Spider-Man 2
directed by Sam Raimi
(Columbia, 2004)

Spider-Man 2 is poorly named.

While the brightly garbed superhero is never far from view in the new Marvel Comics-inspired action flick, the real focus of the movie is Peter Parker, the shy young man behind the mask. His life is a wreck: he can't hold down a job, even as a pizza deliveryman; his college grades are slipping despite a naturally brilliant, scientific mind; money is short, both for him and his only living relative; the love of his life, whom he spurned in the previous movie because he didn't want to put her in harm's way, is engaged to marry someone else; he's tired, worn to a frazzle by the many demands on his time; and his genetically enhanced spider powers are failing at odd, unexpected moments. He is a modern Sad Sack, his bad luck extending even to the laundromat (where colorful superhero duds have an adverse effect on his former whites).

The circumstances that lead to Parker's decision to renounce his Spider-Man identity for good -- and to later reclaim it, as we knew he would -- are an in-depth character study that is all too rare in a comic-book movie. (To be fair, it is a level of introspectiveness that is not at all rare in the Spider-Man comics.) The villain doesn't even make an appearance 'til far into the film, giving plenty of time for the development of Parker (Tobey Maguire, who remains a perfect choice for the role), his secret love Mary Jane Watson (a radiant Kirsten Dunst), his former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), his doting Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), hero-hating newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) and even Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), the man who eventually becomes the maniacal Dr. Octopus.

Octavius is a noble scientist, a man with a dream and the smarts to accomplish it. But something goes wrong in an experiment to generate an inexhaustible supply of pollution-free energy, and the nearly indestructible arms he created to manipulate volatile substances are fused to his spine in an accident that also kills his lovely wife. His moral center destroyed by the accident, he becomes a thief (and a particularly violent one, although most of his violence is bloodless on-screen) in order to recreate and perfect his failed experiment. A vital ingredient, however, is only available through young corporate backer Osborn, who still holds a mighty grudge against Spider-Man for the perceived murder of his dad in the previous movie. Thus, a clash between Spider and Octopus is inevitable -- and director Sam Raimi provides us with a grand clash indeed.

While the storyline pales a bit in comparison to the first Spider-Man movie, the special effects are a notch better. Computer-generated Spidey antics flow more smoothly and are more believable as he swings through the New York City skyline. The "live" tentacles of Ock's mechanical suit are incredibly real-looking; exhibiting individual personalities, they are more like the snakes in Medusa's hair than electronic automatons.

Spider-Man 2 is a strong sequel in what is currently the best comic-book franchise on the movie circuit. It also does a great job of setting up the sequel, placing one new villain in a key position for mayhem and hinting at another. And, perhaps more than any other superhero movie, it gives us a character who does the right thing for no other reason than he can, and he knows he should.

But, ultimately, Spider-Man 2 succeeds because we care more about Peter and Mary Jane than about Spider-Man, and Dr. Octavius is a more fully realized human being than Dr. Octopus. It's funny, it's poignant, it's real. Raimi has given us a human story with a superhero in it, and that's exactly what this story needed to be.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 24 July 2004

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