The web-swinging super hero is back but his alter ego, Peter Parker, is not in the best of shape, financially or, more important, emotionally. He is consumed by his guilt for causing his beloved Uncle Ben’s (Cliff Robertson) death then covering up the fact from his aging Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). He is unrequited in his love for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), fearing, if he declared his true feelings, she would be harmed because of him. He is also broke, can’t keep a job and is failing in school. Peter’s problems take a back seat, though, when his mentor, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), loses control of a nuclear fusion experiment and becomes the multi-tentacled Doc Ock in “Spider Man 2.”
Sam Raimi, always a favorite and a very talented film director – he created a cult following with his “Evil Dead” trilogy; showed a mirthful liking for westerns with “The Quick and the Dead”; and delved into things on the dark side with “A Simple Plan.” He entered the big league when “Spider Man” took in over $400 million domestically in its theatrical release, paving the way for the sequel. The first, while a technical wonder, pandered to those uninitiated with the Spider Man franchise of comics and cartoons. It did lay the groundwork, introducing the characters and leavened in lots of web-swinging F/X. Unfortunately, the bad guy, the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), was both silly and, with his demented artificial laughter, annoying. But, there was enough of the essence of the source material to keep the fans appeased with the knowledge that Raimi would do better the next time around.
Guess what? Sam Raimi has taken note of all the comments and criticism made about “Spider Man” and cleaned up the act. Little time is spent on setting up the background, beyond the obligatory rehash of Uncle Ben’s demise. That was all done in the first film and this allows the sequel to examine new comic-book-turned-movie ground.
Peter is in the pits. He can’t hold a job, can’t pay his bills, is constantly guilt-ridden and thinks, daily, about his love for MJ. His problems start to have a deep psychological effect on Parker and he begins to lose his spider powers. All of this has to be put aside, though, when Peter’s friend Harry Osborn (remember, he is the son of Norman Osborn, AKA the Green Goblin, who blames his father’s death on Spidey and wants revenge), introduces him to Dr. Octavius, a genius on the verge of demonstrating his invention, a fusion device that can produce clean, safe, unlimited energy. When the city’s dignitaries attend the gala demonstration, things go drastically wrong and the doctor becomes the eight-limbed mutant, Doc Ock.
The film consists of a series of battles between Spider-Man and Doc Ock, interspersed with revelations that help develop the Peter Parker character and move him on to the next in the lucrative franchise. While there are expected and hoped for kickass special FX (and I’ll get to them shortly), the strength of “Spider Man 2” lay with the actors, especially support, who give far more dimension than a film like this has a right to. Tobey Maguire has been criticized as too much of a geek in the first “Spider Man.” (Go figure. Parker is a geek in the comic books, too.) But, his aw-shucks demeanor and vulnerable looks help build the character of Peter Parker.
Kirsten Dunst is a pretty little object of attention for Peter but found her to be a bit too shrill in her confusion over Peter. Hers is not an easy role and the actress is attractive and game for the physical aspects of being MJ. Alfred Molina, an actor I have respected for many years since “Letter to Brezhnev” (1985), gives just the right spin on both sides of the good doctor. He is a warm, loving genius that adores his wife, Rosalie (Donna Murphy), until the horrible accident that killed her and turned him into a monster. Molina plays it straight with little touches of humor to give Doc Ock dimension. Rosemary Harris was solid in the first as Aunt May but, here, gives even greater depth to her character, making the lady real. James Franco is saddle with his grief/revenge obsessed Harry who drinks too much and wants to destroy the S man. J.K. Simmons blesses his tabloid publisher character with a well-honed, fast-talking perf that is the personification of J. Jonah Jameson.
Sam Raimi and company have spent a lot of time and effort in cleaning up their act, F/X wise. The obvious CGI of the first film has been improved to make the web-swinger's action blend in with the city life. The rubbery look of the CGI Spidey the first time around has been improved to (almost) realistic quality. The set battle pieces, between the arachnid and the mollusk, are fast, fun and furious. The opponents are equally matched with Spidey countering Doc Ock’s power and monstrous strength with speed and agility (and you know good triumphs over evil).
A bevy of writers – Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon and Alvin Sargent – took part in adapting the original comic book work by legend Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I normally don’t care for scripts by committee but it works here. They must have shared the work with one writing the action, and others doing the romance, revenge and sequel setup. Whatever the method, they have a not overly bloated screenplay (it could be shorter) that keeps thing moving.
Techs are a good melding of traditional F/X and stunts in a seamless manner with the computer generated action. Bill Pope lends his expert lens to the behind the camera team. Special effects, by the expected huge team directed by John Frazier, are top notch and denote the money spent. Other techs match up well, too.
I think Sam Raimi can loosen his tie and kick off his shoes. He done good. I give “Spider Man 2” a B+.
In the two years since Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire, "Seabiscuit") first donned his Spidey suit, his great responsibilities have continued to erode his personal life. The more people Spider-Man rescues, the more bad luck befalls Peter, who is having serious problems coping with his dual identity. His heartbreak over giving up Mary Jane (Kirstin Dunst, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") for her own safety has begun to impair his super powers and Peter decides to live life for himself. But just as Peter has begun to win back MJ, a new villain threatens New York and his beloved, forcing Parker back to his masked heroics in "Spider-Man 2."
