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Spinning Blanks

 

Spider-Man 2

Sam Raimi, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.2

 

 

Posted: July 2, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Poor Peter Parker. Life as the web-slinging superhero Spider-Man sure isn't what it's cracked up to be. His awesome responsibilities are getting in the way of his school (battling criminals tends to make one late for class) and his work (nabbing bad guys and delivering pizzas don't mix). The threat of supervillain reprisal forces him to remain emotionally distant from the girl he loves. When his struggling, impoverished Aunt May forces a $20 bill she can ill afford into his hands as a birthday present, it's snatched right back out by the greedy landlord of Peter's rickety apartment. And for the ultimate psychological mind-screw, when he's lucky enough to sell photos of Spider-Man in action to the Daily Bugle, those images are used to illustrate the tabloid's inflammatory anti-Spidey screeds. The guy just can't catch a break. No wonder he's shooting blanks.

Literally, as it turns out: Building on the original film's time-tested superpowers-as-puberty metaphor, Spider-Man 2 gives us a Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) suffering from impotence. He's so stressed out, he occasionally can't shoot a web or stick to a wall when the situation demands. Give director Sam Raimi credit for pulling off this, er, sticky bit of symbolism: Acknowledging the web-spinning-as-masturbation analogy comic geeks have been chuckling about for decades is a tricky proposition in a summer blockbuster geared toward the largest possible audience.

But to carry the belabored sexual metaphor a step further, there's another easy explanation for Spidey's impotence (or at least Spider-Man 2's): Performance anxiety. After all, when your first film sets box-office records, wins universal acclaim and causes giddy thoughts of "franchise" to careen through the heads of movie geeks and studio heads alike, you're bound to feel an incredible amount of pressure to make the second go-round bigger and better in every way.

Alas, that pressure is as palpable a presence in Spider-Man 2 as Peter Parker's many burdensome woes. It's there in the frenetic action sequences, which pile on one gee-whiz element after another: an impressively staged battle along the side of a building, complete with an imperiled Aunt May; another atop and inside a runaway train heading implausibly for a dead-end. These moments rush by so quickly that the film threatens to shoot its cinematic load prematurely -- and it doesn't help that the CGI tinkering is lazily obvious throughout, especially when Spider-Man hastily manages to safely spin webs to catch commuters thrown from the train.

For awhile, the film's pressure to improve upon its predecessor bears admirable fruit. Doctor Octopus (née Otto Octavius), the villain of the piece, is certainly more intriguing, both visually and as a character, than the first film's Green Goblin. Alfred Molina plays "Doc Ock" with an insinuating, subtle menace sorely lacking from Willem Dafoe's Goblin, and his artificially intelligent mechanical arms snicker-snack with a visual flair the comics have rarely conveyed.

Too bad, then, that Molina is saddled spouting absurd techno-gibberish about a fusion-based energy source, and that his cardboard-thin purpose here is to recreate the ridiculous-looking experiment that killed his wife, fused those robot arms to his spine and drove him mad. It's a measure of Hollywood's creative impotency that much of the film's climax is wasted with the characters standing around gawking at or attempting to contain this clumsy McGuffin.

What's more, for such a compelling villain, Doctor Octopus is forced to take a back seat to the film's real conflict: the romance between Parker and the object of his affections, comely Mary Jane Watson. Kirsten Dunst does a nice job of conveying Mary Jane's frustration and impatience with Peter, who holds himself back from declaring his love for her for fear of the danger she might face as Spider-Man's girlfriend.

Trouble is, her impatience is contagious. Peter gives up his role as Spider-Man in hopes of having a life (shades of Superman II) and declares his feelings; Mary Jane (engaged to an astronaut who's little more than a cipher) rebuffs them; Mary Jane changes her mind; Peter changes his -- the tug-of-war eats up so much screen time it overshadows the conflict with Octavius, who ultimately is reduced to little more than an elaborate plot point.

Of course, all of this could be overlooked, since it's the internal struggles that have always defined Spider-Man. But Spider-Man 2 attempts to mess with that formula, and it brings the film toppling to the ground. Things don't come easily for Peter Parker, and he must ever be thwarted in getting what he wants. Having been offered a shot at happiness with Mary Jane, Peter must come to the realization that that happiness can never be. Having tasted it, however briefly, must make the certain knowledge that he must turn his back on it all the more bitter. That's the crux of the character. But the film's resolution of this romantic web flies in the face of that central, undeniable truth, and in doing so cheapens and undermines everything that's come before.

Spider-Man 2 has its share of sturdy performances, including Maguire, Molina, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May and J.K. Simmons, exhibiting a deft comic touch as Bugle publisher and tireless Spidey-hater J. Jonah Jameson. (The solid Bill Nunn is still criminally underused as Bugle editor Robbie Robertson). James Franco's one-note performance as Peter's pal Harry Osborn, on the other hand, is cause for some alarm, since the film all but positions him as the villain for Spider-Man 3.

But those worries are for another day. All of the likable performances on display here can't keep Spider-Man 2 from trying too hard to top its predecessor, or from ultimately getting caught in the tangled web of its hollow resolution.

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