Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 11, 2012)
For me, 2002’s smash hit Spider-Man provided a nearly-perfect comic book movie. Would its 2004 sequel prove as effective? Not quite, but it fared pretty darned well on its own.
Set about two years after the first movie, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) finds it hard to balance his “normal” life and his web-swinging ways as Spider-Man. He always runs late at his pizza delivery job, and that gets him fired. Peter usually earns money with the photos of Spidey he sells to the Daily Bugle. Since editor J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons) uses these to turn the city against Spidey, Peter doesn’t want to give him more Spidey photos, but his wallet forces him to do so.
In addition to Peter’s two jobs, he tries to maintain life as a college student. He botches this as well, for he consistently misses classes and suffers from rapidly dropping grades. Peter also lacks much of a social life, and we’re reminded of this when he comes to a surprise birthday party thrown by his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and attended by pals Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco).
This encounter helps Peter in one way. Harry’s business works with scientist Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), the subject of a paper Peter must write. Harry offers to introduce the two. A minor wedge remains between the friends, however, since Harry blames Spidey for his dad’s death, and he thinks Peter and the hero are buddies. This doesn’t stop Harry from encouraging Peter to go after longtime crush MJ, who also pines for Parker. Our hero forsook MJ romantically in the first movie to protect, and he continues to stand by that decision here.
Peter doesn’t feel all that secure in his choice, though, especially when he learns that MJ has a new boyfriend. He promises to come see her new play, but other problems abound, such as his continued inability to pay his rent on time. Peter feels bothered by his aunt’s economic woes as well.
Soon Harry introduces Peter to Otto, and we learn about his big project. The Doctor works on a “design to initiate and sustain fusion” which he describes as a “perpetual sun” to offer a terrific source of energy. Peter displays some concerns that woes may develop and cause a negative reaction, but he demonstrates faith in his scientific idol and potential mentor.
A few factors lead Pete to a crossroads. Due to web-swinging duties, he misses MJ’s play, and that leads to her disappointment and irritation. In addition, Pete starts to lose control of his super abilities. For example, his web-shooters fail during one excursion.
In the midst of this, Pete attends the demonstration of Octavius’s new power source. To operate it, the Doctor utilizes a super-intelligent four-armed mechanical device controlled with brain waves. The reaction starts well but soon deteriorates. Otto refuses to shut down the power since he believes it’ll stabilize, but it doesn’t. Matters worsen, and the effects lead to both the death of his wife Rosalie (Donna Murphy) and the fusion of the extra arms to Otto’s body. Doctors try to remove them, but a chip that inhibits their artificial intelligence breaks and the limbs act on their own to sustain their attachment to Octavius.
The rest of the movie follows a few paths. We see “Doctor Octopus” - as christened by the folks at the Bugle - try to deal with his new abilities. He loathes the damage caused by the arms but he can’t resist them. They convince him to try to reclaim his research and prove his ideas to be correct. This sends him into supervillain territory, as he uses whatever means necessary to complete his research.
In addition, Pete tries to cope with the negative pressures of being Spider-Man. His heroic role causes him little but grief, a fact that comes to a point as he photographs a reception attended by both Harry and MJ. She lets him know how much he disappointed her and also gets engaged to astronaut John Jameson (Daniel Gillies). Harry also tells off his pal due to a series of perceived transgressions. When Pete’s Spidey powers continue to falter, he throws in the towel and decides to give up his superheroic ways. The film follows his decision and its ramifications along with the actions of Doc Ock.
Often when you tell someone you saw a particular movie, the first question they ask is “Did you like it?” In the case of Spider-Man 2, the answer comes back an unequivocal “yes, I liked it a lot”. When the movie involved is a sequel, the next question becomes “Was it as good as the prior one?” In the case of Spider-Man 2, the answer comes back, “no, it wasn’t that good.”
But don’t take that as a slam, for I regarded Spider-Man as a nearly perfect comic book movie. The sequel mostly prospers but I think it suffers from a few more flaws.
