For most people, the movie that transcended the Super-Hero genre from fun escapism, into a true genre with unlimited potential is The Dark Knight. I can’t blame them, as that happens to be my favorite film of all time. However, in my mind, the movie that truly revolutionized the genre is Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2. It’s not only an exemplary sequel that upgrades the first in every way, but it’s just a flat out great film with wonderful themes and ideas.
We pick up the story two years after the first film ends. Peter Parker (Toby Maguire) is physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted by his obligations as Spider-Man. It has taken a toll on his relationships, his academics, his occupations, and of course, his rent money. Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is still hurting from his rejection of her at the end of the first film, and Harry Osborne (James Franco) is still hell bent on destroying Spider-Man after his fatal battle with his father Norman.
Peter finds himself having to shape up with a new enemy arises in the form of Dr Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a benevolent but overly ambitious scientist who wants to use tritium to create the world’s first unlimited power source. After a catastrophic accident during a demonstration, he finds himself with four mechanical arms used for assistance with the volatile element grafted to his back, and his wife (Donna Murphy) killed in the wake. He secumbs to his grief, and the advanced artificial intelligence of the arms, and plans to rebuild the machine, even if it means drowning New York in the process. Peter becomes so overwhelmed by this, that he decides to give up the crusade of being Spider-Man all together.
In virtually every aspect, this movie is an improvement over the first.
The performances are richer. Maguire manages to not only make Peter more likable by toning down some of his creepy, obsessive qualities (even though they are still very much there in parts), but he also settles into the role of Spider-Man. His presence is more commanding, and his quips are much improved, even if they are still not as constant as they should be. Dunst and Franco turn in solid work as expected. However, the real standout here is Molina. He has always been a thoroughly underrated actor and here, he really gets a chance to shine. He captures all of the malice, and conflict of the character. He’s a good man, driven to evil by extreme circumstances, and even as you watch him in his crazed evil daze, you root for him to find himself. Also, the look of the character is perfect. Marc Webb, I love you, but there is no way you’re going to live up to this interpretation of Doc Ock. He’s practically lifted straight from the comics, and is by far the strongest villain of Rami’s trilogy.
The film strikes a much better balance between the ‘golly gee’ old school sensibilities of this world, and a sense of real drama. Alvin Sargent’s screenplay is a lot more well paced then David Koepp’s. The themes of balance of responsibilities, sacrifice, and love are explored wonderfully. It gives the characters a lot more chances to stop, and talk to each other like normal people, as opposed to exposition munchers. The scene that exemplifies this most is one about midway through between Peter, and his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), where he admits to his responsibility for his Uncle Ben’s death by telling her the story of the robber that he could have stopped, but didn’t. Not only does the dialogue feel naturalistic, but Maguire and Harris sell it like crazy. It’s heartbreaking.
The action scenes are also spectacular. Sam Rami really gets a handle on the movement of Spider-Man here, and it leads to some extended, multi location beat downs between Spider Man and Doc Ock that are wonderful to watch. In particular, the battle on the train is glorious to behold. It flows from all different sides, and angles seamlessly as these two pummel each other, and Bill Pope’s wonderful cinematography ensure’s that you don’t miss a single blow. It’s the best Spider-Man fight that has ever been put on film.
As great as this movie is, there are a couple chinks in it’s armor. For starters, a couple plot threads feel slightly undercooked. The movie plays with the idea of Spider-Man loosing his powers (a nod to him running out of web fluid in the comics), but it never really arrives at a solution for why it is happening. I mean…they kind of do, but it’s silly. Spider-Man’s condition is biological, and should have nothing to do with how much he wants to be Spider-Man. Also, Peter’s 180 from retiring from being Spider-Man, to stepping back into the role feels a little quick and jarring, but hey, the movie can only be so long.
Also, there are a couple of classic moments of Rami campyness. Some are wonderfully fun (all of the screwball sight gags in this movie are fantastic), others, particularly the acting from some of the extras in tiny supporting roles is painful.
and of course…
These really are minor faults though. This is a powerhouse of a super-hero film that is as rich in spectacle, as it is in character. It’s by far Rami’s strongest Spider-Man movie, and just a flat out great film.
and it sure sets up a lot of potential for the third one…oh the third one…my heart is still broken.