July 4, 2004 -- “Spider-Man 2” is the second good sequel I've seen this year. That's remarkable. Most sequels are crap, but “Spider-Man 2” and “Shrek 2” are both quality films. What a surprise! This could be a banner movie year, after all. It sure didn't start out that way. Although “Spider-Man 2” is a slower-paced film than the first one, its characters are more interesting and the action scenes it does have are first-rate. The acting is also very good.
The sequel brings back all the main characters from the first film, even the dead ones. The dead ones appear as ghosts, like Hamlet's father in the play, shadowy portents and all. Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man, played by Tobey Maguire) sees a vision of his late uncle, Ben Parker (played by the great veteran actor Cliff Robertson), and Spider-Man's future nemesis, Harry Osborn (James Franco), sees his dead father, Norman Osborn (AKA the Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe) in a vision which seems to indicate Osborn has inherited his father's schizophrenia. Other returning cast members include Parker's girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Parker's aunt May (Rosemary Harris). Another returning cast member is the firebrand newspaper editor, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Returning for bit parts in the film are Director Sam Raimi's old buddy Bruce Campbell of “Bubba Ho-Tep” and the “Evil Dead” films (also directed by Raimi), who plays an obnoxious usher, and comic book superstar Stan Lee, who has a cameo. Stan Lee is the Marvel Comics editor who invented Spider Man. He is also an executive producer of this film.
The new villain this time is Dr. Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius (Alfred Molina of “Chocolat”). A nuclear fusion experiment goes awry, causing the tentacled Doc Ock to go crazy, threatening the city. Only Spider-Man can stop him. Octavius is a typically complex character. He is menacing, despite the best of intentions. His mind is taken over by the artificial intelligence computers in his specially-constructed mechanical arms. Harry Osborn has become obsessed with Spider-Man, who he blames for his father's death. Mary Jane Watson leaves Parker for another man after he disappoints her too many times. Parker loses his job as a pizza delivery guy after showing up late for work too many times. He lives a run-down apartment and is in danger of being evicted.
Parker's life is so bleak, he has a crisis of conscience and doesn't know if he can continue on as Spider-Man. Being a superhero has ruined his life. He has to decide if he has what it takes to continue being Spider-Man. This crisis takes up the better part of the film. All this introspection does slow the pace of the film, but it makes for more fully-realized characters. Parker is not just a simple super hero and Mary Jane Watson isn't just a girlfriend. She has her own needs and desires and her own career. The villains aren't simple, either. They are complex, fully realized characters who have ample motivation for the way they behave. This is where a lot of films fall apart. The stories are written so the characters behave in arbitrary and capricious ways. In this film, character motivations are believable. The effect is enhanced by convincing performances by the actors.
That being said, the story does have some problems with its science. Doc Ock's mechanical arms are ridiculous and totally unnecessary for his nuclear experiments, but they look great in the film, almost like they are alive. Parker's spider powers, originally explained as genetic mutations, suddenly behave like magic, instead of genetic abilities, but this does help create a nice metaphor for Parker's crisis of conscience. The nuclear fusion reaction acts like a black hole, increasing gravity and pulling everything into it. That makes no sense, scientifically. The behavior of black holes and hydrogen fusion reactions are very different on this small scale. Generally, the film's screenplay is impressive, except for the scientific mistakes. Writers include Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (“Shanghai Noon”) and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon. The special effects in the film are far superior to that of the first “Spider-Man.” Doc Ock's mechanical arms, and Spider-Man's web-slinging flights through the city are spectacular, as is the battle on a runaway subway train. John Dykstra, who did the special effects for the original “Star Wars” film, is the special effects supervisor of this one. Raimi does a great job directing the film. This movie rates a B.
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