There have been a lot of comic book movies in the last fifteen years, none of them better than Spider-Man 2. Some people look down on the genre, figuring that comic book heroes are nothing more than men (or women) in tights running around fighting strange-looking villains. This film may change all that. Iíve been a comic book fan for a long time, but never have I seen such an intelligent, emotionally resonant screen adaptation. Spider-Man 2 takes the genre to a whole new level.
We find Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) in a bad spot during the opening scenes. Heís failing his college courses, he was just fired from his part-time job as a pizza delivery boy, and Ė most damaging Ė his true love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), is pursuing an acting career as well as a new romance. Peter realizes that he has sacrificed a lot of important things in order to be Spider-Man and, quite frankly, heís not sure if it was all worth it. As if this torment wasnít enough, he also finds his spider powers occasionally going on the fritz, a subconscious expression of his desire to stop being a superhero and just be a normal young man.
Eventually Peter decides to follow through on that desire. He hangs up his outfit and makes plans to pull up his grades and win over Mary Jane. Itís not as easy to do as he thinks it will be, especially since New York is in danger of the dreaded Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). Doc Ock begins as Otto Octavius, a brilliant scientist working on a fusion project that will create inexpensive, reliable energy. Octavius is a good man, but his experiment goes awry. The mechanical arms he attaches to his brain and central nervous system as part of the scientific demonstration assume control of his body, turning him evil. Doc Ock plans to steal money so he can rebuild his fusion machine, even though its proven instability could cause a massive explosion that would kill thousands of innocent New Yorkers.
Coincidentally, Peter is writing a term paper on Octavius and is there to witness his transformation into Doc Ock. He must make a decision about whether to sacrifice his personal dreams in order to again become Spider-Man and fight this villain. At the same time, Doc Ock is approached by Harry Osborne (James Franco), now the head of Oscorp, who funded the project. Harry wants Doc Ock to kill Spider-Man, who of course killed his father (the Green Goblin) in the original movie.
Every superhero story must have a villain, but what makes Spider-Man 2 so different and so special is that itís not a story about Spider-Man versus Doctor Octopus. Instead, itís about Peter Parkerís struggle with his own dual identity. The bad guy is there as a catalyst for the story; he gives Peter a reason to seriously consider remaining a hero.
Thatís not to say that the action and special effects go on the back burner. Quite the opposite. This sequel has even better action scenes than the original had. One sequence, in which Doc Ock dangles Peterís aunt May from a skyscraper while battling the web-slinger, is benchmark in modern movie action scenes. Itís fantastic. Even better is the fact that the action is integral to the ideas of the movie. For instance, thereís a major fight between hero and villain on a train. I wonít give it away but something happens during that fight that transforms Peterís perception of himself, melding together the hero with the human. All the action scenes serve a similar function. We care more about the action because itís tied in so closely to the filmís central theme.
Thereís so much depth to this movie that itís astonishing. Hollywood is often accused of ďdumbing downĒ movies to appeal to ďthe lowest common denominator.Ē Spider-Man 2 is proof that big budget studio blockbusters can be smart and thoughtful and deep. In addition to Peterís identity crisis, the movie also addresses his guilt over the death of his Uncle Ben; the tension created by Harry, who likes Peter but hates Spider-Man; Mary Janeís attempts to move on with her life even though she still loves the emotionally unavailable Peter; and Otto Octaviusís battle with his own transformation. Thereís even a surprise plot twist near the end Ė one that sets up some tantalizing possibilities for Spider-Man 3.
The movieís story was co-written by Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the brilliant ďAdventures of Kavalier & KlayĒ (a masterpiece centering on the early days of comic books), and the screenplay was written by Alvin Sargent (two-time Oscar winner for Ordinary People and Julia ). They take creator Stan Leeís source material and explore every psychological nuance imaginable. Itíll never happen, but the script deserves an Oscar nomination. Director Sam Raimi does a superb job combining the action with the human moments, making them one and the same.
I canít end this review without commenting upon the acting. Tobey Maguire has proven himself a magnificently talented actor in films like Seabiscuit and Wonder Boys, and his portrayal of Peter Parker is flawless. He beautifully conveys the characterís ambivalence; he wants to live a normal life but he alone is called to be a superhero. Maguire makes you feel the weight of this decision. Kirsten Dunst also does a lot with a meaty role. Mary Jane is more than a generic girlfriend character, and Dunst finds her heart. Alfred Molina does nice work showing both sides of Doctor Octopus, and J.K. Simmons once again shines portraying the hilariously blustery tabloid editor J. Jonah Jameson.
Spider-Man 2 has it all: thrilling action, big laughs, and characters you can care about and empathize with. Comic books have been around for so long because fans recognize one simple fact: the best of them are not stories about heroes; theyíre about people who just happen to be heroic. Spider-Man 2 understands this fundamental idea. It loves the costumed hero but loves the person underneath the costume even more.
( out of four)
Spider-Man 2 is rated PG-13 for stylized action violence. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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