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Spider-Man 2   A-

Columbia Pictures / Marvel Enterprises

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Alvin Sargent, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon (based on the comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy, Bruce Campbell.

Review by Rob Vaux

Oh yeah. That's the sweet spot.

Those planning a film franchise would do well to emulate Spider-Man 2. Expand rather than repeat. Develop rather than regurgitate. Enhance and deepen the ideas of the original without traveling over previously existing ground. In his first outing, director Sam Raimi did a solid job of bringing the misunderstood superhero to life. His follow-up is a magnificent example of the sequel as creative opportunity: bold and imaginative, undiminished by the naked commercialism propelling it. "The story continues," as the ads put it, and in this case, they're not just blowing smoke.

The key to its success is Raimi's respect for his source material; without it, a blockbuster this large would trample the filmmaker flat. But he keeps the human element in center frame, relying on 40 years of comic books to provide a strong narrative heft. We return once more to the sun-drenched streets of Manhattan, where Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is coming to grips with his role as civic protector. He's still thwarting robberies, averting disasters, and pulling kids clear of oncoming cars by the score. But all that leaves precious little time for school or a job... or a girl like Mary Jane Watson (the luminous Kirsten Dunst), whose long-neglected adoration of Peter is finally beginning to wilt. With Daily Bugle headlines calling for Spidey's head and former pal Harry Osborn (James Franco) scheming for revenge, he begins to wonder if he can't turn his back on the do-gooder routine and try to build a normal existence.

The dilemma occupies the first hour of screen time, providing an excellent foundation for the ensuing action. Raimi holds the big set pieces in reserve, doling them out with relished timing so as not to crush the characters beneath them. His usual visual inventiveness keeps things lively (including some fun heroic variants such as a "get it there or you're fired" pizza delivery), but his primary focus is Parker's soul-searching: the sometimes humorous, often heartbreaking cost of life as a superhero. Maguire's performance is funny and touching. Peter has grown up a bit, but he's still unsure of himself, and his secrets keep him isolated from those whom he cares for the most. Nowhere is this more evident than in the formidable chemistry between Maguire and Dunst -- fully intact from the first film -- which Raimi expertly transforms into the aching pain of unconsummated love. It's surprising enough to see that in a summer action film; more surprising to realize that Spider-Man 2 does it without skimping on the adrenaline we expect.

And have no worries: it kicks into overtime during the second half. Having set the table with grace and humor, Raimi gleefully overturns it with the arrival of Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), twisted survivor of the standard-issue Experiment Gone Wrong™, who has no intention of letting the wall-crawler ease into gentle retirement. Doc Ock's four metallic tentacles give both the effects and the fight choreography a unique fulcrum that the film takes full advantage of. From the supervillain's inaugural rampage on the surgery table to his repeated tangles with our friendly neighborhood protagonist, Raimi's knack for sniggering eye candy finds endless expression on-screen. And while it continually blows our socks off, it does so in perfect harmony with the more thoughtful material preceding it. The fights make sense in the context of the greater story, and always reflect understandable human motivations.

That's Spider-Man 2's secret weapon: it's loud and exciting, but it never leaves its characters behind. The feat requires more than just an eye for entertainment or a respect for the audience. It requires someone who knows Spidey's pantheon like the back of his hand, and loves it with all his heart. Raimi's affection for his subject is boundless, energizing every frame with breathless enthusiasm. The film stands easily on its own, but it also acknowledges its predecessor with unusual care, as well as nicely preparing the stage for future installments. Casual filmgoers will enjoy new twists on some earlier gags (Bruce Campbell's back, and J.K. Simmons still leaves us in stitches as cantankerous publisher J. Jonah Jameson), while hardcore Spider-fans will find hordes of little touches lifted reverently from the comics (huge fanboy snuzzles to whoever asked Alex Ross to work on the credits). Spider-Man 2 simply does everything right. Every scene, every line, every moment is orchestrated into an irresistibly entertaining final product. It takes more than talent to make a guy in long underwear look this damn good; it takes filmmakers willing to go above and beyond the call of duty. Spider-Man 2 is a summer dream come true.

Review published 06.29.2004.

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