Two years on, and lifes just got tougher for Peter Parker (Maguire). Hes having problems dealing with his feelings for Mary Jane (Dunst), his editor at the Daily Bugle (Simmons) keeps firing him, his college work is slipping, and his best mate Harry (Fr
“With great power,” goes the Spider-Man credo, “comes great responsibility.” Well, for the primary-coloured webslinger’s second multiplex swing shift, it’s not “great responsibility” he’s had to contend with so much as great expectation; of all this year’s blockbuster wannabes, Spider-Man 2 has long been considered the shoo-in for Best Of Summer 2004. Sam Raimi’s back at the helm with a promise to keep the first movie’s balance of heart and high-flying action, while the original cast’s return signals the fact that this is very much a character-powered “part two” continuation, rather than a shallow, Batmanish excuse for some fresh, ham-scented villains to flounce about.
Thankfully, Spider-Man 2 does undoubtedly pounce out of the top drawer as this summer’s most satisfying, spectacle-packed movie. Like its predecessor, it offers a strong story rather than a feeble excuse to connect set-pieces, now focussing on Peter Parker’s (Maguire) struggle to balance his identities – the great responsibility versus all those smaller ones required to get by in everyday life – and suppress his not-so-unrequited love for Mary-Jane (Dunst). Given the amount of time Raimi spends dealing with this, rather than Spidey’s mask-on antics, he does run the risk of losing our attention. But Maguire and Dunst are too accomplished to let us wander, keeping their scenes taut and tingling with sexual energy.
As for Raimi, it’s clear he’s been given more freedom on this installment. When he’s not stirring up the Parker angst or toying with his protagonist’s lovelife, he indulges his own cheeky sense of humour. In one scene he allows a tuneless busker to trill the old Spider-Man TV cartoon theme-music (just one of so many compulsory winks to the sizeable fanboy contingent), in several others he requires Maguire – in beleagured, shoved-around-by-the-world mode – to perform some of the brutal pratfalling he was so fond of forcing on old buddy Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead movies. Speaking of which, there’s even one moment when he tests the classification boards with a stylish and unashamedly violent homage to his early splatterstick comedy-horrors: just substitute the floor-skimming unseen-evil POV for Doc Ock’s tentacle-cam, a panicking surgeon for Ash and a chainsaw for a bonesaw, and you’re there.
It helps, of course, that Raimi has some much-improved FX at his disposal, plus a more malleable bad guy to play with than the Green Goblin. Not to diss Willem Dafoe – as the pumped-up, brain-wronged Norman Osborn, he was perfect; but that stiff, Power Rangers-reject battle armour canned a great performance and constrained the action choreography. Despite his burliness, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is a far more kinetic opponent for Spidey and their intense, frantic, very often vertical man-dances, with Ock’s whirling, serpentine superlimbs stretching his foe’s fighting talents to the limit, trounce any of the first movie’s showdowns.
Beyond the battlezone, Molina shakes up just the right cocktail of brooding, storm-eyed menace and showy villainy, bringing necessary weight to a character who, at the end of the day, is a man possessed by a quartet of sinister robot snakes. It’s just a shame that we don’t, as an audience, get to spend a bit more time with him, and that personality-wise he’s virtually a rushed carbon copy of the Goblin – you know: good scientist, experiment goes wrong, consumed by ambition, internal struggle…
In other ways, too, the sequel treads rather too closely to Part One. There’s a moment when an astonished Peter plummets mid-jump, another involving a burning building and MJ gets wet again – while repeating her irked abductee act. But it’s not so familiar it breeds contempt, and when something screams with this much quality, it seems churlish to criticise it for being more of the same.
A minor improvement on the first film makes for a major success when compared with its summer competition. Sam Raimi has once again crafted a blockbuster that thinks as hard as it thwacks.