—Originally published 7.9.04
"Spider-Man 2" should be renamed "Peter Parker 2," and credit director Sam Raimi for summoning the guts to make such a notion possible.
This sequel not only surpasses the 2002 original, but flies past with web-slinging leaps and bounds. Raimi and his host of story contributors refuse to placate typical summer action-flick expectations; instead of sinking into the sequel mentality of everything's-gotta-be-bigger-and-badder-than-the-original, the director actually pulls back on the action to let his characters shine through.
Then, when we are fully involved with the human element of their stories, Raimi unleashes his true visual wizardry and we get payoff, after payoff, after payoff through the final half hour, including numerous special-effects shots that put "Spider-Man" to shame.
Tobey Maguire is even better this time around as Peter Parker, now in college struggling to balance school, work and, oh, by the way, fighting crime as his alter-ego, Spider-Man. When we last saw him, our hero had just graduated from high school, defeated the Green Goblin and told the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, the best comic-book damsel-in-distress since Kim Basinger in 1989's "Batman"), they couldn't be together. (She doesn't know he's Spidey, but Peter knows she never can or face imminent danger.)
The strain of balancing dual identities is becoming too much for Peter, though, manifested in powers that start to fail him. Making matters worse is the new baddie on the scene, Dr. Otto Octavius, played brilliantly by Alfred Molina ("Chocolat"). Octavius is working on a revolutionary new energy source called "fusion," but when a lab experiment goes wrong, he ends up fusing four metal arms to his body and nervous system. The appendages are imbibed with artificial intelligence and take over Octavius' brain, turning him into a madman who goes to whatever lengths necessary to complete his work.
Such grand designs require a good bit of cash, as you might expect, and it's during a bank robbery we get the first thrilling glimpse of the Ock-Spidey confrontation as they battle up the face of a clock tower -- with Peter's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) hanging, quite literally, in the balance.
Ock gets away and Spider-Man is implicated in the heist by Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, played by J.K. Simmons, who once again blows the doors off this boisterous role. Combine that with the announcement that Mary Jane is getting married to Jameson's son, and Petey-boy has had enough. Tired of being taken for granted and destroying relationships with loved ones, he gives up the role of superhero and returns to a "normal" life.
All of this character development takes time, and the film pays for it slightly with some slow moments in the middle. There are no cringe-inducing lines of note, however, which the first installment could not boast. And without the slow build, Raimi's masterwork could not reach the peaks it hits in the concluding act. Leaving the theater, I hadn't felt so good for a comic-book character since I first saw mild-mannered Clark Kent send the diner bully crashing into the pinball machine in "Superman II."
Speaking of, "Spider-Man 2" is the best comic-book movie adaptation of all time. It beats them all, including the fabulous "X2: X-Men United" and the first two Superman installments. Like the latter, this Spidey sequel reaches for (and grabs) the heart as much as the eyeballs. Raimi correctly realizes the great comic-book film truism: Anybody can don a fancy suit and zip around the silver screen, but it's what you do with the character once the super-duds come off and the civilian clothes come on that matters.
As a result, "Spider-Man 2" is the first movie I've seen this summer that I want to watch again -- and I do mean now.