Spider-Man 2

5 stars


2nd September 2004

"With great power comes great responsibility." These words more than any others were hammered home in the first instalment of Spider-Man, an ethos passed down from his uncle that Peter Parker came to live by. Bizarrely enough, it became something of a motto for director Sam Raimi, too; the plaudits he received for the revival of the superhero genre were gushing and the kudos plentiful. Conversely, Spider-Man also unintentionally opened the floodgates for a wave of crappy hero flicks, bombarding the average cinemagoer with useless superheroes that only the most ardent comic nerd would struggle to give a shit about. So, while Raimi clearly has the power, he most definitely holds the responsibility of delivering an equally successful sequel.

Spider-Man 2 is a better film than its predecessor. It's just plain better. That's not to pour scorn on Raimi's first effort, because what it lacked in polish it made up for in humour and humility, playing close to fans' hearts while telling an exciting story that appealed to a wide audience. But once the fanboy mist had lifted, it turned out Spider-Man was just a movie after all, and a flawed one at that. Action sequences were hit and miss (with some of the web slinging scenes a little too optimistic for the available CGI), and while Willem Dafoe revelled in the role of the Green Goblin, with his mask on he became a walking, talking action figure. The sequel has none of these problems - Spider-Man 2 is a fully rounded movie, taking the best aspects of the first film, adding a fresh new villain into the mix and polishing those grubby special effects to perfection.

Turns out life as the amazing Spider-Man isn't quite so amazing after all. Fighting crime tends to cut into the day, and when it's not getting Peter Parker fired, it's causing him to miss his classes and, most importantly of all, is driving him and his one true love apart. Ah, Mary-Jane Parker, fire red hair and skin as pale as alabaster, it's no wonder Parker lives just to be in her presence. But as close as he gets, and as close as she wants them to be, Peter simply cannot let himself get involved for Mary-Jane's safety. Tired of playing the good guy while his own life turns to crap, Parker throws in the towel and sets in search of reclaiming his old, geeky life. Unfortunately for him, there's a hot new scientist on the scene with a revolutionary experiment that couldn't possibly go wrong and cause the citizens of New York grievous harm. Could it?

Alfred Molina is Dr. Otto Octavius, a brilliant fusion scientist that's apparently not-so brilliant when he accidentally fuses four mechanical arms to his body. While he'd love to re-finance the experiment again (with the help of his four new friends, who come in rather handy robbing banks), that pesky arachnid just won't give him a break. Doc Ock is a much more believable villain than the Green Goblin, he has a genuine reason for doing what he does - he's the genius stretching beyond the realms of reason in the pursuit of the impossible, compared to the plastic fantastic Willem Defoe, who just went a bit mental. His scraps with Spider-Man rank among the best Good Vs Evil battles in superhero history, with every punch thrown heavy with purpose. They aren't just fighting for the sake of a good punch-up, they're both fighting because they think it's the right thing to do. Ultimately, it seems neither of them are as sure in themselves as they think they are.

Raimi almost, almost dropped the ball with his leading man. Tobey Maguire's back problems at one point ruled him out of shooting, and the director came within a phone call of hiring the mopey Jake Gyllenhaal. This would have been an error of nuclear proportions - Gyllenhaal, while undoubtedly a talented guy, doesn't have the humility and pathos that Maguire nailed so perfectly in the first movie. Maguire thankfully returned for the sequel and reminds us why he was made for the role in the first place. With his mask on, he's athletic, nimble, a life-saver. Unveiled and bedecked in glasses, tank top and cords, he's completely and totally believable as Parker's lovable loser. It's truly a transformation to behold when a guy with such a gormless look about him can portray this incredible superhero with the level of power and inner-strength that he does - you never bought that Clark Kent was a mild-mannered guy, but you never for a second think that Peter Parker could possibly be Spider-Man.

What makes Spider-Man 2 a wholly fulfilling movie going experience isn't the improved special effects, which are much more satisfying. It's not the often hilarious incidental scenes (including a Bruce Campbell cameo), nor the skilful direction of Raimi (who's proving himself to be quite the Peter Jackson), but the eloquence of the story. It's not the confrontations between hero and villain that drive the plot, but the relationships between Parker and his Aunt, his friends and his public. When Spidey isn't shooting webs or catching crooks just like flies, he's tugging at your heartstrings; the scenes between Peter and Mary-Jane are genuinely touching, even if at times you get the feeling you've already seen the same scene and heard the same dialogue about 10 minutes previous. Thankfully, Raimi doesn't cram the movie's running time with unnecessary set-pieces or shoehorned action sequences, preferring to develop Parker's character and his struggle to make right with the world, with his friends and with the woman he loves.

In the end, you know Peter Parker will make the right decision, but it's all about getting to where you want to go and the route you take getting there. Sam Raimi could have taken the dark path, the easy money, churned out the franchise builder. But he didn't. Through a stellar young cast, an unmatched directorial edge and the kind of writing that you just aren't supposed to see in superhero movies, he's created a film that neatly sidesteps its caped contemporaries and exists in its own right as a classic movie. Like Spider-Man himself, you always knew he'd make the right decision. But it was a hell of a ride seeing how he'd get there.

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