Let’s just chime right in with the chorus, shall we? Spider-Man 2 is the greatest superhero movie ever made. It goes well past amazing — although amazing it is — and enters that rare realm of extraordinary, approaching its subject with the kind of depth and sophistication usually reserved for dramatic movies not based on comic books. Relating its narrative with both gravity and a supreme lightness of being, the movie broaches its fundamental theme of heroism with intelligence and profundity. And it does so without skimping on the thunderous, heart-pounding action we’ve come to expect from such films. Spider-Man 2 ensnares us in a web of unexpected emotions, all the while entertaining the hell out of us. It’s a defining moment for the genre.
Much of the credit for the movie’s brilliance goes to director Sam Raimi, who also directed the first film and has agreed (thankfully) to helm the third, as well as screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia) and an ensemble who perform to the fullest of their considerable abilities.
The first installment was enjoyable enough, though it suffered from some glaring flaws — notably Willem Dafoe’s scenery-inhaling Green Goblin. Raimi and company bring out a bigger, better villain this time around — Dr. Otto Octavius, aka Doc Ock. A kind-hearted scientist whose experiments with fusion go terribly awry, Octavius winds up with four mechanical arms merged to his body and a villainous mindset that is driven by the usual megalomaniacal need for mass destruction.
Unlike most superhero films, the focus in Spider-Man 2 is not on Doc Ock and his fights with the web swinger (although the three battle royales that exist are mind-blowing showstoppers) — it’s on Peter Parker’s inner-turmoil over his new life as a voluntary crime-fighter. His selflessness has taken a toll — he’s stressed beyond all measure. Inevitably, he trashes his suit with a resolute “I am Spider-Man no more.”
We know this won’t last. It’s Parker’s Aunt May who puts it into perspective when she tells her nephew “I believe there’s a hero in all of us,” part of a mid-film soliloquy delivered by Rosemary Harris with the kind of eloquence usually reserved for Shakespeare. All of the main characters in Spider-Man 2 engage in heroism of some form or another, and their actions give the movie a strong dramatic potency.
Raimi blatantly defies what have become conventions in a genre that, as of late, has been far too glutted with lycra-suited crusaders. The first Spider-Man bore Raimi’s markings, but the nervous “Will we recoup our investment?” breath of the corporate heavies fogged its frames. This one bears Raimi’s full unadulterated stamp and some of its most impressive moments — including an alarming, horrific scene in a hospital — recall two of the director’s earliest masterpieces, Darkman and Evil Dead 2. The action sequences play out with a bloodless but masonry-shattering violence that rumbles the theater and instills in us a genuine sense of peril.
Raimi understands how to conduct action sequences so that they play out with clarity, never once devolving into a rushed jumble of seemingly random images. More importantly, he understands that action isn’t everything, and that a slow dramatic build-up must be employed for the thrills to achieve intensity. The director takes his sweet time brewing up the movie’s central romantic conflict between Parker and Mary Jane Watson, as well as exploring the young man’s residual guilt over his part in the death of his Uncle Ben.
There’s hardly an off performance in the movie, and a few — Harris’s Aunt May and Alfred Molina’s gloriously menacing Doc Ock — are even Oscar-worthy. Tobey Maguire seems more at ease this time with the title role, playing the character with a canny mix of self-deprecation, puppy dog pining, and heroic bravado. James Franco’s Harry Osborn (the Green Goblin’s son) is a little one-note in his obsessive need for avenging pop’s death, but his inclusion is primarily a bridge to the next film, where his character will likely play a more significant role.
Special acclaim to J.K. Simmons’s uproariously manic J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of The Daily Bugle. The character has more screen time than in the first film, and Simmons doesn’t waste a second of it, barking orders and intimidating underlings with a juicy, over-the-top relish. The only weak link is Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane. The actress possesses a dreamy, droopy look that is supposed to pass for romantic but comes off more like a commercial for Sominex. She could put a hypnotist to sleep.
Like a spider’s web, there is a magnificent beauty and elaborate intricacy to Spider-Man 2. Richly poignant, vigorously thrilling, and abundantly playful, it swings, it skyrockets, it soars. It’s a genuine marvel.