“Spider-Man 2” is the kind of mainstream blockbuster film that Hollywood wishes it could make every time they invest over $100 million. Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead 2,” “The Quick and the Dead”) has always been known for delivering a knockout visual flair to his movies, so it’s no surprise that “Spider-Man 2” features not only some of the best special effects ever put on film, but also a wild energy just barely harnessed by the screen. The real revelation is that the director has evolved into an absolute master storyteller.
The screenplay, by Alvin Sargent (“Ordinary People”) gives Tobey Maguire a chance to deepen the character of Peter Parker. Now that the origin of Spidey is out of the way, Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson) really get a chance to shine. Once again, it’s their relationship that drives the film, and Raimi devotes ample time to them. The sequel is identical in tone to the first film, so it naturally feels like a continuation of its story. Maguire and Dunst feel like old friends we haven’t seen in a year or two, and their chemistry once again is palpable.
With Peter experiencing the inevitable spell with self-doubt that comes with being a feared and venerated superhuman, the film could have been bogged down from too much somberness. In addition, pal Harry Osborn (James Franco), who now runs his father’s OsCorp, is drinking heavily. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is still mourning her husband’s tragic death and is struggling to pay the rent. And Mary Jane, still pining for Peter, is engaged to an astronaut who plays football on the moon. But Raimi has a fondness for wacky comedy that is put to unexpected good use in “Spider-Man 2,” especially in its first half. He turns the myth of the superhero on its ear whenever he gets the chance. In one hilarious scene, our costumed hero must share an uncomfortable elevator ride with an ordinary New Yorker.
The villain this time around is Dr. Otto Octavius, or Doc Ock (played by Alfred Molina in an understated performance). While not nearly as nuts-o as Willem Dafoe’s helmeted Green Goblin, Raimi wisely lets us see the good doctor’s face. It gives the fight scenes added weight to be able to see Molina’s expressions. Octavius is first identified by his wiser traits, and a proper balance between the advancement of science and the good of mankind is firmly in place. But after he accidentally causes the death of his wife, his maniacal side (and four mechanical tentacles) takes over.
“Hulk” may have brought the comic book look to the screen with its shifting panels and split screens, but “Spider-Man 2” captures that “classic comics” feel perfectly. In the midst of some highly improbable situations, Raimi’s obvious affection for the characters makes the implausible easy to overlook. He is able to toggle between heartfelt emotional scenes and good-natured humor as effortlessly as a mid-80s Steven Spielberg. Mix in bravura action sequences at just the right moments that serve only to intensify (and never distract from) the story, and you have (as Spidey might say) “one heck of a good time.”
The special effects are absolutely first-rate. In the first movie, there were moments where Spider-Man’s movements looked very CGI. Now, the effects are so seamless that you no longer have to suspend disbelief to enjoy the action. Spider-Man simply sails across New York City on his webs and Doc Ock crawls up buildings with his 4 mechanical tentacles. That is what really is happening. Obviously the first “Spider-Man” was enormously popular and people know what to expect from the action scenes. So Raimi has upped the ante greatly with ultra-speedy camera angles and 360-degree movements that swoop up and down buildings, then swerve violently to either side. It’s the only theater experience I’ve had that can be compared to riding a rollercoaster. There were at least two moments where I actually ducked.
What keeps the story together, however, is Peter’s own personal dilemma. Uncle Ben’s words about great power and responsibility still haunt him. And it’s Octavius, of all people, that offers a similar kernel of truth, telling Peter that “gifts are obligations.” Peter’s identity crisis culminates in a brilliant scene on a subway, where New York City residents get a glimpse of their menace/hero up close. It has a resonating tenderness that no superhero movie is likely to approach anytime soon. And it’s just one example of what a perfectly realized piece of entertainment “Spider-Man 2 truly is.