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Spider-Man 2 (2004) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 30 June 2004
Two years ago, “Spider-Man” was the most eagerly-anticipated movie of the summer. It turned out to be terrific, and was a smash hit the world over. “Spider-Man 2” is even better, and very likely will be an even greater success. This is so widely expected that other studios have moved their films out of conflict with “Spidey 2.”

The filmmakers took a bold approach; instead of emphasizing the action sequences and expanding on them, they have increased the emphasis on the characters. Of course there still is plenty of great action scenes with Spidey pitted against one of his most memorable foes from the comics, Doctor Octopus. There has never been a movie creature quite like Doctor Octopus: a man-sized creature moving in air with tentacles. Doc Ock is awesome.

Again directed by Sam Raimi, “Spider-Man 2” has a story by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (of “Smallville”) and Michael Chabon (of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”), and a screenplay by longtime screenwriter Alvin Sargent (“Julia,” “Ordinary People,” “Paper Moon”). The photography is by Bill Pope, the music by Danny Elfman and the special effects designed by John Dykstra.

At the end of the first movie, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), still suffering guilt over the death of his uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), resolutely turns his back on prospective romance with his neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Trouble Peter feels he cannot reconcile a romance with what he sees as his duties as superhero Spider-Man: with great powers comes great responsibility.

As “Spider-Man 2” opens, Peter lives in Manhattan in a crummy little walk-up flat, far inferior to that he shared with his friend Harry Osborne (James Franco) in the first movie. He works part-time as a pizza delivery boy, tries to sell the cynical, exploitive (and hilarious) J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons again), editor of the Daily Bugle, more photographs. Jameson isn’t interested in Peter’s artistic studies of the city; he wants action poses of Spider-Man, whom Jameson is trumpeting as a monstrous menace. Sells more papers that way. Peter is also trying to take courses at the city college, and trying to avoid thinking about Mary Jane.

But she’s a model and actress; her face is on billboards all over town, and she’s appearing in a revival of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He’s doing badly in classes, owes a couple of months’ rent, and is on the verge of losing his delivery job. He’s handed a stack of pizzas, and sets out to try to reach his destination 42 blocks away in seven and a half minutes. He even changes to Spider-Man to speed things up—and still gets the pizzas there late.
Mary Jane has tried to maintain a relationship with Peter, but she’s exasperated at his secrecy and unwillingness to commit himself. She’s begun going with John (Daniel Gillies), not just a famous astronaut but J. Jonah’s son. Even in regular chores Spider-Man interferes with Peter’s life: at the laundry, the Spidey suit colors run, ruining Peter’s whites.

Harry still hates Spider-Man, blaming him for the death of his father Norman (Harry doesn’t know his dad was the Green Goblin); he’s determined to bring OsCorp to success with a heavy investment in the dangerous fusion-power project of brilliant Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). Harry introduces Peter to Octavius, and the young man becomes friends with the scientist and his beloved wife. He’s even invited to attend a major demonstration of Octavius’ fusion device.

To operate the dangerous equipment, Octavius has four computer-driven mechanized tentacles mounted on his body. The system is wired into his spine so he can control the arms as though he grew them. But (of course) the fusion experiment goes wrong; Peter becomes Spider-Man to prevent the potential disaster, but Mrs. Octavius is killed and Octavius is fused to his tentacles.

In the aftermath, instead of Octavius controlling the tentacles, their computer merges with his mind, and they control him. He spectacularly escapes from the hospital. The arms are so powerful he can punch his way up sheer walls, and can walk on them; they even seem to have little wicked red eyes. Jameson loses no time in dubbing the new menace Doctor Octopus, or Doc Ock for short.

Peter tells Aunt May of his accidental part in Uncle Ben’s death (Robertson is seen in a dream sequence), and learns she may be losing her house to the bank. Unfortunately, that’s the bank that Doctor Octopus chooses to rob to gain funds to recreate his fusion experiment, and he takes Aunt May hostage.

The resulting fight takes place up and down the side of a building, with poor Aunt May left to hang by her umbrella from a gargoyle before Spider-Man can rescue her.

Around this time, Peter notices his web-shooter organs have begun drying up, and his vision gets worse. What with M.J. engaged to John Jameson, Aunt May’s housing troubles and his grades getting worse, Peter gives up being Spider-Man. Raimi recreates a famous Spider-Man cover: Peter walking away down an alley, his Spidey suit in the garbage can behind him.

The next sequence is cheekily underscored with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” as the no-longer-Spidey Peter Parker finds his life improved in almost every way. Except that he simply no longer is just Peter Parker; he really is two people, and Spider-Man has a hard time walking away from people in trouble. Even J. Jonah wants Spider-Man back: crime in New York city has risen 75% since Spidey disappeared. And Jameson doesn’t have any swell photos.

Meanwhile, Doctor Octopus has contacted Harry (who’s becoming a drunk): he’ll deliver Spider-Man to the vengeful Osborne if Harry will supply the hard-to-get element needed for the fusion experiment.

And Peter must become Spider-Man once again. But of course you knew that.

Maguire almost parlayed himself out of the role of Peter Parker; he’s fortunate to play the part again, and so are we. He’s a sensitive, expressive actor, able to play romance, action and comedy with equal ease, even blending all three as in the climax when Doc Ock takes Mary Jane captive. He even does more scenes as Spider-Man but without the face mask. He learns that despite Jameson, New York needs—and likes—Spider-Man, and that it may be possible to balance his two lives.

Alfred Molina was an inspired choice for Doc Ock. In the comics, at least initially, Dr. Octavius was a sour-faced, pudgy guy who becomes awesomely powerful when fused with his waldo-like arms. Molina is tall, but he is slightly pudgy—hardly the figure of a super-villain. But he’s equally awesome; not only are the complicated special effects perfectly realized, but Molina himself brings a kind of thundering energy and sarcastic wit to the role.

Dunst is again excellent as Mary Jane, and is given more interesting things to do: she even impulsively kisses John Jameson upside-down just for comparison’s sake. And the giant climax of the movie is, unlike most action movies, followed by a sweet and tender sequence about Peter and Mary Jane.

The action scenes are beautifully staged, especially a Spidey-Doc Ock fight atop a speeding elevated train (in New York?). But the movie does not depend entirely on the action scenes for its strength; the dialogue is realistic and expressive, the performances are integrated and consistent, and the production design by Neil Spisak turns the real New York into the richly-colored background of a comic book.

The special effects for Spider-Man are better and even more exciting, as when Spidey—and the camera—swings between the front and back of a big truck. But the most astonishing creation here is Doctor Octopus. His arms were realized with a seamless combination of live-action tentacles “puppeteered” by on-set effects workers, and CGI tentacles in other sequences. In some shots, I’m told, both methods are used—but you’ll never be able to pick out one from the other. It was daring to try to harness Doctor Octopus in the confines of a movie, but it works phenomenally well.

The movie’s only real weakness is that it’s maybe fifteen minutes too long; the Spider-Man No More sequence goes on a beat or two too long, making the middle of the film just a shade squishy. But it recovers and lands on its feet as nimbly as its hero. That “Spider-Man 3” will also be outstanding seems as likely as the sun coming up tomorrow.

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