Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy, Daniel Gillies, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn, Vanessa Ferlito, Aasif Mandvi, Willem Dafoe, Cliff Robertson, Ted Raimi, Elizabeth Banks, Bruce Campbell, Gregg Edelman, Elya Baskin
Written by: Alvin Sargent, from a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon
Directed by: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for stylized action violence
Running Time: 128
Date: 06/24/2004

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) goes through such suffering and torment in Spider-Man 2 that you might think you're watching an Ingmar Bergman film. But of course, that's the secret behind Spider-Man and many of his fellow superheroes over at Marvel Comics. They have lives just as complicated as ours, but made more difficult by the inclusion of super-powers. How much responsibility does a super-hero have? Do his or her personal problems always have to take a back seat to some stranger getting mugged in an alley? Spider-Man 2 beautifully illustrates this quandary in its opening minutes.

Working as a pizza delivery boy, Peter must change into Spider-Man to get his pies delivered on time. Unfortunately, he spots a pair of children running out into the street, chasing a red ball in front of a speeding truck (don't these truck drivers ever watch out for bouncing red balls and children?). Because he saves the kids, he misses his delivery by two minutes and loses his job.

But Peter's problems only get worse. He can't pay the rent, and his tortured unrequited love affair with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) escalates. His best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) wants to kill Spider-Man, and his dear old Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) finally learns the truth about Uncle Ben's death and how Peter could have prevented it.

Meanwhile, brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) invents a set of mechanical arms to help him build a self-sustaining energy generator, but everything goes wrong and he becomes the latest super-villain, Doc Ock (short for Doctor Octopus). And last, but not least, Peter begins to lose his Spider powers.

With his inherent mischievous glee, director Sam Raimi couldn't be more perfect for this story. Tales of Raimi tormenting his brother Ted and his friend Bruce Campbell (both of whom appear in small parts here) on the sets of their various projects are legendary. Raimi is like Moe Howard, the grumpiest of the Three Stooges, playing the torture for laughs.

Raimi even gets a chance to insert some of his brutally imaginative horror imagery. When Doc Ock goes on his first rampage, tearing up a medical lab filled with gleaming metallic buzzsaws, the sinister lighting and gruesomely slick camera movements echo his celebrated cult films The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II.

Raimi's graceful camera movements translate into the film's most exciting action sequences, especially a fight between Spidey and Ock on a speeding elevated train (in Manhattan?). This unerringly fluid and crystal clear photography is a rare and wonderful thing in Hollywood today; just take a look at the muddy, shaky The Chronicles of Riddick for the opposite effect.

The visual effects have improved 99% since the last film (2002). While swinging through town, Spider-Man no longer looks like a Muppet; he actually looks like Tobey Maguire now. And, utilizing the best CGI I've seen to date, Doc Ock's mechanical arms are impossible to distinguish from real live steel.

But as fast and relentless as Spider-Man 2 may seem, Raimi does some of his most remarkable work with his little rest periods. For one thing, Peter's mad-dog newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) gets several hilarious line deliveries in, giving the film as many laughs as there are thrills. Raimi also gets comic mileage out of a musical interlude set to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head."

More important is a wonderful scene that comes about two-thirds of the way through. Just when things can't get any worse for Peter, his Russian landlord's gangly-but-cute daughter (Mageina Tovah) -- complete with blond pigtails -- appears at his door, asking him if he would like a slice of chocolate cake and a glass of milk. It's an unbearably lovely scene, giving us a much-needed breather and Peter a new lease on life. Not everything in the world sucks after all.

Credit four very good writers with this excellent film, which unquestionably surpasses the first in every respect. What a gift to have the Bay Area's Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) working on the story, and two-time Oscar-winning veteran Alvin Sargent (Julia, Ordinary People) completing the screenplay.

Sure, the movie has a few small flaws that could have been fixed with a bit of editing, but it's easy to gloss over them while basking in the glow of the overall effect. The key is that Raimi has clearly enjoyed working on this film and his joy shines through. It's his best film since A Simple Plan and certainly one of this summer's high points. (See also Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3.)

Columbia/TriStar has released a terrific two-disc DVD set with "10 hours" of extras. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell once recorded one of the all-time greatest commentary tracks on Evil Dead II, but here Raimi is more subdued. Other extras include a good blooper reel, a Train music video, and tons of making-of/behind-the-scenes featurettes. It's available in a dreadful pan-and-scan version, the preferred widescreen format as well as Columbia/TriStar's Superbit series, which uses more disc space for picture and sound quality instead of extras.

In March of 2007, Sony released a "Spider-Man 2.1" DVD, an extended version of the movie with 8 extra minutes edited back in. The new footage is mostly unnecessary and mainly consists of silly jokes. One new scene with Kirsten Dunst uses dialogue to explain what a later scene does better visually. The giveaway is that the film isn't called a "director's cut" and Raimi appears to have had little to do with it. The main point of the new two-disc set is to hype the upcoming Spider-Man 3. Otherextras include a "sneak peak" and lots of other featurettes.

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