4 Stars
Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127 minutes
Click to Expand Credits:

Some Spoilers Ahead

“Spider-Man 2,” the 900-lb gorilla of this summer’s major studio releases, opens today. The question on everyone’s mind is whether director Sam Raimi can capture the same lightning in a bottle that led the first Spider-Man to #5 on the all-time domestic box office ranking. Few are predicting that “Spider-Man 2” will break that record, but it could certainly give its predecessor a (you’ll pardon the expression) run for its money.

A better question might be: will “Spider-Man 2” join that exalted pantheon of comic book sequels that are actually better than the original? Will it take its place in the firmament with “Superman 2,” X2: X-Men United, and…uh, “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk?”

The answer to that second question is an emphatic “yes.” The initial offering in a comic movie franchise often suffers from having to present a detailed retelling of the character’s origin, and the first “Spider-Man” was no exception. Fortunately, “Spider-Man 2” plunges us into the story right off the bat. Having a full two hours to work with not only gives the audience plenty of action, but also the nuanced character development lacking in the original.

But not too nuanced. This is a summer blockbuster, after all.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a busy young man, what with attending college full-time, delivering pizzas, and taking pictures for the Daily Bugle. Unfortunately, he’s also failing classes, getting fired from his delivery job, and locked in a losing personality conflict with Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (the excellent J.K. Simmons). Being a superhero is emotionally rigorous as well: Peter’s Aunt May still misses Uncle Ben, and muses about what she’d ever do if she confronted the person responsible for his death (pssst, it was Peter); his best friend Harry is obsessed with exacting revenge on Spider-Man for murdering his father (psssst, Harry’s father – Norman Osborn – was actually the nefarious Green Goblin); and Peter is still unable to come to terms with his feelings for Mary Jane, who has become a successful actress/model and is rapidly moving on with her life. To top it off, his powers have started to fail him at inopportune moments. It begins to dawn on Peter that the Spider-Man gig might be more trouble than its worth.

In the meantime, Harry is heading up the Special Projects division at Oscorp (probably not a good idea, given his family history), and his meal ticket is the fusion project run by brilliant physicist Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). Peter and Octavius hit it off, and the good doctor invites Peter to view the unveiling of his reactor. For those of you have been living in a shack in Wyoming these last few months, I’m sorry to inform you that things go horribly wrong. Spider-Man appears in time to pull the plug on the reactor, but not before the specialized robot arms used by Octavius for the experiment have fused to his body. Even worse, they seem to be controlling his actions, compelling him to rob banks and commit other heinous deeds in order to complete his experiments.

I can hear you now…“Robot arms?” The justification for their existence is, admittedly, pretty weak, but certainly no more ridiculous than the idea of a “gamma bomb” or – I don’t know – a radioactive spider bite giving a teenager the ability to climb walls and spin webs. Lighten up.

Spider-Man’s initial victory over Doctor Octopus notwithstanding, events in Peter’s life are quickly reaching a boiling point. Mary Jane’s relationship with J. Jonah Jameson’s dashing astronaut son John is heating up, Harry is questioning their friendship, and Peter’s Spidey powers are as unreliable as ever. Inevitably (and because every superhero needs some sort of inner conflict) Peter ditches his Spider-Man costume. Is this the end for our friendly neighborhood wall crawler?

Right. Anyway, “Spider-Man 2” is a great deal of fun. Free of the necessary plot advancement devices of the first movie, Raimi and company have crafted quite a tale. If the CGI is still, at times, glaringly obvious, the acting has almost uniformly improved to make up for it. Maguire was perhaps unfairly taken to task for his understated performance in the original, but he redeems himself here, playing Spidey as more of a wiseass and Peter as more of an adult trying to make sense of his life. Molina is onscreen for a relatively small amount of time, which is a welcome departure, considering a certain studio’s insistence on devoting half of every “Batman” film to the villains. Even so, he brings a sense of humanity to his portrayal of Doc Ock, which was sorely lacking in Willem Dafoe’s deranged Green Goblin. Perhaps the biggest surprise is James Franco, who shows impressive range playing an increasingly tormented Harry. Of the main characters, Kirsten Dunst as MJ and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May are given the least to do (both need to be rescued at least once, of course). Raimi does provide another brief wet t-shirt shot, if that makes a difference.

Of MJ, that is. Not Aunt May.

Even for a comic book movie, however, there are some points where suspension of disbelief isn’t enough. Why Octavius needs to make a deal with Harry later in the film makes no sense, since by then he’s easily demonstrated his ability to pull buildings apart. The CGI, as mentioned before, is occasionally below average, and Raimi could probably stand to rein in the cameos (There’s John Landis! And there’s…that guy from “MAD TV!”). Finally, the resolution of the thrilling cliffhanger ending (which I won’t spoil here) was so mind-bogglingly dumb I could almost feel the folds in my cerebral cortex smoothing over.

That aside, it’s easily the best movie of the summer so far. Sony has obviously given Raimi more freedom to run the show, and the results are very entertaining. Whether or not you’re a fan of the comic book or the character, odds are you’ll still find something to like in “Spider-Man 2.”

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Posted on July 1, 2004 in Reviews by

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