She Said/He Said: Spider-Man 2
By David Mumpower
June 29, 2004

This is a prime example of the artificiality of all-CGI scenes.

A treatise on responsibility doesn't sound like the basis for the comic book movie of the year, but that's exactly what Spider-Man 2 proves to be. The results are inconsistent at times but thanks to the magic of confident direction and a masterful set of intersecting storylines, the sequel to the number one film of 2002 proves to be ultimately satisfying.

The second movie picks up a brief while after the end of the original. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is still struggling with the weight of his abilities and his incongruous desires to help others while keeping his own life. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) has moved on to find another impossibly handsome, successful man to date, but her schoolgirl crush on Parker still rules her heart. For his part, our hero is hopelessly in love with MJ, but he stubbornly refuses to endanger her by introducing the dangers of his double life into her existence. The doomed lovers are at a total impasse.

Meanwhile, spoiled tycoon Harry Osborn (James Franco) continues to mourn the death of his father. Unbeknownst to the boy, papa Norman Osborn's personality had gone dark. When his mind split into the Green Goblin, the confrontation with Spider-Man which made his death became somewhat of a mercy killing in nature. Even that knowledge wouldn't change the kid's mind, though, as he blames "The Bug" for the tragedy.

Harry's struggles in dealing with this situation, his loss of Mary Jane, and the distance between him and best friend Peter Parker have left the boy in dire straits. The cat being in the cradle, the younger Osborn is showing all the signs of following his father's path on the descent into madness unless Peter can somehow reach him.

In short, drama and conflict abound in every part of Peter Parker's life, and that's before he is introduced to flawed genius, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). Their relationship is the crux of the sequel even as their onscreen relationship is surprisingly limited in duration. Octavius is in many ways an older version of Parker. He has managed to handle the trappings of gifted intelligence in a capacity that affords career success but without the isolation young photographer and student Parker faces.

A mentor/protégé relationship is immediately formed albeit too quickly for my tastes. Since the duo comprises the yin and yang of the film, I would have preferred a deeper exploration of their connection rather than the largely superficial one offered. This is symptomatic of the only real problem with the sequel. There is so much going on here that several story arcs are given only marginal exploration as viewers are quickly propelled along to the next big CGI sequence.

Since I recognize the majority of people attending the film are there for the action, I don't think this complaint is a key issue. For me, though, it's the difference between liking Spidey 2 and loving it enough to be a best-of-year contender. I can't help but shake the notion that there is a better (by which I mean more cerebral) cut of this movie out there, but I suspect I won't get to watch it until the Spider-Man 2.5 DVD is released. The other complaint I have is one that won’t be going away any time soon, I’m afraid. Studios continue to stubbornly attempt to have CGI-rendered action sequences between heroes and villains rather than allow for the possibility of letting actors act. As has been the case with several other notable recent big budget films, the moments when Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus clash in fully digitized CGI adds an artificial element to proceedings that are otherwise masterfully engaging in their realistic tone. All CGI sequences continue to be a misstep, and I’m disappointed that Spider-Man 2 falls victim to this trapping of technology.

So, that's what I didn't like. What did I love? Everything else. Sam Raimi's growing confidence as a director shines through at so many moments here. He understands the natural drama intrinsic to the story, so he deftly tracks the multiple arcs with a light touch. With each one, he successfully mines the emotional impact to fullest degree. There are no fewer than three sequences in the final hour of the film that resonate with soulful depth. For a Hollywood tentpole release to achieve this sort of psychological impact is unprecedented recently.

In particular, the effort of Molina as Doctor Octopus is impressive. Molina, one of the finest indie actors in the world, is perfectly at home in this seemingly incongruous big budget casting. His decision to imbue the mad scientist with a great deal of humanity pays off in spades during the climactic sequences where Spider-Man appeals to his intellect. The beauty of their conflict during the denouement is that it isn’t just a physical altercation. There is also the subtext of two former friends now warring against each other that permeates throughout the proceedings. Theirs is a fight not just of brawn but also of intellect and of spirit, and that’s a refreshing decision for a blockbuster.

Also, Molina’s Doc Ock costume is a particularly strong job of special effects. The slithering mechanical arms are given what I may only describe as a personality which pervades manipulation and evil as they seek to overwhelm the confused doctor’s sensibilities. Their presence as the physical representation of Octavio’s path to moral decay enhances the presence of both the character and the storyline whenever they are on-screen. It might seem like a little thing, but these arms manage to become an ancillary character in the movie due to their clever implementation.

Spider-Man 2 is not the home run that I was hoping it might be, but the film is certainly one of the best sequels of all time in addition to being one of the best movies of the year to date. There are flaws in it, but they are insignificant to the larger enjoyment of the product. In point of fact, the chief complaint with the second Spider-Man film is that it leaves the viewer wanting more because the relationships are so well-developed that they become borderline addictive.

Read what She Said.