Way back in the summer of 2002, my father took my sister and me to see Spider-Man. I knew of the character, I enjoyed watching the 1996 Fox animated series, I’d even read a few of the comics, enough to know the general information about the popular Marvel superhero. When I first saw the film, I was in awe. I gaped at the image of Spidey swooping clumsily after the thug who stole Uncle Ben’s car! “Go web go!” “Fly!” “Shazam!” Peter Parker actually said, “Shazam”! I was nearly in tears. Watching the film in theatres was almost a religious experience for me. Soon afterwards I began to acquire the comic books, from the “Ultimate Spider-Man” modern-day books to the “Essential Spider-Man” collections depicting the webhead’s first adventures way back in the 1960’s. I tuned in to the campy 1967 television series, although not for long. I rented The Cider House Rules, Wonderboys, Pleasantville and Ride With the Devil to sate my burgeoning desire to see Tobey Maguire in action. On the 6th of July, 2004, my sister and I proudly bought our tickets to see Spider-Man 2, the long awaited sequel to 2002’s gargantuan success.
Now, I really don?t think Spider-Man was very good. I mean, the villain was tacky (although in my opinion, the Power Ranger suit was an improvement over the Keebler-elf-on-acid look the Green Goblin established in the comic books). The special-effects, while ground-breaking, had several awkward scenes where Spidey looked like a red-and-blue version of Gumby. Mary-Jane was a cardboard cut-out with a red wig stapled to it. And the ending is an oozing mess of ponderous love speeches that do nothing but lengthen the film’s running time. The movie’s still somewhat good, but really, it’s nothing special. Yes, Spider-Man 2 was that good. So very, very good that it made the original look like a cheap knock-off.
Spider-Man 2 begins two years after the original left off, and in that time the life of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has done nothing but worsen. Recently fired from his pizza-delivery job, money problems perpetually loom over his head as Spider-Man’s gig takes up the vast majority of his free time. He’s flunking college, his rent is overdue, the bank is foreclosing on Aunt May’s house, and worst of all, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) has given up on him. Tired of remaining hung up on a guy who won’t open up to her or show up on time to watch her perform on Broadway, she’s hooked up with John Jameson (the hunky astronaut son of Spidey-hater J. Jonah Jameson) and she isn’t prepared to look back.
Eventually, the stress of maintaining his alter-ego begins to take a physical toll on Peter as well. His near-sightedness returns, he slips off of walls, and his webbing no longer works. Frustrated and needy and heartsick, Petey decides to renounce his diminishing powers. “I’m Spider-Man no more!” he declares, tossing aside his mask. He focuses instead on improving his own life, devouring hotdogs with furious defiance as he ignores the wailing sirens of police cars. His identity crisis couldn’t occur at a worse time, however. Ambitious scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) screws up royally while performing a demonstration of his two newest inventions: a set of artificially intelligent tentacles that attach to his spine, and a volatile fusion-powered energy source that acts like a miniature sun. Unforeseen problems arise, things explode, Otto’s wife is killed, and the computer chip that keeps the robotic arms under control is fried. Now under the tentacles’ insidious influence, the new Doctor Octopus becomes determined to reconstruct his failed experiment, regardless of the fact he could probably end up destroying half of New York as a result.
Just about every aspect of this movie is a step-up from the original. First off, the acting is top-notch. Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, James Franco as villain-in-training Harry Osborn, and Rosemary Harris as moral compass Aunt May are all back in fine form, and with meatier roles, too. J.K. Simmons had me rolling in the aisles as J. Jonah Jameson, who now has more opportunities to gripe, cheat, and chew on his cigar with ruthless vigor. And — finally! — the filmmakers have seen fit to actually recognize that Kirsten Dunst possesses a remarkable acting talent. This time around, Mary Jane acquires not only a mellower, more naturally red hair colour, but a backbone as well. No longer the dainty damsel in distress, she’s decisive, capable, and razor-sharp. Kirsten Dunst finally has a chance to stretch her acting muscles to portray Mary Jane with a sizeable amount of depth and personality. At last, I understand why Peter likes her so much! Lastly, Alfred Molina takes a bite out of Willem Dafoe, chews him up slowly, and politely spits him out as Doctor Octopus, gracing his character with a humanity, humour and (yes, I’ll admit it) heart that the previous villain lacked.
Secondly, the screenwriting is much improved. In Spider-Man 2, the writers (Michael Chabon for the story, Alvin Sargent for the screenplay) seem more content to trust the cast, relying on the actors to convey the general message with shorter, snappier dialogues, instead of churning out gooey monologues about how “when you look into her eyes you feel stronger, and weaker, at the same time”. Ugh. My only small, niggling complaint is that they didn’t let Spider-Man be funny. Where are the witty one-liners he so often lobbed at his opponents during life-and-death battles in the comic books? The self-deprecating, sucks-to-be-me banter that was so charming? When he suspends a villain in goo, couldn’t he quip “Hang in there, good buddy!” Or whine, “Could we make this fast, I have a play to get to!” while he misses Mary Jane’s performance as he tackles a gang of criminals? Is it really that hard for Tobey Maguire to crack a joke? He was funny in Wonderboys!
Fortunately though, even if Spider-Man remains deadly serious, the film does not. Director Sam Raimi turns the knob up to eleven on the situational humour, in order to counter-act the depression of Peter’s life. For instance, Peter has to wash his Spider-suit at the Laundromat, and ends up turning all of his white clothing red and blue. I swear, he’s one “Good grief!” away from becoming Marvel’s Charlie Brown. The pleasant mixture of comedy and tragedy, and of action and drama, so expertly blended by the director, is the main fuel that keeps the film running at an even, consistent pace. Still, Mr. Raimi doesn’t let the horror skills he cut his teeth on in the Evil Dead movies go to waste, adding just enough menace to add credible suspense to the inevitable fight sequences between Spidey and Doc Ock.
While some of the pleasant surprise has worn off since I first glimpsed the webslinger swinging from building to building in Spider-Man, the special effects are still damn cool. What’s better this time is that the special effects are not used when they don?t have to be. When Spidey has to walk along a ledge, they’ll use the real thing. When Aunt May gets the opportunity to bash Doctor Octopus on the head with an umbrella in a crucial scene, you can bet your copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 that that’s Rosemary Harris whacking away. When the filmmakers do resort to computer-generated hoopla, the scenes are now smoother, more graceful, and more aesthetically interesting (due mostly to the clever manipulation of Doc Ock’s tentacles).
Okay, so I’m not going to throw out my Spider-Man DVD. Compared to clunkers like The Hulk, the first Webhead adventure is pretty decent. Besides, if it hadn’t been for the first film, if the original Spidey outing hadn’t let itself become a willing lab rat for experimental special-effects, introductory information, and colourful camp, the sequel would never have been as stream-lined, as mature, or as hilarious as it undoubtedly is. To paraphrase Chaucer’s ditty from A Knight’s Tale? ‘He’s sweet! He’s funny! He’s worth all of the money! Spider-Maaaan! Spider-Maaaaan!’
(Columbia Pictures, 2004)