Sam Raimi, USA, 2004
Posted: July 2, 2004
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
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
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
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