STARRING: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy

2004, 127 Minutes, Directed by Sam Raimi

Spider-Man 2 has that rambling awkwardness of an action movie that spends a lot of time on character development and people’s feelings but doesn’t quite know how. Part of me admires the movie for trying and part of me wants to say leave the Merchant-Ivory stuff to the pros. Spidey’s inner turmoil is punctuated by scenes of good-but-not-great action with bad guys we’ve almost forgotten about because they seem to only appear every ten or fifteen minutes. As with its predecessor, the villains in Spider-Man 2 exist basically to give Spidey someone to fight, you know, so he can complete his character arc.

So I was all set to write a lukewarm review when, hours later, it hit me: I cared about what happened to Peter Parker aka Spider-Man. Are Spider-Man 2’s fight sequences and special effects remarkable? Not really. Does it have a good villain? He’s okay. Does the movie have as rich a visual palette as The Crow, Batman, or Dick Tracy? No. Do the stunt sequences fit organically into what’s gone before or after them? Not especially. Was the romance compelling? Only as an idea, as an extension of Parker. Is the movie about as subtle as a Spinal Tap concert when it comes to hammering home what lesson have we learned today? You bet. But was I drawn into Parker’s predicament? Yes, and so here I am, just baaaaarely recommending the movie.

Spider-Man 2 explores some of the central dilemmas of the superhero, including the problems of the double-life and how his responsibility toward protecting strangers is always at odds with being with the ones he loves. Next to this, the action and the villains are an afterthought. Actor Tobey Maguire plays Parker/Spidey internally. Not only does his stone-faced acting style remind us of Buster Keaton but he has a silent actor’s ability to win our sympathy by under-responding to the numerous things that go wrong, using a kind of mopey, almost-but-not-quite-beaten-down resignation. Like Batman Returns, the person of the superhero is so interesting that I wished all the fighting and special effects could just be pushed aside and there could be another scenario entirely for exploring him. Spider-Man 2 works more as a character study than an adventure.

"Was I drawn into Peter Parker’s predicament? Yes, and so here I am, just baaaaarely recommending the movie."

And what is Peter Parker aka Spider-Man’s predicament? Like an angel in Wings of Desire, he can observe normal human life, but he cannot take part in it. His secret identity as crime fighter and Your Friendly Neighbourhood Webslinger prevents him from being with the Woman He Loves (Kirsten Dunst) or telling his aunt (Rosemary Harris) the truth about his uncle’s death.

The Woman He Loves is interesting as a predicament but not really as a human being; by no fault of her own, every time Dunst opens her mouth we realize that she’s just a set of problems for Parker to confront and not a real person. And then she screams a lot when she’s in danger. There’s an English paper in why Spider-Man is among the more popular actioners for girls, despite the screaming uselessness of its female lead. Spidey’s also doing badly at school, always on the verge of getting fired, and his relationship with his millionaire best friend (James Franco) is under strain. It’s enough to make you want to give up being a superhero and, for a time, Spidey does. Hmmm…I wonder if he goes back to being a superhero by the end of the movie?

To help Spidey’s moral dilemma are any number of muggings, robberies, fleeing suspects with automatic weapons, car chases, and house fires. There’s also a scientist named Octavian (Alfred Molina), not initially mad but driven mad by his nuclear fusion doohickey, and who is wreaking havoc on New York with his super-powerful mechanical arms. Spidey and Doctor Octopus do good-but-not-great CG battle on the sides of buildings, abandoned warehouses, and on an elevated train. Spidey’s attempt to stop the runaway train is the movie’s most exciting sequence. Wait, this is New York; even if it’s above ground it’s still called a subway.

I was not a big fan of the first Spider-Man — I gave it two-and-a-half stars and then wondered if I had over-rated it—partly because it missed so many golden opportunities for humour and going over the top. It’s the kind of movie that might give us Shakespearean-trained English actors solemnly declaring you’re meddling with powers you couldn’t possibly comprehend! and then not expect us to snicker. There are no Shakespearean-trained English actors saying this sort of thing in either Spider-Man, but that’s just an example. Maybe the kids today want their action straight, no irony. A big teenage boy a few seats from me described the preview for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which could be a potentially clever tongue-in-cheek look at the 1940s’ idea of the future, as retarded.

Thankfully Spider-Man 2 has learned to lighten up and if Spider-Man 3 goes completely over-the-top into the galloping grinning goofiness of Hellboy then I’ll be a happy man. I caught glimpses of that hypothetical movie in Spider-Man 2, when Spidey’s powers are failing and he finds himself riding an elevator while complaining to the guy next to him that his spider-suit itches sometimes. We get newspapers flying off the presses, screaming bystanders running directly toward the camera, and a terrific sequence set to Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head in which Spidey gives up his powers and enjoys the life of a normal boy. I also liked the nuclear fusion doohickey: it looks like the sun and has enough energy to power the whole world or blow up all New York—you know, whichever—but you can destroy it by throwing it in the river. Good pulp adventures are built out of ridiculous and inconsistent gadgets like that.

Spider-Man 2 also gives a lot more time to Bill Nunn as the scenery-chewing His Girl Friday-esque newspaper publisher out to destroy Y.F.N.W. Watch him fire and re-hire Spidey in a couple of sentences, listen to him marvel over the irony that a scientist named Octavian now has eight limbs. These splashes of humor help redeem the entire production but, God, how I’d love it if everyone in Spider-Man 3 were as nuts as Nunn’s publisher. Director Sam Raimi’s early films include Evil Dead and Army of Darkness, gems of overacting and over-the-top lunacy, elements which would improve the Spider-Man series greatly.

I was all set to be bored by yet another movie in which computer-generated monsters use kung-fu and a popular rock song plays over the end credits. Yeah, both those things happen, but at least Spider-Man 2 gets inside this poor kid’s head and has some humor along the way.

- The Friday & Saturday Night Critic

Actually better than the first Spider-man movie, this sequel has all kinds of nice humorous touches that most action blockbusters leave out. A blockbuster with humanity. Great fun. James O'Ehley



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