by Mel Valentin
"Spider-Man 2" may not the "best comic-book movie ever" as some critics are already calling it (that title still belongs to "X-2: X-Men United"), but it certainly has to rank among the best. For a summer blockbuster, squarely aimed at a broad demographic, Sam Raimi and his screenwriter, Alvin Sargent ("Ordinary People," with story credits to Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (TV's "Smallville") and Michael Chabon ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"), choose to emphasize internal conflict over external conflict, human drama over action set piece. Remarkably, Raimi succeeds in delivering both.Peter Parker's ((Tobey Maguire) power as a superhero is balanced (or more accurately cancelled out) by his impotence as an ordinary mortal. His everyday obstacles become, at times, even more difficult to overcome than any supervillain. Spider-Man 2 opens with Peter Parker in the middle of a personal identity crisis, exacerbated by a series of reversals and humiliations: in the first scene, loses his pizza delivery job, he lives in a rundown studio apartment, he's at risk of flunking out of college, his aunt is about to lose her home, and his relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is in limbo. But Peter Parker's anxieties, self-doubt, and uncertainties are starting to seep into his superhero identity: in an obvious metaphor for impotence, Spider-Man's web-shooting ability abandons him at inopportune times, resulting in several dramatic free falls.
"Significantly better than the first, but where else they can go?"
Meet Doctor Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a super smart scientist and researcher working on sustainable nuclear fusion. Peter Parker is on hand to assist the good doctor. Everything goes wrong, of course. Doc Ock loses everything, including his research. More importantly, the actuator arms he used for his experiment have become grafted to his body and the computer chip that controlled them has burned out (what, no backup?). With the help of the actuator arms, Doc Ock embarks on a bank robbery spree. Peter's problems are compounded by the machinations of his longtime friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), the son of Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), the original Green Goblin defeated by Spider-Man in the first film. Harry wants nothing more than to obtain revenge for his father's death that, in turn, involves unmasking Spider-Man's real identity.
Thematically, Peter Parker's inner conflicts and personal failures are universal, encountered by (almost) everyone crossing the boundary between late adolescence and young adulthood. As a superhero, Peter Parker/Spider-Man also doesn't have Superman's invulnerability (kryptonite aside) nor Bruce Wayne's/Batman's wealth and social status. During the film, he suffers both personal setbacks and bodily injury multiple times. His powers are extraordinary, but they have their limits, thus making it easier for the audience to identify with him and his problems.
As much as Spider-Man 2 improves on the first film (no origin story this time, a stronger villain this time out), it's not without its flaws. The quality of the special effects, range from the breathtaking to the mediocre. Some times effective, others times obvious, with Spider-Man's movements barely improved from the original (I also noticed a blurring around the edges of the CGI Spider-Man multiple times). Some effects, however, especially Doc Ock's metallic arms, and the fight scenes atop a clock tower and a speeding train, are handled with a more assured hand. Raimi also overindulges in a Peter Jackson-like, cheesy, over-the-top, emotionally manipulative moments or banal, overlong on-the-nose dialogue scenes.
Sometimes, though, that self-indulgence is exactly what Spider-Man needs. In one extended scene, Peter Parker strolls through Manhattan with a goofy grin and a light step, accompanied on the soundtrack by a Burt Bacharach song. The scene audaciously ends with a freeze-frame that momentarily gives Peter and audiences a respite from the ensuing action-heavy plot turns. Raimi also throws in more goofball humor here than in the first film (Bruce Campbell's wry cameo is one example, the conversation on the elevator a second) and he also directs the action scenes with more imagination and creativity (e.g., the failed experiment, the bank robbery scene, to the train scene, and the expressionistic hospital scene, which proves once a horror filmmaker, always a filmmaker).My biggest concern, however, isn't with this particular film in the series. I'm more concerned with the future direction of the series. That set up suggests the need for a second villain. With an additional villain, and his backstory, Peter Parker's character arc might be underdeveloped (e.g., the "Batman" franchise). Even with that criticism in mind, the next entry in the "Spider-Man" franchise is practically a "must-see," sight unseen.
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originally posted: 05/29/05 23:07:10