And one of the most engaging aspects of this superior sequel is that this Spider-Man isn't always masked! This conflicted hero wins the hearts of the populace when his vulnerability is laid bare and exposure proves healthy for true love as well. Working with a clever screenplay by Alvin Sargent ("Unfaithful"), director Sam Raimi follows up his hugely successful "Spider-Man" with a more confident grasp of the material and a stylish, offbeat sense of humor.
The opening slyly sets up Peter's breakdown with his first hard knock when Mr. Aziz (Aasif Mandvi), the boss aggravated by Parker's umpteenth late arrival, demands that he cover 42 city blocks in 7.5 minutes to honor his 29 minute pizza delivery guarantee or be fired. After even his alter-ego can't save that job, Parker is chastised by Dr. Connors (Dylan Baker, "Happiness") for missing another class, then canned by editor JD (J.K. Simmons, "Hidalgo") for not producing Spider-Man shots. After being beaten down all day, Peter arrives at Aunt May's (Rosemary Harris, "Tom and Viv") to find Harry (James Franco, "The Company") and MJ ready to celebrate his forgotten birthday and a foreclosure notice on May's kitchen table. Harry brightens his mood with a promise to introduce him to Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina, "Coffee and Cigarettes"), the man Peter's writing his thesis on, but when MJ cannot get Peter to lower his defenses, even though his moist soulful eyes betray him, she tells him she's seeing someone.
Otto is delighted by Peter's intelligence, but he ignores the college kid's concerns about his plan to create a fusion energy source. The next day, Octavius demonstrates his invention (assisted by four metal tentacles attached to his body by a spinelike device and a chip which keeps them from controlling his brain) for the press but Peter's predictions come into play and everything misfires, killing Otto's beloved wife (Donna Murphy, "Star Trek: Insurrection") and creating a madman bidden to continue his quest by his own snapping appendages. Meanwhile Harry Osborn's distress at his huge financial loss drives him further into the bottle, growing an alcohol-fueled rage and need for revenge against Spider-Man for killing his father.
Sargent's richly paralleled story lines and Raimi's matured direction result in a film that is both funny and frightening. In a time of high unemployment, Parker's financial struggles underline a sense of helplessness and his burden feels heavy. The saddle of being Spider-Man is symbolized in one hilarious visual joke when Raimi shows Parker's underwear stained blue and red in the laundry. His 'selling out,' after suffering from emission/projectile disfunction, is followed by a cheeky, sunlit segment of false optimism set to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" which Raimi caps with a freeze-frame flourish.
The romance is more urgent, the film's opening gambit emphasizing MJ's predominating importance. 'She looked at me every day' Peter narrates, as he is dwarfed by her massive Emma Rose Parfumerie billboard looming over him. The great responsibility born out of guilt over the death of Uncle Ben is pounded home by his seeming inability to protect Aunt May. In "Spider-Man 2," Raimi dispenses with the comic book violence of the first film for more realistic dangers, beginning with Doc Ock's destruction of the hospital operating room he awakens in after his accident. Every aspect is brighter and sharper. The film's only misstep is its insistence on pushing Osborn Junior's agenda, especially when a return of the Green Goblin is hinted at at film's end.
The returning cast are all at least as good as the first time around. Maguire stretches into the more complex situations he is given, creating a more sympathetic and recognizable character. Rosemary Harris gives so much heart to this project, her importance cannot be overstated. The promising Franco is wasted in a petulant funk through most of the story, although he plays the Spider-Man unmasked scene with emotional force. Molina resists overt scenery chewing to project the same conflicted nature as his opponent without forgoing villainous menace when necessary. In small roles, Elizabeth Banks ("Seabiscuit") gives a snappy turn as JD's assistant Miss Brant and Mageina Tovah is touching as the geeky daughter of Peter's landlord who has a crush on him. Bruce Campbell of director Raimi's "Evil Dead" series is less recognizable but no less funny in his sequel cameo as a snooty usher and "Queer as Folk's" Hal Sparks has an amusing elevator encounter with the super hero. Daniel Gillies has the requisite allure as MJ's fiance, the astronaut son of J.D. Jameson.
Visual effects designer John Dykstra ("Spider-Man") corrects the first film's faults with only a flawed burning building sequence seeming artificial. Raimi pulls together all the technical elements masterfully into a powerhouse whole, but it is his assured wit more than anything that makes this film work so well. In one simple shot, where an unmasked Spidey is passed overhead by the grateful hands of train passengers he has just saved from death, Raimi's image suggests three different, complementary ideas - that of a rock star being surfed from the stage, that of a Christlike savior via the arrangement of Maguire's body and the side gash in his suit and, finally, that of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of an Arthurian knight delivered from battle on a shield.
"Spider-Man 2" is already assured of becoming a box office juggernaut, but it is so refreshing to anticipate such a deserving work's success. You don't have to be a fan of comic books to get into "Spider-Man 2."
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