Spider-Man 2 is like stepping right back in to a familiar friend. It’s not so much a new movie as just a continuation of the original, a visit back into a world which really hasn’t changed so much, for which we’re all the better. Peter’s (Tobey Maguire) still desperately and secretly in love with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) while facing the consequences of accepting the great responsibility that comes with his great power. Responsibility also means he can’t pay his bills and so he lives in a crappy, run-down apartment hounded by a landlord whom he can never afford to pay. He’s so broke he can’t help Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who is about to lose her house to the unforgiving suits down at bank. His grades are slipping and his disappointed teachers pronounce his tiredness as being “lazy” and shake their heads at his wasted potential. Mary Jane meanwhile has grown fed up waiting for him, tired of his lateness, sick of him never being there. “You’re just an empty seat to me Peter Parker,” she declares in a moment of extreme frustration. Meanwhile Parker’s best friend Harry (James Franco) is still grieving the death of his father and slowly becoming more and more obsessed with Spider-Man. He resents his friend Peter for refusing to give Spider-Man up, something he understands that Peter could do, since Pete is the guy who takes the wall crawler’s pictures.
In amongst all the drama of a personal life that’s slowly falling into shambles, Spider-Man is saving lives. He can’t take two steps without finding someone in need and so does his duty to the people of the city. Spider-Man is still hero of the common man, but he’s breaking down. He’s a not a rich billionaire who can toy with saving lives in his spare time while relying on his butler to take care of the details. Peter isn’t an all powerful demi-god with the ability to fly around the world and turn back time whenever he sees the need. Being Spider-Man is ruining his life and it’s only a matter of time before he falls apart from the stress.
Enter Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), gentle genius and would-be mentor to Peter Parker. As they always do in any good comic book, his experiments go horribly awry, leaving him tortured and twisted. Unable to face his failure and warped by the four artificially intelligent mechanical arms fused to his spinal cord, Octavius goes on a thieving rampage, stealing wads of cash to continue his potentially city-destroying experiments. Subsequently dubbed “Doc Ock” by the always creative J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) at the Daily Bugle, he can be stopped only by Spider-Man, who co-incidentally seems to be smack in the middle a stress related crisis, perhaps akin to the ones suffered by the heroic Mariah Carey.
More than the first movie, this one reeks of Raimi. As a director, he’s got the style and tone of this thing nailed down, leaving him plenty of room to create and throw in a few giddy bits of traditional Raimi style. When Doc Ock’s tentacles first awaken they have a horror-movie like encounter with some doctors and a chain saw that’s bound to elicit chuckles and gasps of well… terror. The result is a Spider-Man movie that’s maybe just a little less polished and as a consequence does a better job of really capturing that old Spider-Man comic feel. Ang Lee tried to do that in Hulk with clever editing tricks that turned each scene into a literal comic book panel. But Sam Raimi doesn’t need gimmicks. He does it with story. The pages are right there, glowing up on screen, translated with characters and story, the kind that would make Stan Lee proud.
The film’s opening titles set that tone, with beautiful Alex Ross paintings of everything that happened in the first film. It’s a marvelous and unique way to recap what happened in the past, without stopping to say, “Hey, remember Spider-Man 1?” From that moment forward it’s constant electricity, a film filled with intensity not because of a lot of fantastic action sequences, but because it’s the story of Peter Parker. It’s filled with little moments of brutally real emotional failures for Peter and a few little victories too. The stuff with Peter isn’t just filler to get to the next villain; the life of Peter Parker is what this second movie in particular is all about. That’s what sets it apart from Batman, Superman, or maybe even the X-Men. This movie isn’t really about Spider-Man, this is Peter Parker getting beaten down, tromped on by life, kicked in the groin and getting back up and throwing himself at another brick wall for someone else. Sometimes he does that as Spider-Man… sometimes he doesn’t. He’s overwhelmed by just managing his life the same as we all are. A normal guy falling apart at the seams as he tries to reconcile what he wants for himself and what he feels he must do for everyone else. Peter Parker’s life is brutal, and it fills the film with incredible power.
Visually, the movie is just as stunning. Spider-Man and Doc Octopus battle across rooftops, in and on trains, in banks, in the streets with the crowded lives of New York flowing and running around them. Not since the last movie has New York looked so vibrant and alive. It’s the perfect backdrop for epic struggle the likes of which we’ve never seen. Where Spidey’s clashes with the Green Goblin were fast paced and sharp, Spider-Man versus Octavius is a much more harsh experience, with Spidey being slammed, crushed, and tossed by Otto’s implacable arms. Alfred Molina owns the best villain trophy as Doc Ock, both before and after his mind-altering accident. Molina’s take on Otto is a disturbing and sympathetic one, the cold fire behind his eyes only adding further weight to his and Spidey’s rivalry.
These may very well be some of the best fights in the history of cinema and are certainly at the very least the best we’ve ever seen in the Superhero genre. The action is tense, frenetic, and feels surprisingly real. It means something that you feel lives weighing on Spider-Man’s shoulders, not just those of strangers, but those of his family and friends as well. With Superman, you never quite understand why he’s so willing to give up his life for all these people around him. Unlike Supes, Spider-Man isn’t always given a proper thank you, but his sacrifices have genuine meaning behind them, the kind that’ll pull at your gut and maybe have you tearing up.
As great as all that is, it is Tobey Maguire that shines brightest. He was good last time, but for Spider-Man 2 it’s almost as if he’s found another level to his performance. He’s so believable as Peter I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch him in something else. Were I to run out and pick up Wonder Boys, would I see James Leer the same way? I don’t think so. He’s emotionally invested in this character; he knows what Peter is going through and shares in it. Tobey’s also made some nice strides the elementary, like the way he delivers his dialogue. He’s sped things up, so that every word doesn’t have to be dragged out of his mouth in the slow monotone he sometimes fall into elsewhere. Peter just seems more real and Tobey is more comfortable understanding what it takes to let Peter be himself. He’s the perfect perpetual loser, burdened with incredible guilt and looking for a way out, struggling and clawing for acceptance and love.
This is simply the greatest Superhero movie ever made and almost certainly to be remembered as one of the most beloved movies of all time. It crosses boundaries and borderlines to lift itself far beyond the humble hero genre to create the unique and touching story of a loser everyman; who just happens to have some pretty incredible abilities. Everything is spot on, from James Franco’s chilling performance as the slowly degenerating Harry, to J.K. Simmons increasingly hilarious newspaperman, to a briefly seen employer screaming for Parker to get busy and make his delivery. Every frame is so fully alive, so vibrant, that it’s impossible not to walk out feeling electrified. Five second throwaway shots of a guy stealing pizza or a girl serving Peter chocolate cake manage to seem life changing in Sam Raimi’s hands. Kirsten Dunst’s last line is classic Mary Jane and delivered with just the right amount of sauciness, it defines everything that’s just so right about these movies. Raimi has taken his storytelling skills to an unheard of level, sucking you deep into his world page by page, creating a masterpiece that could only be surpassed by Spider-Man 3. While we’re at it, here’s hoping someone can talk him into doing Spider-Man 4. I’m out of my mind for Spider-Man 2.