Sunday, July 4, 2004

I've spun my review of Spider-Man 2 for next week's paper, and here it is for your reading pleasure. Happy Fourth!

Spider-Man 2
As an ethical journalist, I have to confess right off the bat: I’m not objective when it comes to Spider-Man.
I picked up my first “Spider-Man” comic book in 1979, and have been reading them more or less constantly ever since.
So when it comes to an impartial review of “Spider-Man 2,” I might not be your man. This fun-filled, heartfelt ride of a movie instantly reverted me back to a 13-year-old comic book nut again. That kid would simply say of this movie, “Cool!”
“Spider-Man 2” is the perfect summer movie blockbuster, with returning director Sam Raimi balancing action, drama, intelligence and humor.
We pick up two years after “Spider-Man,” and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is now a college student, struggling to pay his bills, make his grades and care for his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). But complicating his life even more is that he’s also Spider-Man. Superhero duties has kept him from confessing his love for longtime friend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and now he’s starting to wonder if it’s all worth it.
Meanwhile, a devastating experiment deranges inventor Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), fusing super-strong metal arms to his skin and turning him into what the tabloids dub “Dr. Octopus.” Octopus hooks up with Peter’s embittered former friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), who blames Spider-Man for his dad The Green Goblin’s death in the last flick.
Is it even worth being Spider-Man anymore with all this hassle? Peter Parker’s decision may surprise you.
“Spider-Man 2” has a lot in common with my other pick as the best superhero sequel of all time, 1981’s “Superman II.” Both movies dispensed with the lengthy origin exposition and got right to the heart of things, and both ask, can you be a superhero and still have a life of your own? It feels real, which is something even as solid a comic movie as the “X-Men” series couldn’t quite manage.
What makes Spider-Man work is he’s a regular guy. Peter Parker lives in a dingy apartment instead of some palatial “Spider-Cave.” And can you picture Superman delivering pizzas to make rent?
Parker takes a lot of punches in this movie, real and emotional, and Maguire is just perfect. He’s a young man paralyzed by his overwhelming sense of responsibility, unable to live the care-free life a normal college kid would have. Maguire’s puppy-dog gaze goes a long way toward making Spider-Man more man than spider.
Dunst is the perfect match for him, sexy and smart, and tough enough to punch the bad guys back this go-round.
Character actor Molina (“Boogie Nights,” “Frida”) is a superb choice as Doctor Octopus, giving a fearsome villain a sense of humanity. He’s not all that bad — he’s just arrogant and had a rotten run of luck, and his spooky mechanical tentacles are doing a lot of the thinking for him.
Director Raimi seems looser and has more fun with this movie than the first “Spider-Man.” Some of the trademark crazed quick cuts and editing he brought to his classic “Evil Dead” series are on show here, and there’s a playful but never campy tone, highlighted by the gorgeous, colorful cinematography of Bill Pope.
The action sequences are faster, slicker and feature far better special effects than in part one. You feel the punches fly. A spellbinding sequence aboard a moving train might just be the best action scene you’ll see all year, with a tense climax that’ll nearly stop your heart.
The movie does come perilously close to being the tragic story of Peter Parker, perpetual loser, but Raimi has an uncanny knack for ramping up the mood whenever it gets too sappy. The movie might also be a little talky for young kids, some of whom squirmed through my screening, but I found it gave the flick more substance than an all-flash, no-substance movie like “Van Helsing.”
What really tilts “Spider-Man 2” into four-star territory for me is that the characters grow and change. Peter Parker grows up here, as does his longtime love Mary Jane.
The creators don’t feel obligated to return everything to the status quo (remember Superman’s awful “memory erasing kiss” in “Superman II”?), and the finale manages to be both uplifting and ominous. “Spider-Man 3” in 2007 just can’t come fast enough.
The key thing about Spider-Man has always been his refusal to back down even when faced against overwhelming odds. “Spider-Man 2” beats back the toughest foe of all — the curse of high expectations — and emerges a winner for the ages.
(Rated PG-13 for violence, scary moments.)
**** of four

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