First off, the flick’s pacing came across as a bit scattershot. Ock goes absent from the story for substantial stretches and director Sam Raimi doesn’t balance different threads well. It feels like he can only concentrate on one element at a time. Either we see what happens with Ock or we address Peter’s self-confidence crisis, and rarely the twain shall meet. When Ock or MJ finally pop up, we get a mild shock, as in “oh yeah – I forgot about them!”
I also think that Spidey 2 borrows a little too liberally from the plot of Superman 2. In that flick, Supes attempts to give up his superlife to have a supergood time with superhot Lois, his dream woman. The concept behind Peter’s quitting the hero biz remains essentially the same, though as the film’s first act relentlessly belabors, many other factors contribute.
As for all that belaboring, some may – and will – interpret those sequences as a flaw. While the first flick took a while to get to any Spider-action, it made sense that way; it needed to go through character set-ups and Spidey’s origins.
With those bits firmly out of the way from last time, one may expect to hop right into battle in Spidey 2. That doesn’t happen. A couple of perfunctory action bits pop up in the first act, but they feel somewhat gratuitous. It’s as though the filmmakers don’t really want them but realize that a film with the name “Spider-Man” in the title should probably feature some shots of Spider-Man before it’s halfway finished.
Whatever the case, Peter’s story heavily dominates the first act and beyond, which may frustrate some viewers. Not me, however, as I rather like the look at the reality of being a superhero. Spider-Man and Batman have always been my two favorite costumed crusaders, and both present many similarities, especially due to the origins of their decisions to fight crime. Batman seemed more motivated by revenge, whereas guilt prompted Peter Parker’s transformation. Nonetheless, violent deaths remained at the core of their choices.
One major difference between the two relates to bankroll. The ultra-wealthy Bruce Wayne can finance all the gadgets he wants and doesn’t ever have to fret about real life. We get the feeling Bruce maintains a semblance of a normal life simply to make sure he covers up his secret identity, whereas Peter Parker enjoys none of those privileges.
Spidey 2 revels in that fact, as the first act demonstrates all of the degradation that comes with his situation. Not only does Peter feel he can’t be with the woman he loves due to potential threats, but his incessant crime fighting makes him late for work, behind in his schoolwork, and absent from the lives of his friends and family. More so than any other flick of this sort I can recall, Spidey 2 lets us know the nuisance and chore elements of being a superhero. Indeed, director Sam Raimi truly delights in these moments; he clearly loves showing us that Spider-Man’s life isn’t a cakewalk.
The film also isn’t afraid to let us see how much Peter enjoys his life when he’s free of his superheroic burden. Granted, he still feels occasional pangs of concern, but he lets those slip by pretty quickly as he realizes that you can’t save them all. In a telling move, only when matters become personal does Peter really reinvest himself into his heroic responsibilities.
All of these moments of personal drama shouldn’t make you think this is Hamlet. Spider-Man 2 remains a comic book movie, and even with all of the soul-searching, it never forgets that. The film does take its characters and story seriously, but it still connects with a great sense of fun and adventure. Raimi’s quirky humor always shows through and makes sure that the comic book’s comedic bent pops up here as well. Peter Parker really should be a pathetic, sad character, but both comic and movie allow him to be amusingly pitiful.
The film goes at its own pace, which I regard as a good thing. It doesn’t seem in a hurry to dazzle us with the action, though it still displays a terrific sense of wonder about things. For example, take the early scene in which Spidey uses a web to stop a police car from hitting a crowd. Segments like this show us just how amazing Spidey’s feats are, and many more of those moments come up throughout the flick.
Spider-Man 2 remains a film with a heart. The characters give it its heft and soul, and the actors bring them to life well. I don’t think Doc Ock is as interesting as the first flick’s Green Goblin, but he’s also not quite as showy a character. Molina helps make him nicely three-dimensional. The other leads continue to do well. I still really like Maguire as Peter/Spidey. I’ve read the occasional complaint about him, but I honestly can’t imagine anyone better in the role.
And I find it hard to imagine a better comic book movie series than Spider-Man. The current Batman series might be better – it’s hard to think of any superhero flick that tops The Dark Knight - but the Spidey films are awfully good. Spidey 2 offers top-notch entertainment.