Spider-Man 2 (2004) — It’ll grab you and never let you go

“I’m Spider-Man no more.”

Drew’s rating: For pudgy, middle-aged supervillains, skip the neon green spandex and go for trenchcoats

Drew’s review: WOW.

Seriously, just… wow. It’s been over an hour since I walked out of my first (and definitely not last) viewing of Spider-Man 2 in the theater, and I still haven’t come down yet — always a good sign. Before I start gushing, though, I guess it’s my duty, as an unbiased (pfftt) reviewer, to list the negative qualities. (I’ll make it quick, promise.)

Though director Sam Raimi mostly stays on the right side of the bright, fun superheroics/camp line, it is a bit cheesy in a couple of places — Spidey being borne to safety over everyone’s heads in the subway car, for instance, and Mary Jane’s taking a page from The Graduate near the end of the movie. Also, MJ getting kidnapped all the time could get old if they keep doing it.

Next — Doc Ock, minus the arms, is just a regular guy, while Spider-Man’s strong enough to lift cars; his trading blows with Osborn last time was believable, but how’s Octavius standing up to more than one punch? And finally, Ock’s shirtless in a couple of parts, which is just kinda gross. But that’s it, I swear; the rest is pure magic!

You can tell that Raimi is looser and more inclined to play around this time, as seen in the Evil Dead 2-inspired hospital scene. (Chainsaws and mechanical appendages… YES!) Everything about the movie is just bigger and better: more web-slinging, more gags (the elevator scene is priceless), more intensity, and best of all for mutant readers, more Bruce Campbell! Yeah, Bruce, you keep Peter out of that theater! Ahem.

Speaking of Tobey Maguire, the boy was just born to play Peter Parker, and that’s all there is to it. Nerdy yet powerful, optimistic but incessantly put-upon… he might’ve benefited from having a few more wisecracks as Spidey, but that’s not his fault. Kirsten Dunst, meanwhile, continues to be pretty and to look very good in tight clothing, which is all I need. For the rest of you, her Mary Jane builds nicely upon the past and continues to grow as a character, wanting to figure Peter out but staying well clear of the Lois Lane stereotype. Extra credit for that final shot, contrasting Peter’s joy in being Spider-Man with what we can plainly see from her face is the first of many a long, worrisome night for MJ.

Then we have the supporting characters. J.K. Simmons nails J. Jonah Jameson, of course, getting more screentime and even better lines this time around. (And upon his sudden change of heart about Spider-Man — and then immediate shift back — the inner geek in me couldn’t help but think, “That’s exactly what he would’ve done in the comics!”) His son doesn’t get to do much, but whatever, he’s just there to look pretty anyway. Rosemary Harris brings the right mixture of sweet old lady and spitfire to Aunt May; to be honest, I was expecting her character to be quietly shuffled off to the sidelines, but she had a significant role and did very well with it. I’d talk about James Franco, but I’m sure Clare will write at least 3 paragraphs about the former Freaks and Geeks star hitting it big, so I’ll just say that he captures Harry’s deteriorating friendship with Peter (and mental state) terrifically. I won’t give away the ending, but his final discovery has me looking forward to Spider-Man 3 more than words can say. (Now, what begins with an “H” and ends with an “H”…)

Bringing a comic-book villain to life on the big screen is no easy task, as any director will tell you — for every Hackman or Nicholson, there’s about a dozen Schwarzeneggers. The fact is, most of us grew up seeing these guys emblazoned on lunchboxes and backpacks, and impotently shaking their fists and shouting death threats on Saturday morning cartoons. Thus, it’s easy for us to forget just how menacing and unnerving most of them would actually be in real life. A man with four mechanical octopus arms might sound funny when you first hear about it, but seeing it come to life on the big screen? I’ll say this — in my theater, nobody was laughing.

Major, major props to the special effects team; Doc Ock’s arms don’t just look believable in every single frame they’re in, they genuinely seem to have a personality of their own, something even the comic never accomplished. And what can I say about Alfred Molina, except that he brings a level of intensity and danger to the role that I never felt from the Green Goblin last time out. (Note: Willem Dafoe still rules all.) More than that, though, he makes us realize that for all of Octavius’s villainy, he was a good man at one point — a bit arrogant, too caught up in his work, but decent nonetheless. I love it when actors take their comic-book roles seriously, and Molina deserves all the credit in the world for a terrific performance.

When all is said and done, you just have to reflect on what makes for a truly great Spider-Man story, then compare it to how many of those elements were included in the movie. Human angle that focuses more on Peter Parker, everyman with real-world problems, than some invincible guy in a costume? Yep. Cool but tragic villain with ties to both Spider-Man and Peter? Absolutely. Spidey using his brain and his heart, rather than his fists, to beat said bad guy? Oh yeah. Jameson blustering, Aunt May doting, Peter having terrible luck, and Mary Jane saying “Tiger”? Check, check, check, and double check, true believer. It all adds up to a winner in my book, folks… now, bring on Spidey 3!

