(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
It ain’t easy being super. Just ask Spider-Man, whose acrobatics take a back seat to angst in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, a sensational summer treat that delivers more high-flying adventure, comic book melodrama and sheer joy than any superhero movie since Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. Refusing to succumb to conventional blockbuster edicts that story is only the stuff that moves a film from one hectic special effects sequence to another, Raimi shoots for the highest common denominator by spinning a web of larger-than-life emotion and kinetic action. It’s an exuberant and mature follow-up that delivers as much intelligence, passion and pathos as pyrotechnics, and, in the process, accomplishes the unlikely feat of outshining its predecessor.
In the two years since he defeated the Green Goblin, turned his best friend Harry (James Franco) against Spider-Man, and rejected long-time love Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) for a solitary life of fighting crime, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has learned that being a superhero is a chore. Vainly attempting to balance commitments to school, family, and friends with the responsibility of keeping New York safe, Parker’s life is in a shambles. Maguire, whose eyes convey the burden of his never-ending duty, brings a soulful believability to Parker’s anguish, but Alvin Sargent’s script wisely intersperses our hero’s tormented introspection with humorous asides involving an awkward elevator ride (“Nice Spidey suit” he’s told by a fellow passenger) and the revelation that his costume bleeds in the wash. And when the subject of his physics term paper – famed scientist Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) – is transformed during an experiment-gone-awry into Doctor Octopus, a fiend with Medusa-like mechanical limbs, Peter’s momentous decision to try dumping his red-and-black tights for a normal life becomes much stickier.
And much more grand, as Spider-Man 2 amplifies everything thrilling and touching about the original. Despite Mary Jane’s impending marriage to J. Jonah Jameson’s (J.K. Simmons) astronaut son, Dunst and Maguire continue to share a smoldering chemistry, and Molina’s Doc Ock – who, like Spider-Man, recognizes his extraordinary powers are something of a curse – exudes a maniacal villainy rooted in corrupted humanism. While the rubbery CGI Spider-Man who swings through the city remains visually disconnected from Maguire’s realistic alter-ego, Raimi’s direction is equally nimble during tender conversations between Peter and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and intense moments such as a scene involving Doc Ock and a hospital staff that boasts delirious Evil Dead-style point-of-view shots. Raimi knows how to shoot soaring, supercharged set pieces – including an awesome showstopper featuring Spidey and Doc Ock battling atop an elevated NYC subway train – but ultimately it’s Peter’s grounded personal dilemma that makes Spider Man 2 more than just an exercise in big-budget computer-generated wizardry. Many adjectives apply, but Raimi’s film is, in a word, amazing.