starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina
screenplay by Alvin Sargent
directed by Sam Raimi
by Walter Chaw Just as the best parts of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies evoked the lo-fi ingenuity of Jackson's splatter flicks (Braindead, Bad Taste), a surgery scene in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 reminds a lot of Raimi's Evil Dead days--probably something to do with the chainsaw. Still, it's uncomfortable, inappropriate, violent, the Three Stooges gone really, really wrong, and it's stuck right smack dab in the middle of what is arguably the most anticipated film of the summer. Raimi's tutelage in the school of zero-budget exploitation has taught him the importance of narrative and subtext, of internal logic and thematic coherence. You can buy limitless razzle-dazzle; you can't buy a strong foundation in fun and at least a rudiment of sense. And as Raimi's budget has soared from the rumoured twenty grand for The Evil Dead to somewhere in the neighbourhood of Ireland's GNP for Spider-Man 2, his foundation in economical thrills anchors his blockbusters in humanity.
The first Spider-Man a wonderful metaphor for puberty, what with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) discovering new glands, new secretions, and a new physique (one that coincided with the maturing of his affection for next-door neighbour Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst)), Spider-Man 2 continues Parker's adolescence with an identity crisis and a sort of superhero version of erectile dysfunction. As Spider-Man is burdened by too much time spent saving New York City from itself, alter-ego Parker finds himself losing his job, failing at school, lying to his beloved aunt and best friend, and having to deny his feelings for Mary Jane, lest he put her in harm's way. Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent (better known as a writer of adult interpersonal dramas like Ordinary People, Dominick and Eugene, and Unfaithful, he's an interesting--and good--choice) spend an amazing amount of time on Peter as he tries to strike a balance between his responsibility to others and the pursuit of his own happiness. The rejection of his responsibility for the sake of love (which makes this sequel superficially reminiscent of Superman II) becomes in the film's text something far more slippery, as it appears as though the choice to stop being Spider-Man is accompanied by the physical manifestation of that choice. Peter's superpowers (fallout from the bite of a genetically-enhanced spider) proving unreliable, subject to the whims of stress and depression, pushes the film from pulp melodrama to pulp opera. Spider-Man 2 is existential in the same way as the excellent Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: It addresses growing up through the prism of exactly the kind of literature that should address growing up.
With Mary Jane a working actress and model and best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) the head of his dead father's company, college student Parker comes to a crisis point when he realizes that all of his dreams have become subservient to his role as crime-fighter. What works best about the Spider-Man films isn't their special effects (much improved here, though still clunky), but rather a sense of being snared by destiny. It's a feeling of gathering doom aggravated by Peter's search for a surrogate father figure and his complicity in the death of a string of potential father figures: his uncle and Harry's father (Willem Dafoe, making a cameo appearance in this picture) in the original, one more in the new film. Strange to say that Spider-Man 2 fits in nicely with a pair of Russian pictures from this year, Aleksander Sokurov's Father and Son and Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return--all three are embroiled in the same pervasive melancholy, telling a similar story of the cataclysm that ends the relationship between a boy and his dad.
The Spider-Man pictures can be gainfully read as an extended treatise on the necessity of strong male role models in a young boy's life--the damnable difficulty of finding appropriate mentors to fill the void left by an absent father. What's most fascinating about this mythology is that more often than not the people Parker chooses for surrogate fathers end up becoming his archenemies. The villain of Spider-Man 2 is someone Peter initially reveres, a scientist named Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina); a Nobel candidate with a dream of supplying endlessly reproducible energy for the world in the creation of a miniature sun (Greek mythology geeks, take note), he has four mechanical tentacles grafted to his spinal column to aid him in the containment of his oxymoronic dream of controlled fusion. Things go wrong as they are wont to do, and Spider-Man finds himself locked in mortal combat with the newly-minted Dr. Octopus (or Doc Ock) for the fate of the world and, inevitably, an imperilled Mary Jane.
Perhaps they're manifestations of the pitfalls of maturity: Little Red Riding Hood's wolf in grandmother's clothing. More to the point, it's interesting to compare Parker's search for a father with Harry Osborn's quest to avenge his father--and how those two concerns intersect in Spider-Man 2 is surprising in often elegant ways. (By the end of the second film, a stern, affectionate professor Connors (Dylan Baker) threatens to be Parker's saving grace, but if you're familiar with the comic books, you know there's no light at the end of that particular tunnel.) A blockbuster with meat, Spider-Man 2 is as sophisticated emotionally as it is technically (see it on the biggest screen you can find), marking its time appropriately between the money shots and the foreplay. It's smart and it's funny, and it's bolstered by solid performances from a cast growing comfortable in their roles. The picture takes chances with its story that lesser films would not, affirming, along with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that big budgets don't just by the fact of them quash unique, distinctive, ambitious voices. Spider-Man 2 affirms that you can have fun in the proverbial popcorn movie without having to check your brain at the door. Originally published: June 30, 2004.