PoolMan’s rating: Sigh… *thwip*, I guess.

PoolMan’s review: As those who have been with us for some time might remember, in my review for Spider-Man I expressed my childhood desire to be the webslinger. It’s something I’ve always thought would be infinite fun, and the wish hasn’t disappeared with adulthood (or the nearest approximation to it that I can muster, anyways). So colour me thrilled when, having seen Spider-Man quite a few times, I actually had a dream where, you guessed it, I was Spidey.

I’m not making this up. Goofy as it may seem, the entirety of my dream was being Spider-Man, slinging around New York through concrete canyons fighting the Green Goblin. I have to say, it ruled. Better than the flying dreams, better than the invisibility dreams, better than the dreams where Kate Beckinsdale finally returns my calls. Just unbelievable. I remember waking up and being sad it was over.

And now, two years later, I get the most rude awakening possible. The Spidey sequel I’ve been waiting so anxiously for is that most-feared word that I never thought I’d apply to ol’ Webhead… it’s BORING.

But back up the truck a minute, we’ll go over what the movie’s all about first, and then we’ll get to the heartbreak.

Set nearly two years after the first film, Spidey 2 finds poor Peter Parker all caught up in his own web. Two years of college, job hunting, deflecting the affections of the woman he loves, living in a slum, and fighting crime in the streets of New York has not been kind to our hero. He’s losing ground on everything in his life… he loses his pizza job, he’s flunking out at school, and he’s managed to alienate Mary Jane to the point that she no longer consider him even a friend. Making matters worse, J. Jonah Jameson has tirelessly worked to soil his name via the Daily Bugle, and his best friend Harry not only swears vengeance on “the bug” for killing his father, he pressures Peter constantly to provide the superhero’s identity to him. And is if all that wasn’t enough, Spidey finds his powers starting to fade on him… his web glands no longer fire reliably (a bad thing when the web’s the only thing holding him high off the ground), his leaping abilities start to shorten up, and even the improvement in his eyesight starts to fade.

In short: Peter’s tired of this crap.

So, in what can only be charitably described as a near photocopy of Superman II’s “Clark gives up” storyline, Peter throws in the towel and decides to dedicate his energy to living life as a civilian. And for a while, it works. We see Peter enjoying being a student again. He manages to get back into MJ’s good books. Harry still hates him, but hey! Two out of three ain’t bad, right? With the spider out of his life, Parker suddenly starts enjoying the simple things again.

Sure enough though, it can’t last. When a new villain arises to make NYC his personal stomping ground, Peter has to make his choice: can he really throw away the responsibility and the power that no one else can use? I’ll give you a hint: the movie’s not called Peter Parker 2.

There’s a lot of refinements over the original movie. CGI Spidey, an integral part of making the action in both films, has improved leaps and bounds. The plasticky look of Spider-Man 1’s protagonist is much, much less noticeable. As he jumps and swings around NYC, you’ll be a lot less distracted by the visibly apparent fakeness of it. He’s just so much more fluid, so much more realistic. The new villain this time out, the legendary Doctor Octopus, also looks fantastic… not as graceful as Spidey (he shouldn’t be), but grittier and tougher. The improvement in the action scenes is a natural to follow, as the eye is less inclined to play “Spot the special effects” and more likely to play “Holy crap, look at those two smack the hell out of each other as they plummet hundreds of floors to the streets!”. It’s a real treat.

The moments of the movie I really enjoyed were, naturally, the ones that concentrated on the two main characters, Spidey and Doc Ock. Both characters are just tremendous fun to watch, especially for the creative use of their powers. Spidey you should know well enough, but in case you’re in the dark on Octopus, he’s a scientist driven mad after having four giant mechanical tentacles grafted onto his back in the same accident that killed his beloved wife. And everyone is very well acted… Alfred Molina particularly deserves credit for turning Doc Ock into such a tragic and believable character. Tobey Maguire is still good as Peter/Spidey (more on that in a minute, though…). Kirsten Dunst has pretty much worn out her welcome to me, though… MJ was always this incredibly cool, in-control girl that usually managed to flummox Peter in every sense in the comics. Here she’s flatter, less interesting… she’s just the neighbour’s girl. Sure, she’s got the figure for a comic book heroine, but couldn’t we hurry up and get to Black Cat or something? Sheesh.

