Run, Do Not Crawl
All you need to know about Spider-Man 2 is revealed in the opening credits, in which comic-book artist Alex Ross recaps the 2002 original in lovingly, lavishly painted panels. Spidey and Mary Jane Watson are once again entangled in that now-iconic upside-down kiss; nutty Norman Osborn, out of Green Goblin garb, gnashes his teeth; a dumbstruck Harry Osborn discovers the web-slinger standing over his old mans corpse. The comics have become the movies have become the comics again, without one medium kowtowing to the other. The tiny panels dont lose their shape when stretched to fill the expansive canvas of the cineplex, and the movie doesnt condescend to the source material by treating it as something dinky or disposable. Spider-Man 2 exists for the grown-up children of 1960s and 70s comics and their own offspring who know of the wall-crawler only through the movies; its a playground for those who like a little humor and a lot of heartache coursing through the crash-boom-pow of a sleek summer blockbuster.
Also divulged in the credits are the names of writers Michael Chabon (Pulitzer for the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about old-time comic-book scribes) and Alvin Sargent (adapted screenplay Oscars for Julia and Ordinary People), who love Spider-Man not just when hes fighting the bad guy but when hes wrestling with himself. Imagine -- a superhero movie in which the most meaningful battles are waged within the guy wearing the costume. Its remarkable how, throughout these two movies, the makers of the Spider-Man franchise havent lost sight of creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditkos original vision of an ordinary guy whos not too handsome, not too glamorous, not too graceful, not too muscular, as Lee wrote in 1974s The Origins of Marvel Comics.
Spider-Man 2, again directed by Sam Raimi, would have been unimaginable without Tobey Maguire, who was nearly replaced by Jake Gyllenhaal because of an injury (theres even a funny scene that alludes to his aching back). Hes the perfect Peter Parker/Spider-Man, exuding a sort of wide-eyed sadness throughout a film thats as much about his unacknowledged love for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and his guilt over the death of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) as it is his feud with the increasingly hostile Harry (James Franco) and his battles with old pal Doctor Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a mad scientist with four metallic tentacles fused to his bulky frame. Maguires the only guy for the role, because he possesses that rare mixture of vulnerability and potency; youre always afraid this superhero will snap in half.
Where Peter was yee-ha giddy with the discovery of his newfound powers in the first film, hes crushed by the weight of responsibility that comes with them in its far superior successor. His doubt even causes his powers to fail him on occasion -- his web doesnt spin, his fingers dont stick to walls -- which makes him chuck his costume into a trash can, in a scene lifted directly from The Amazing Spider-Man issue No. 50. But giving up Spider-Man, he believes, will allow him to be with Mary Jane, now a successful actress on Broadway in The Importance of Being Earnest. Indeed, playing Cecily, Mary Jane gets to deliver the line that defines her tortured relationship with Peter: I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. The writers have lifted a plot point from Superman II, in which Clark becomes a mortal for Lois, and cleverly expanded it. Peters only too happy to ditch the tights, which get kinda itchy and ride up in the crotch a little, he tells Queer as Folks Hal Sparks during a hysterical elevator ride.
Alas, its impossible to play normal guy in love when theres a madman on the loose in New York City. Molinas Doctor Octopus makes for a horrifying bad guy: With smart arms that drive him bonkers, he kills for thrills and toys with his victims like an infant throwing dolls around a nursery. And Raimi digs filming him. A scene set in an operating room conjures the comedic terror of Army of Darkness, down to the use of a chainsaw, and the gory muck of Darkman. Yet hes also a hard guy to hate: Spider-Mans enemies always begin as Peter Parkers friends or mentors, surrogate fathers for a kid raised by an uncle whose death he partially caused. Theyre also scientists whose descent into villainy is sparked by a noble endeavor that goes horribly wrong. During their first meeting, a friendly encounter between student and would-be teacher, Octavius even lectures Peter about how intelligence is not a privilege but, rather, a gift to be used for the good of mankind. He likes Parker, and Molina gives Octavius considerable warmth and charm; that you know in due time theyll be throwing each other off skyscrapers only makes their scant moments together as friends that much more poignant.
The first Spider-Man was charming but also a touch tedious, the curse of the origin story. The sequels far more ambitious, from its use of music (including versions of the 1967 cartoon theme song in the movie proper, and Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head) to its thrilling action sequences to its sly references to the comics (including Dylan Baker as Peters prof, Curt Connors) to its long but never dull stretches in which Doc Ock disappears altogether; its a two-hour epic, sprawling but never messy and moving without ever turning maudlin. Theres room enough for a comedic scene in which Spider-Man has to deliver pizzas to beat the clock and another in which he has to save a subway car filled with people for whom the hero is, ultimately, a pint-size god. You will even forgive the handful of false endings, because the movie doesnt feel long enough; the sequels sequel will not arrive soon enough.
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