Spider-Man 2 (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Spider-Man 2 has all the elements of a good, but not great, superhero motion picture. While lacking the tragic grandeur that made last year's Hulk such a unique experience, Spider-Man 2 fills the void with solid character development, self-referential humor, effects-enhanced action, and (unfortunately) talky pop psychology. A worthy sequel to the 2002 blockbuster, Spider-Man 2 will deposit fans somewhere on the satisfaction spectrum between quietly pleased and overjoyed. Although not as economical with its scenes as the first Spider-Man, this film nevertheless advances the leftover threads from its predecessor, tells its own self-contained tale, and dangles enough bait to hint at where Spider-Man 3 will be heading.

The movie - at least the first half - is a little light on action and heavy on talk. This is not an inherently bad thing, except that a lot of the dialogue relates to Peter Parker's soul-searching: should he sacrifice his inner desires for the greater good of mankind (cue his dead uncle's pronouncement: "With great power comes great responsibility") or give up crime fighting to become an ordinary guy, pursue his dreams, and get the girl. This material would work better if it wasn't re-hashing ground that was effectively covered in the first film. Although it's useful for character-building, there's a little too much of it, and it threatens to bog down the proceedings. Fortunately, the second hour, which contains all three major action sequences, is better paced, leading to a rousing climax that works on multiple emotional levels. There are a trio of endings, all of which satisfy in their own ways.

Spider-Man 2 picks up a couple of years after the conclusion of the original Spider-Man. By this time, the costumed alter-ego of geeky Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has become a New York City legend. Despite being decried by the Daily Bugle as a "menace," Spidey (as he is affectionately known) is as big a hero to some as he is a villain to others. In staying true to his calling as a crime fighter, Peter must stay away from the girl of his dreams. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) loves Peter, and Peter loves her, but he can never let her know, because he's afraid his enemies would use that information against them. So he pines in silence, and she becomes engaged an astronaut. Meanwhile, a brilliant physicist named Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who is working for Peter's best friend, Harry Osborne (James Franco), has mastered a way to generate a controlled fusion reaction that can provide enough energy to fuel an entire city. Using mechanical arms grafted into his spinal column, he begins to manipulate the mini-sun he creates, but things go disastrously wrong. When the dust has settled, Dock Ock is no longer the man he was - he's insane and obsessed, and determined to rid Manhattan of Spider-Man. But, like Clark Kent in Superman 2, Peter has decided to abandon his powers so he can love a woman - and just at the time when the world most needs him.

One could argue that Spider-Man's most compelling and dangerous comic book adversary is Doctor Octopus, and Alfred Molina develops the villain into something more than just another mad genius. He's certainly more intimidating than Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin. With his four mechanical arms (to go along with two natural arms and two legs), Doc Ock matches (or exceeds) Spidey when it comes to brains, brawn, and reflexes. Stripped of a conscience and set adrift in a current of amorality, Octavius represents one of the most dangerous screen interpretations of a comic book bad guy to date. And Molina finds the right balance between being too low-key and chewing on the scenery.

Tobey Maguire is back as the web-crawler and Kirsten Dunst makes her second appearance as his One True Love. James Franco shows a marked improvement in his acting as the conflicted Harry, whose desire to fill his father's shoes is matched only by his hatred of Spider-Man. The return of so many familiar faces (including Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben and Dafoe as the Goblin in cameos) assures a strong sense of continuity with the first film. If there's an acting standout, however, it's not any of the major players. Instead, it's J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle. Simmons was one of Spider-Man's small pleasures. Here, in an expanded role, he dominates every scene he's in with his perfect timing and his drill sergeant-like delivery of dialogue. Simmons not only embodies the Jameson from the comic books, he enhances the character.

Spider-Man 2 is essentially three movies rolled into one: a traditional superhero story, a coming-of-age tale, and a romance. The third element, which is likely to find more favor with 13-year old girls than with 13-year old boys, isn't just an extraneous element. It's crucial to the development of both the plot and the characters, and it is better resolved than in the first film. Then there's the humor. One of Spider-Man 2's strengths is that it doesn't fear occasionally lightening up. So we get a lady singing the theme song from the animated "Spider-Man" TV series ("Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can…"), Spidey taking an elevator and complaining that his costume is too tight in the crotch, Bruce Campbell playing a snooty usher, and Peter Parker displaying an aghast expression when learning that Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) gave away his comic book collection.

The special effects are, on the whole, a little less successful than in the previous outing - probably because there are more of them. At times, especially during some of the complex battle maneuvers or when he's slinging his way high above Manhattan, it's pretty obvious that Spider-Man is computer generated. The key to CGI is not to overuse the technique. Spider-Man flirted with the line. Spider-Man 2 crosses it, although barely, and not in a way that it becomes a serious detriment. And there are some marvelous scenes, such as when Spider-Man tries to stop an out-of-control train, or when Peter Parker leaps atop Mary Jane to keep her from harm's way. (That may be the most impressive sequence in the entire movie, and it's in the trailers.)

Spider-Man 2 is about 20 minutes too long. Although Sam Raimi's direction is generally solid (and, in some scenes, flawless), the film's middle act has instances when it seems repetitive and exposition-heavy. The strength of the climax and denouement almost renders such concerns moot, but they cannot be completely dismissed, since they prevent this film from ascending to the pinnacle of superhero movies. Nevertheless, even though it does not eclipse Superman, Hulk, or even X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2 proves that this series has plenty of juice left. As long as this creative team remains in place, I look forward to more adventures with my friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Spider-Man 2 (United States, 2004)

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent
Cinematography: Bill Pope
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2004-06-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1