However, as much as I enjoyed the action and acting in Spider-man 2, I have to call a spade a spade. This movie is just stagnantly boring in the middle act. I am all about the humanity of Spidey’s character, it’s one of the things that draw me to his story, but enough is enough. The entire middle third of the movie is a soap opera. Who will MJ marry? Will Harry continue to haunt his father’s killer? Should Peter have given up the costume? Can I stay awake till the end? They start throwing in interspersed shots of Doc Ock rebuilding his failed experiments in case you thought you’d wandered into Dawson’s Creek: The Next Generation.

Honestly, the whole film’s web just undoes in the middle. We’re treated to corny speech after corny speech with nary an oasis of humour or action to help us out. The pathos is just unfathomable, and it’s all stretched so thin it threatens to break. Thankfully, Spidey slaps the red n’ blues back on in time to meet Doc Ock head-on, but we already knew that would happen… why torment the audience with so much slow drama?

If you’re a Spidey-fan, you do owe it to yourself to check out Spider Man 2. It’s simply too delicious to watch Webs go up against Octopus to pass it up, but the framework of the rest of the movie is nearly too frail. I honestly can’t recommend against it, but I can’t believe that I can’t wholeheartedly endorse it, either.

Ah well. At least Rich will be excited for the return of the Green Goblin. Heh heh…

Kyle’s rating: I would have preferred a movie about the skinny girl, truthfully

Kyle’s review: I referred to Spider-Man 2 as my biggest cinematic disappointment of 2004 in my year-in-review article. And I firmly stand by that judgment. Out of all the movies I watched in ’04, Spidey 2 was the only one I spent the majority of the running time squirming in my seat, uncomfortable and occasionally deathly bored. Spidey 2 sailed by Forces of Nature to appropriately claim the number 2 spot on my Worst Theatrical Experiences of All-Time list, with Quiz Show remaining atop the list for one simple reason: though I was bored with this sequel, I didn’t strike up conversations with other audience members to kill time like I did, often with people five to ten rows away from me, during Quiz Show.

But I didn’t want to simply trash Spider-Man 2. I wanted to understand why I reacted this way, and why it was such a violent and immediate reaction. That is, I suspected from the pizza delivery sequence that this film was going to bite, and each passing moment just proved how true that assessment was. My friend, who tagged along with me to see this on opening day even though the theater was guaranteed to be jam-packed and she hates (potentially noisy) crowds, looked at me when the credits rolled and voiced my exact thoughts: “That was really boring.” That was a relief; knowing I wasn’t alone. The rest of the theater audience just kind of filed out; other than the sparse scattering of applause it was difficult to say if most of them liked it or what.

But on the grand scale, it sure was/is well-received. Huge box-office numbers. Professional critics like Ebert heralding it as the greatest superhero movie ever, and coffeehouse trash dissecting it over espressos to figure out how it could be both the “most depressing yet simultaneously uplifting human film of the past five years” (true eavesdropped tidbit!). Why was the world embracing this instant classic while I was returning to my Burton Batman’s and X2 when I felt like live-action superheroics? Was something wrong with me? (ex-girlfriends need not take that posed question as an excuse to e-mail their lists of “Things Wrong with Kyle” thankyouverymuch)

I think the answer lies both in my decades of reading comic books (with an undeniably heavy emphasis on Spider-Man, especially in my formative years) and in my personal regard for superheroes. See, I’ve read years worth of Peter Parker living the loser life, so I didn’t need to see it so painstakingly replicated on the big-screen. That said, I think his loserdom was a little too over-the-top, with Peter being way too downtrodden and weighed down by his super-burden. You ever heard of balance, my man? If Mary Jane is fed up with you, go with the hot skinny girl bearing chocolate cake and milk. If you’re too tired, let the cops deal with tonight’s bank robber and get some shut-eye. You can wake up early and save New York City in the morning.

But I think the decision to make Peter such a burdened loser loner was to balance out the great power he received so easily, so the audience wouldn’t begrudge him. Sure, it sucks that you lost your uncle, kid, but you get to swing around Manhattan and bench-press Buicks! I’d love to be you, a kid might think, but watching Spider-Man 2 it’s tough to imagine anyone would want to be him. That’s connected with the Marvel Comics depiction of heroes, where they are seldom the godly, well-adjusted (other than Batman) superheroes of DC Comics and more just high-powered angsty good guys who are careful never to abuse their powers and suffer just as much, if not more, than they ever bask in glory.

All of which is to say that a huge part of my disillusion with both Spider-Man movies (but especially the sequel) is that they successfully carried over the hard knocks and hard luck of Parker’s post-atomic-arachnid, but left any sense of personal accomplishment and enjoyment behind on the printed page. And make no mistake, the Parker/Spidey of the comics does a much better job of reconciling with the derision and scorn he gets from J. Jonah Jameson and the non-powered NYC citizens, and by enjoying the fact that he gets to get away from it all high above the city he loves. The comics’ Peter seems truly capable of loving Mary Jane, and of loving the life he has, great responsibilities and tragic losses included. The cinematic Peter, played to wide-eyed “I use magic to fool you into thinking I’m an incredible actor even though I only have one expression” effect by Tobey Maguire, seems so downtrodden and hollowed-out that it’s hard for me to believe he finds the spider-strength to get out of the bed in the morning, let alone stop himself from spinning a web-noose and hanging himself. Just let go, Peter!

