I probably shouldn’t have listened to the friend who saw this film before I did. His assertion that Spider-Man 2 marked the same kind of improvement over Spider-Man that X2 did over X-Men may have raised my expectations too high. It’s not that I didn’t like Spider-Man 2; I did. I don’t even disagree that it’s a better film — in most ways — than the original. Yet I never felt it even flirted with greatness, and I was certainly not blown away by it.
In most respects, Spidey 2 represents the reverse of my feelings about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Where that was a great film as opposed to being simply a good Harry Potter film (as had been its predecessors), Spidey 2 seems more a great Spider-Man movie than a particularly good movie in general. And as a great Spidey movie, it will doubtless find ready favor with fans of the comic book. Yet on just about any other level, it’s not a whole lot more than a solidly enjoyable, nicely crafted, big-budget summer movie with a handful of logic lapses and some pacing problems. And while all of that’s just fine in itself, it does keep Spidey 2 from ever attaining the emotional complexity of X2 or Tim Burton’s Batman films, or, for that matter, of reaching the heights of stylistic creativity of Ang Lee’s Hulk (a movie nonetheless equally flawed in different ways).
For me, there’s something just a little off-key about Spidey 2. Maybe it’s just a little bit too jokey. I have nothing against directors bringing in friends or people associated with their work for a quick in-reference, but I kept feeling that Raimi overdid it to a point of interrupting the film’s pacing. Sure, it’s nice for fans of the director to see Bruce Campbell, but for the movie to stop dead so Campbell can do a bit of shtick as a self-important theater doorman is counterproductive. The same thing happens with TV’s Hal Sparks — the film stops in its tracks to get to a mildly amusing bit where Spidey (Toby Maguire) admits that the crotch of his costume rides up. The real joke was nailed down in five seconds, with Sparks finding himself standing next to Spider-Man in an elevator. The look says it all; the rest just bogs down the flow.
The bits for Stan Lee and John Landis were less intrusive, but the overall sense I got was that Raimi was determined that even the dimmest viewer would catch the gags — a central problem with the film overall. Spidey 2 has a tendency to beat the viewer over the head to make its points.
It’s more than a little interesting that Spider-Man/Peter Parker differs from other superheroes in his being what we might call — in John Lennon’s terms — a working-class superhero. And while a superhero plagued by self-doubt and not wanting the powers thrust upon him is nothing unusual, one who has to scramble to pay his rent or to keep his phone turned on, now that’s another story. This certainly adds a resonance — and a level of identification — to the character, but I got the point a good four or five examples before the film stopped doling them out.
This problem is only compounded by its occurring in a movie where the structure is already a bit awkward. There are two primary plot lines: Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and the villainous activities of benign scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who is turned into the mechanical-tentacled horror Doctor Octopus (or “Doc Ock”) when an experiment goes awry. Throw in subplots about Peter’s Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) losing her home and his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) thirsting for revenge on Spider-Man for killing Harry’s father (Willem Dafoe), and the whole thing is a bit unwieldy. And that’s not to mention the wholly inconsequential tangent involving the love-struck daughter (Mageina Tovah) of Peter’s landlord.
A better-structured script could have overcome all this; as the film stands, it’s very easy to forget one aspect of the plot because Spidey 2 dwells too long on the others. And while that may seem like a lot of problems, the film’s pure action-adventure/sci-fi entertainment overcomes them. Too, the characters are appealing and likeably human (a rarity in this kind of film), and the performances are skillful and sympathetic.
Plus, there’s no denying that Molina’s “Doc Ock” is a vast improvement over Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the first film. Indeed, Molina’s “Doc Ock” is perhaps only second to Ian McKellen’s Magneto as the definitive super-villain of the modern age. It helps immensely that the CGI effects used to create Doc Ock’s mechanical tentacles are not only wholly believable, but they bring a genuinely creepy sense to the character, resulting in perhaps the most unsettling CGI effect to date. (Yes, there is an inescapable bit of deja vu to the image of Molina clambering up buildings, thanks to the little King Kong fantasy in Frida).
If nothing else in Spidey 2 had worked, it would still be worth seeing for Molina’s villain. Yet the film scores in other ways as well. The always-reliable J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson — newspaper publisher and nemesis of Spider-Man (as well as Peter’s employer!) — scores a definite bulls-eye in his return engagement to the series, stealing every scene he’s in. Raimi uses Simmons to great effect, always favoring him with the camera.
And the action scenes? No quarrels there — they’re splendidly done, and they bristle with excitement that’s actually enhanced by Raimi’s typical sense of humor. In fact, Spider-Man 2 works on so many levels that it’s almost possible to forgive the things about it that fall short. And if you don’t expect the film to be a work of high art but just one hell of an entertaining ride, such forgiveness should actually come easy.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke