most of his lines through clenched teeth seems to be his default interpretation. Rosemary Harris, on the other hand, continues to be the heart and soul of these films and she effortlessly exudes genuine charm as Aunt May.
Pity the screenwriters saddled her with that horrendously transparent "I believe there's a hero in all of us" speech. The sentiment is strong and I understand why it's there, but man, it just doesn't sound like anything that would ever come out of someone's mouth in the real world. Although Harris does her best with it, it comes off as hack screenwriting; like something theoretical that probably looked better on paper.
The two stand-out performances actually come courtesy of the film's antagonists. Audiences got their wish and J.K. Simmons has an expanded role here as J. Jonah Jameson. He's gleefully capricious, abusive and bombastic as he barks out one comically acerbic line after another. He's like a human machine gun of avarice and venom. Frankly, I'd love to see a sitcom featuring him and Ted Raimi running The Daily Bugle together.
But it's Alfred Molina that really steals the show. He has enough of the Doc Ock's physical attributes to inhabit the part and he also does something very interesting with his portrayal. In Spider-Man 2 Otto Octavius isn't just a megalomaniacal nutcase who wants to spread anarchy for financial gain or get revenge on a world that's doesn't understand his "brilliance". Molina's "villain" just wants to vindicate himself. The only problem is, his octo-arms have short-circuited his ethical barometer.
Melina is well-equipped to bring all of these facets of Doc Ock to life. Aided by a patient script, we get to see him affectionate towards his wife, crushed by his failures, enslaved by his scheme and ruthless in its execution. Credit the screenwriters for keeping the final resolution in the conflict between Spider-Man and Doc Ock true to their original story, even if it isn't exactly in step with comic book lore.
All told, Spider-Man 2 succeeds in expanding the world of Peter Parker, while it fires way on its technical cylinders and increases expectations as to what a comic book movie is capable of. Unfortunately you can also see destructive, self-indulgent influences beginning to creep in. I really firmly believe that this is what caused the third film to crash and burn.
But that, True Believers, is a tale for another time...