Here’s a 2012 flashback to my original review of Spider-man 2, with a few small repairs and a couple of revisions for the sake of clarification. Lately, I’ve been lamenting the overabundance of superhero movies, their predictability, their over-seriousness, their revelry in excessive action and their lack of substantial storytelling. Revisiting my original reaction to Sam Raimi’s super sequel, I find that my feelings haven’t changed much. Spider-man 2 remains one of the few superhero films that I’m happy to see again.
Who can pat his head, rub his belly, throw a taxi cab, smash a window, pour a drink, and pat you on the back, all at the same time?
That would be Otto Octavius—or “Doc Ock,” as he is known to Spider-man fans. He’s the multi-limbed scientist whose malevolent, metallic appendages override his better instincts in Spider-man 2—Sam Raimi’s exhilarating, super-sized superhero sequel.
Alfred Molina storms onto the screen and becomes the most formidable supervillain we’ve yet seen in a comic-book movie. Many Marvel fans are declaring this the greatest comic book movie ever made—a bit hastily, perhaps, but I can’t think of a more satisfying superhero sequel. One of the many things Raimi gets right is casting Molina in this role.
It’s an event that’s been a long time coming. Molina will finally get the kind of appreciation he’s deserved for many years of memorable performances. Earlier this year, Molina played himself in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, making a joke out of the fact that he’s been so good in so many roles and yet his name has remained relatively unrecognized. But once he straps those massive metal tendrils to his back, those days are over.
He was the hard-hearted mayor in Chocolat. He was Diego Rivera in Salma Hayek’s Frida. He was the wolf hunter in Ladyhawke. He had parts in Magnolia, Enchanted April, Cabin Boy, Maverick, Dead Man, Species, The Imposters, Identity, and last year’s Luther. But even though he co-starred with Harrison Ford in that legendary opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark (playing Satipo, the arachnophobic sidekick who uttered the famous line “Throw me the idol, I’ll throw you the whip!”), Dock Ock is the role that he’ll be remembered for. It may not be his greatest performance or the kind of film that ends up in critics’ top ten lists at the end of the year, but it’s one that will make the kind of impression on younger viewers the way that James Earl Jones’ voice became Darth Vader or the great Alec Guinness became Obi-Wan Kenobi.
But Spider-man 2 has more than just a villain. I don’t know that Sam Raimi’s ever shown more confidence and command as a director. This film’s full of the frenzied comedy-packed action that made his Evil Dead movies cult favorites, but more surprisingly, it’s a film that evokes surprising emotions in its audience. The characters of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), Mary Jane Waston (Kirsten Dunst), and Aunt May become more human, more dimensional, and more compelling in this episode.
It picks up two years after the original Spider-man. Mary Jane has become a model and a star of the theater; we see her onstage earning accolades for a part in The Importance of Being Earnest. Frustrated with her failed attempts to draw Parker out from his secretive sulk, she starts dating a handsome young astronaut. When the word “marriage” gets mentioned, Peter’s torment increases. He’s desperately in love with her, but he doesn’t want to put her at risk with his Spidey-duties. Making things worse, he can’t hold a steady job, his boss J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, again the film’s wackiest character) treats him like dirt, his rat-faced landlord demands rent money relentlessly, and his webslinger isn’t working.
The story’s central plot emerges with such speed and confidence that we hardly have time to laugh at the lunacy of it. Parker’s hero Doctor Octavius claims to have created an alternate energy source that gives him “the power of the sun in the palm of his hand.” This leads, of course, to a spectacular accident, which leaves his invention welded to his spine, the array of wall-busting, window-smashing, pedestrian-tossing arms that give the villain his name. When Doc Ock runs into Harry Osborne (James Franco), who still holds a grudge against Spider-man from the first film, a dangerous relationship develops that sets things up nicely for Spider-man 3.
We watch Parker struggle between the opposing attractions of a normal life and the burden of a superhero’s responsibility. There are some big surprises for devoted Spider-fans, as unexpected twists place Parker’s secret identity at risk. But even more surprising is the inventive wit that does wonders for humanizing Peter for the audience, a giddy humor that was missing in the first film.
Above all, though, Spider-man is an action movie, and the action moves with an energy and invention that seems surprisingly fresh. Animation and live-action elements blend seamlessly—most of the time. Three action set pieces—one in a bank, one that starts on a clock tower and ends on an elevated train, and the climactic confrontation—are classics that make The Matrix’s CGI-heavy clashes look boring and artificial by comparison. Maguire invests himself in this role as if he’s going for an Oscar. And his clashes with Doc Ock are some of the most spectacular onscreen battles ever filmed. New York becomes a jungle gym, and Raimi takes giddy pleasure in following their chaotic, acrobatic clashes that tumble from the tops of skyscrapers down into the dangers of rush-traffic and back again. There was a collective buzz amongst Spidey-fans of all ages in the theater—this was the Spider-man movie they’d always wanted to see.
