director: Sam Raimi
starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco
running time: 125 mins
rating: PG

Spider-Man 2The original Spider-Man was fun on the surface, but without any depth. Everything it was lacking, its sequel serves up magnificently with a skillful blend of superhero action, romance and soul-searching.

Since the first film, Peter Parker [Tobey Maguire] has been eaten up by the stress of his double life, causing him to lose jobs, fail in classes and miss rent. His not-very-secret romantic interest Mary Jane [Kirsten Dunst] meanwhile, has become a successful actress and model, haunting Peter wherever he goes. This strain is starting to affect his powers, and eventually he throws out his Spandex suit and chooses to shed the responsibility he can no longer bear. But after scientist Otto Octavius’ [Alfred Molina] experiment in fusion, funded by Peter’s best friend Harry Osborne [James Franco], results in a catastrophic accident that fuses four robotic tentacle-arms to him and turning him into psychotic menace Doc Ock, Spider-Man may be the only one who can protect the city.

Spider-Man 2‘s strongest feature is its focus on both sides of our hero’s life, and making each equally compelling. The love story that fizzled in the previous installment sizzles throughout this one. Parker realises that he does have a choice and eventually, realistically, he chooses having a life of his own and a chance with MJ over the responsibilities he has been shouldering. As before, Maguire brings a real depth to the tortured soul of his character and here is matched by Dunst whose MJ feels hopelessly lost as Parker pushes her away despite their obvious chemistry. Her role is far more than merely a damsel-in-distress this time round, and she makes full use of it.

Doc Ock has Spidie in tight spotMolina’s performance as Doc Ock is particularly impressive as he manages to bring a tangible sense of emotional turmoil to an essentially psychotic villain. We can see that somewhere deep behind his eyes he realises that he is destroying his life’s work, without making him any less terrifying. Also noteworthy is Rosemary Harris as Aunt May who suffers from some poor dialogue (although generally the scripting is far better this time around) but is able to hint wonderfully at suspicions of Parker’s alter-ego. Only Harry remains blandly one-dimensional, making it is difficult to be sympathetic to his spoilt character, although Franco is able to instill some conflict. Lastly, J.K. Simmons reprises his minor role as the Daily Bugle‘s editor and once again dominates every scene he’s in, perfectly embodying the character with tremendous delivery of his lines.

The distinctly average special effects of its predecessor are washed away here, and the web-slinging aerial scenes are spectacularly rendered with far more realistic weight and movement. The highlight is Doc Ock’s appendages which are not only distinctly creepy (coupled with impressive sound editing as he thunders around) but genuinely seem to take on a life of their own with both personality and reaction to their surroundings.

Mary JaneSimilarly the action rises leaps and bounds with some spectacular fights and rescues. The coffeeshop scene as Peter dives on MJ to protect her feels chillingly real. Unsurprisingly for a comicbook film, the most overblown succeeds best in a long battle atop a train (regardless of the fact New York has no elevated trains) which Spiderman eventually has to bring to a grinding halt in order to save the occupants. Yet the action is notably not overdone, and the first half of the film is actually rather lacking in it, since it chooses to focus instead on the human side of its tale.

Raimi’s direction is excellent this time round, keeping everything tight and generally focused, although the middle act is a little too slow and expository at times. He always ensures that the audience feels what is happening to his characters, particularly in one painful scene as Peter hurtles down the full height of a narrow alleyway. Perhaps his greatest skill is in allowing the tone to lighten at certain moments throughout the film along with varioys homages to his own B-movie origins. Particularly notable are the busker playing a (terrible) rendition of the Spider-Man animated series theme, an comically awkward elevator scene, and an amusing Bruce Campbell (the hero of Raimi’s Evil Dead series) cameo as a rude usher. And while not particularly subtle, he does reward those who watch the whole story unfold, such as MJ kissing her astronaut boyfriend upside down as she remembers her kiss with Spider-Man in the original movie, but cleverly without hammering the point home. My only minor gripe is the ending which should surely have ended on the cliffhanger with Harry’s discovery, which would have built up far more anticipation for the inevitable and much deserved third installment.

Adding to the short list of sequels that manage to outdo their predecessors, Spider-Man 2 succeeds through Raimi’s expert blending of big-budget action with a truly engaging character-driven story, aided by wonderfully subtle and compelling performances from his main cast. For comicbook fans, this is the modern classic for which they have been waiting, and for those who may not even know who Stan Lee is, Spider-Man 2 remains a solidly enjoyable movie in its own right.

rating: 3.5/4