Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Spider-Man 2

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2004 at Loews Boston Common #18 (first-run)

I am a fan. There's no arguing the point; there's generally at least one Spider-Man comic among the ten or so I pick up each Wednesday, and when Anchor Bay releases a new edition of one of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies, it's my money they're expecting. So, just like two years ago, the imminent release of a Raimi-directed Spider-Man movie with this cast filled me with anticipation only rivaled by that of a new Star Wars movie. And as much as the first Spider-Man delivered, Spider-Man 2 is even better.

How is it better? In almost every way. As much as the Green Goblin is considered the definitive Spider-Man villain, his Joker/Lex Luthor/Red Skull, the first movie put Willem Dafoe behind a rigid mask, so while the unconventional father/son triangle between Norman Osborne, his son Harry, and Harry’s friend Peter was compelling, the audience couldn’t see it play out on their faces. This time, Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) has no costume but a pair of safety goggles and the four manipulator arms grafted onto his back.

That's just the most obvious example, though. The first movie had long periods of down-time, when it just became about Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). This one does, too, but they're better distributed, with more opportunities to cut away to Otto, or Harry Osborne (James Franco), now in over his head as the director of special projects at his late father's company.

There's more action, and that action is, for lack of a better word, Raimier. Sam Raimi is in the top tier of action directors working today, in part because he knows how to zip the camera around to give the audience the full effect of how exhilarating it must be to be Spider-Man, or how fast and how brutal the action is, while still being able to give that audience the lay of the land. He's aided by two years of advances in computer graphics technology, which gives a little more weight and better physics to things flying through the air. I suspect he's also a little more comfortable with the tools this time around, because the shot composition seems more distinctively his.

That's a great thing, because he knows just when to return to his horror movie roots to make "Doc Ock" seem especially monstrous. There’s a great scene in a hospital OR where a surgical team attempts to remove his robotic tentacles (which have enough AI to not want to be removed), and I grinned like an idiot when the camera briefly came to rest on a chainsaw, having good Evil Dead 2 memories. Raimi regulars like his brother Ted, Bruce Campbell, and J.K. Simmons are there to please fans, as well as the long, fast zooms ("Sam-Ram-a-Cam") that are another part of his signature. He's also got a real knack for sticking jokes in without hurting the movie’s ability to be taken seriously. Of course, having writers like Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (the Smallville and Shanghai Noon team) and Michael Chabon (whose novel The Adventures of Kaliver and Clay, which used comic books as a background, won a Pullitzer) doesn't hurt, either.

And then there's the cast. Tobey Maguire improves on his performance from the first, as does James Franco. J.K. Simmons plays J. Jonah Jameson broadly, but hilariously (it's interesting that Raimi goes for an almost cartoon-like feel in the Daily Bugle scenes, but can make a fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus feel intensely realistic). Alfred Molina is note-perfect as Octavius, with a quick but believable descent into madness and super-villainy after establishing Otto as a sympathetic character. I admit that Kirsten Dunst didn't seem quite right as Mary Jane to me (she's much more upbeat in the comics, but a series of movies doesn't have much time to show supporting characters between crises), until her last scene.

I'm tempted to bury Spider-Man 2 under superlatives – best movie of the summer, best superhero movie ever, the movie that Sam Raimi's entire career has been leading up to – but I’m aware that this is a movie that pushes my particular buttons. However, there are lots of movies that do that, and this one does it better than the rest. The skill and craft shown by the makers of Spider-Man 2 should make this a blast even for those who aren't hard-wired to like it.

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