Sure, it has all the clichés. The superhero in a crisis because his powers are malfunctioning. The terrible accident that creates a monster. The villain with a grudge. The damsel in distress. Sappy romantic pathos between the hero and the woman who wants to know his secret identity. And more women screaming at the sight of the bad guy than you’ve ever heard before. But the characters are driven by such compelling motives, shot through with passion and emotion, that we realize we’ve rarely seen the clichés delivered so perfectly. It serves to remind us that things become clichés when the life and purpose is drained out of them, but employed properly, they’re the building blocks of great storytelling.Another of the film’s greatest strengths—perhaps the greatest strength—is the script, credited to Alvin Sargent (Unfaithful, Ordinary People, Gambit), but based on a “screen story” crafted by Steve Ditko, Alfred Gough, and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.) There are literary flourishes to the drama that give it extra weight, and smaller, more subtle, incidental moments that give the characters a chance to develop more personality. I’m sure many critics will find themselves unable to resist the temptation to spoil some of the jokes, so be careful what you read. Suffice it to say that I’ll think of Spidey now whenever I step into an elevator or visit a laundromat.
If the film has a weakness, it’s in the sometimes jarring disparity between those lines of dialogue that sound like they come from living, breathing human beings and other lines that sound like the kind of sap you hear in movie-of-the-week teledramas. Some of the interactions between Parker and Mary Jane are quite romantic, but others will make you wince with their syrupy sentimentality. On the other hand, the interactions between Spidey and Ock are distinctive, as Octavius is not an entirely bad guy. He’s a well-meaning man who overstepped the line of wisdom, and now the inventions of his ambition have gained an influence over him.
It’s the same mix of humor, character development, and controlled mayhem that makes Bryan Singer’s X-Men films and Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean such admirable blockbusters. Singer raised the bar for superhero flicks, setting a standard that Raimi’s 2002 Spider-man film didn’t match. This time, Raimi’s risen to the challenge and gone one better, delivering a brilliant mix of drama and comedy, and serving up action that’ll blow the hair off your head. We can only hope this action-movie smackdown will continue to bring out the best in these talented directors. (If the previews for Catwoman are any indication, we’re about to see just how bad a comic book movie can be.) Apparently, Raimi’s going to deliver Spider-man 3 in a few years—the conclusion of this episode takes us several steps into the next one.
More impressive than even the action is the moral backbone of the Spider-man story (and I’m not referring to just how much trauma poor Peter Parker’s backbone suffers in this film.) The story of Doc Ock becomes a striking metaphor for the way that power corrupts. More specifically, it suggests the dilemma of weapons of mass destruction—we built them for good purposes, but now we have lost control of them, and they threaten our very existence. In that sense, it parallels the lessons of Jurassic Park–that our drive to achieve greatness can turn loose powers we are not capable of containing. “Intelligence,” Ocatavius tells Parker, “is not just a privilege. It’s a gift. And you use it for the betterment of mankind.” Eventually, his own words come back to haunt him. “These things,” Spidey reprimands him, “have turned you into something you’re not.”
Parker faces some truly challenging choices in this film. He ponders the burden of responsibility and how his true calling may require him to sacrifice his own personal dreams. In a society saturated with movies that tell us the most important ethic is to “follow your dreams,” the Spider-man franchise offers an admirable alternative: There is something more important, something bigger, than you and I… and in order to overcome evil with good, we will have to turn away from our personal preferences and lay down our lives for others.
It’s the same theme that was central to another extremely successful film that was released this year—The Passion of the Christ. Where religious media critics were hyperventilating over the inclusion of quips like “Godspeed” in the first Spider-man movie, this sequel offers us a substantial reflection of the gospel: Parker’s willingness to put aside his own impulses and aspirations in order to help the helpless. His choice requires excruciating pain, a “dying to self,” a sort of rebirth as a powerful servant.
Could it be that we are drawn again and again to this theme because it’s true? We know we need a hero who’s willing to give his entire being to save those of us who can’t save New York, or America, or the world, or even our own selves. God’s never given human beings a need that couldn’t be addressed. We feel that rush of joy when Spidey spreads his arms in a cruciform pose to selflessly saves the doomed; suffers a deep gash in his side; and has his broken body lifted up by grateful and heartbroken admirers in a moment that resonates with a sort of religious reverence. (Moviegoers in the row behind me were actually crying and reaching for their Kleenex.)
I suspect we respond because something inside us knows it’s true. We’re affirming the very story that’s been written into our hearts, and we sense its relevance in stories of heroes with a thousand faces, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Hard to believe such heavy stuff is going on in the comics. But isn’t that part of the reason why Spidey and his thematic-sibling Superman have remained so popular for so long?