I saw the original “Spider-Man” twice in theaters, and twice I was disappointed. Cartoonish CGI took me out of the action and the scenes covering Peter Parker’s history and background were as provocative as your typically lame plot on the WB. But if “Superman 2” could improve on its 1978 original, I figured so could “Spider-Man.” I couldn’t have been more correct.
As per the usual with Marvel films, the opening title sequence is a lengthy comic-book montage preparing the audience for the live version feature, but unlike the eternally long introduction to the bore-fest “Hulk,” the intro to “Spider-Man 2” is useful in that it recaps the major events from the first film; events which many critics argue boggled down Part 1 because it had to spend so much time covering the basics and neglected the meat of the plot.
I am one of those critics and was pleased to see the recap in the title sequence and not in the opening act. Because Part 2 is all about business and cares little about reminiscing the past. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is now in college -- studying fusion physics -- apparently not going the route of college athletes who major in simple subjects so they can do more important things outside of academia.
We see that Peter is struggling. Because crime-fighting doesn’t bring a paycheck, he must deliver pizzas to make ends meet. When that doesn’t work out, his professor (Dylan Baker) threatens to fail him for not showing up to class. On top of that, MJ (Kirsten Dunst) gets engaged to an astronaut who was “the first to play football on the moon” after several disappointing years of waiting for Peter who always stood her up.
It’s not easy being a superhero, and “Spider-Man 2” is the first film to perfectly demonstrate that fact. We pity Peter Parker. We pity him when he forgets that his blue and red Spidey suit should never be washed together with white socks. And when he forgets his own birthday, and when his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) can’t pay the mortgage, and when he can’t tell her how he was responsible for Uncle Ben’s death. For the first time we understand so well why Peter can’t confess his burning love to MJ. Being a superhero (and a hated one at that) is lonely business.
And let’s not forget the biggest role of being a superhero: fighting the current villain. This time around the enemy Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who while sane has come up with a way to use fusion to provide a cheap energy source alternative. Octavius is being studied by Peter for a research paper and they soon form a friendly relationship. Octavius works out of a laboratory on the East River and is on the eve of mastering fusion technique worthy of the Nobel Prize.
He constructs four indestructible tentacles to handle the unstable materials and uplinks them to his spine so he use his brain to control them. To keep the arms from becoming independent serpents, an installed computer chip acts like a car’s governor and prevents the machine from overriding Octavius’ orders. And if that chip were to brake, you ask?
Enter Doc Ock, a once well-intentioned scientist now prisoner of his own device. He wants to rebuild his model but is dependent on Harry Osborn (James Franco) to provide him with the necessary elements. Harry, Peter’s best friend, agrees to fund Ock’s project in exchange for Spider-Man, whom Harry believes killed his father, the Green Goblin, in the first film; of course Harry is unaware of both Peter’s and his father’s alter identities.
The special effects are first rate and much improved over the first movie, which to me looked like a cartoon character inserted into a real background. Here Spider-Man looks darker, richer, thus you believe it’s really Toby Maguire swinging from building to building. Also improved over the first film - Raimi revamps the pace with a sudden slow-motion technique to emphasize Spider-Man’s “spidey” senses.
However, those senses don’t always seem to be functioning. Often his webshot fails to activate -- providing some comical material in the process -- and he appears clumsier in this film attributed to the growing stress of the job. Again, this film argues that being a superhero is more sacrifice than glory.
Being a Sam Raimi film, you can of course expect a Bruce Campbell cameo, Raimi’s hero from the infamous “Evil Dead” series. Speaking of, any fan of the cult classic will notice Raimi’s homage to Campbell’s chainsaw by the distinctive focus on the surgical buzzsaw in the hospital room scene. Even the cinematography changes to outfit the classic style of the “Evil Dead” movies. It doesn’t last long, but long enough to make the “boomstick” fans rejoice. But Raimi’s directing is short of perfect, and he allows a few unforgivable clichés to surface which bit me harder than a mosquito on a wet campground:
When MJ is performing in the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, she stops mid-line to observe Parker's empty seat in the audience. Every movie that has a play or Broadway scene does this! As if actors can observe an entire audience and deduct that the one vacant seat in the house is the one for their missing friend. And then there’s the cliché where a dead victim is wheeled out of a crime scene but left completely exposed until taken outside so the camera (we) can identify the person -- after which the sheet is immediately pulled over the body.
Perhaps I’m being too picky but overused clichés take moviegoers out of the experience. For the most part, Raimi handles his scenes well but is a little unstable when directing a scene that has a lot of extras on the set. For example, there’s a scene where Doc Ock breaks into a bank vault but no one notices until he finally hurls the massive vault door at Peter who’s sitting only fifteen feet away. There’s also a scene where Peter is standing across the street from a burning building but doesn’t notice it until it's completely engulfed. Often if something isn’t in the camera’s focus, the characters don’t notice that it exists. It’s a filming error I believe Sam Raimi is usually above.
The subway train scene with Ock and Spidey is excellent, but short of flawless. When the two terrorize the train cars during a hand-to-hand duel, a shot shows the passengers inside the cars aware of what’s going on, but in the next frame the people look pacified until Spidey crashes through the windows. Again, if it’s not in the camera’s focus, it doesn’t exist.
Save for a few quibbles, “Spider-Man 2” is a fun and exciting film, with sharp special effects, a great villain and best of all a solid story which pays attention to its characters -- whereas the first film and most other Marvel movies gloss over them with the bare minimum. So don’t think I’m being too hard on the movie -- after all, I’m the guy who didn’t really like the first one.