But I can pontificate all I want about these details. The biggest reason I don’t care to ever watch Spider-Man 2 again is that it’s strangely distant and exceedingly boring for my tastes. I don’t know if I don’t like Maguire or Kirsten Dunst as thespians or what, but the tepid romance they try to engage in held no interest for me whatsoever. I think even the biggest loser wallflower could stammer something to keep a dying ember burning a little longer, so Peter’s inability to even raise an eyebrow to indicate interest was really infuriating. And hey, we get Parker is supposed to be a huge loser with bad luck, we don’t need to see him living in squalor and not getting any champagne and stepping in gum and having to sew his costume and losing his powers and losing his hair and missing the bus and not getting in to see MJ’s show. We get it. Can we get some web-slinging scenes, please?

I could mention the fights, or Doctor Octopus (if he’s on-screen, it’s slightly cool, if he’s not, d’oh!), or when Peter turns into Jesus Christ on the passenger train (as my friend e puts it: “Peter Parker died for your sins, Octavius”). But it’s not worth it. I’m raising these criticisms so maybe future superhero movies (or any movies, for that matter) will try new things and new forms of synthesis without depowering or devaluing the original concepts. Here’s hoping. Meanwhile, if you’re wondering if you should bother seeing Spider-Man 2 at all, let me ask you this: does the prospect of seeing Bruce Campbell for about 30 seconds playing a recalcitrant theater doorman who denies Peter entry to MJ’s play sound remotely entertaining or even interesting to you? If so, Spider-Man 2 is probably exactly your cup of tea. If not, hey, there’s hope for you! Get some Grant Morrison-written comic books and read ‘em, stat!

Didja Notice?

  • J. Jonah Jameson mentions the name Doctor Strange as “already taken,” a reference to Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme.
  • Hey Pete, if things don’t work out with MJ, whoof- that Betty Brant (Jonah’s secretary) is quite the cutie!
  • Not going any easier on the “Spider-Man = America” imagery this time around, are they? Not that I mind; love those flags.
  • Like the last film, several possible future foes are referenced- Peter’s professor, Dr. Curt Conners, is comic villain the Lizard, while John Jameson will become the Man-Wolf. No glimpse of Eddie Brock (Venom), though.
  • The artwork from the opening credits is by Alex Ross, a famous “photorealistic” comic book artist.
  • That’s Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, appearing briefly to pull a bystander to safety at the fire. Lee previously made cameos in the first Spider-Man and both X-Men movies.
  • Peter’s loss and reacquisition of his powers is never really explained; is Raimi suggesting that he chooses not just whether to be Spider-Man, on a conscious level, but if he’s even ABLE to, subconsciously? Interesting…
    One of the Daily Bugle newspapers features a headshot of Spider-Man that is actually from a promotional image for the comic book mini-series Marvels (1994), which was painted by Alex Ross (who painted the recap images in this film’s main title sequence).
  • The shot of the severed arm still holding the chainsaw in the operating room scene is a tribute to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II
  • The high-speed balls of webbing Spider-man fires at his enemies in this movie are known to comic fans as “Impact Webbing”, introduced in the early-’90s as a creation of Ben Reilly, the clone of Spider-Man.
  • The violinist Elyse Dinh begins playing the old theme song for Spider-Man.
    All Daily Bugle newspapers are chronologically and correctly dated to follow the movie’s plot each day. One of the earlier papers has a topic line that reads “MTA Insider Concerned Over Aging El Train Safety”, making a reference to the eventual Spidey/Doc Ock fight aboard the El near the end of the week/movie.
  • Alfred Molina was in the play “Fiddler on the Roof” as Tevye while shooting this movie. In one wall-climbing scene he is humming the song “If I Were a Rich Man” to himself and the puppeteers overheard him and moved his tentacles in time to the song.
  • Peter’s landlord is named Mr. Ditkovich, a reference to original Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko.
  • What exactly was the point of the girl with the chocolate cake? Anyone? Anyone?
  • Stan Lee is briefly seen pulling someone to safety as rubble falls from overhead.
  • Dr Connors, complete with his single arm!
  • The Classic! The Classic! The car can be seen in Aunt May’s driveway, and to the dream sequence with Uncle Ben.
  • No pizza for you, buddy!
  • Subtle shot of your abs there, Tobey.

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