Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
As it’s currently chic to suggest that everything in pop culture somehow relates to The Passion of the Christ, it seems reasonable to propose that Spider-Man 2 should be subtitled “The Last Temptation of Spidey.” As it begins, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is clearly in the desert, feeling abandoned and susceptible to persuasion. Peter is trying to balance two jobs, college, and his personal life with his obligations as a superhero, meaning that none of those tasks is really accomplished. He’s late for work, skipping assignments, and disappointing those close to him because he drops everything anytime he sees someone in need. A nobler act can scarcely be found, but to protect those he loves, he must keep them in the dark, causing everyone to see him as lazy, irresponsible, thoughtless, and selfish.
To heap on the misery, he’s caught in snares requiring him to be disloyal to his alter ego. His one dependable job, selling photographs to Spidey-hating publisher J. Jonah Jameson of The Daily Bugle, forces him to participate in continuous attacks upon his own character. His friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) unfairly blames Spider-Man for the death of his father (the villain of the first film), but Peter must keep mum about both his identity and his innocence.
Upon his introduction in the 1960s, hapless Peter Parker became an archetype for the essentially good but misunderstood youth, resonating deeply with the comic’s largely adolescent male audience. What young person doesn’t feel misjudged by the adults around him, isn’t convinced that he possesses talent and value that no one else perceives? This is at the root of the character’s appeal, and the essential reason that Spider-Man, Batman, and other flawed heroes will always be dramatically superior to faultless icons like Superman.
Still, it’s a bit overdone here. Both the number and the monotony of the wrongs against him could be leavened without losing the point — being Spider-Man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But it’s not all crap, either. Saving people’s lives feels pretty good.
And having power and abilities that no one else has, the sheer joy of swinging through the city streets of New York on strands of webbing — in the comics, Spider-Man has always clearly gotten off on those things (Not to be a pedantic fanboy about this all, but really, it’s a simplification of the essential dramatic tension to leave out his ambivalence). We don’t really see any of that in the first act, and very little of it later on.
It’s a weakness, but one most viewers won’t really mind, so caught up are we in the building crisis, as the dichotomy between the truth and what is believed drives Peter to a crossroads: Should he continue to forfeit his own happiness and success in order to protect strangers who are ambivalent about his sacrifices? Both Peter’s wavering and his eventual recommitment are never in doubt, but there is much drama wrung from the telling.
In a 1989 appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” Steve Martin did a monologue on the way his appearance supposedly changed dramatically with different camera angles. Left profile: beautiful, left three-quarter profile: interesting looking, full face: quite plain, right profile: hideous. Tobey Maguire’s face has that kind of range, lending itself to roles ranging from the shlubbiest nerd to the handsome, albeit quirky, leading man. He’s Buddy Love and Professor Julius Kelp in one body, without the prosthetics or the pomade.
Director Sam Raimi makes the most of Maguire’s plasticity, telegraphing Peter Parker’s mental state through his changing visage. Maguire’s very bone structure seems to alter with the waning and waxing of his resolve — after he ditches his costume, he actually appears to shrink (Were these scenes filmed while he was regaining the weight he lost for Seabiscuit?). His performance here is richer than in the first film, and in his scenes as Spider-Man he shows greater confidence than before (He’s finally learned the lesson of Michael Keaton’s Batman films, modulating his wussy everyday voice to convey a more heroic tone when in costume).
The supporting cast gets a little more to do than in the first film as well. Rosemary Harris’s Aunt May is richer this time around, evincing a moving sensitivity. The audience feels her small humiliations as intensely as any emotion in the film, whether she’s desperately pressing Peter to take his birthday money or crestfallen to discover that her small deposit is not enough even to merit a toaster from the bank. Harris has an impressive theatrical background and clearly has the goods to make the character more than a one-note mother figure. Even her monologue on heroism is delivered with such conviction we’re willing to forgive the ham-fisted writing. Here’s hoping her role expands further in the inevitable sequel.
As Mary Jane Watson, Kirsten Dunst has never really made sense to me. In the comics, the character started off as a brassy bombshell whose frank innuendo often left Peter Parker speechless, too insecure to return her verbal barbs. Dunst’s rawboned Midwestern face and sylphlike body aren’t an intuitive match for the character — a more obvious choice would be her Bring it On co-star Eliza Dushku. Though Dunst’s mopey EmJay isn’t in keeping with her two-dimensional model, when in danger she shows the inner strength that always kept Mary Jane from being just another damsel in distress.
Playing the arrogant and melodramatically wronged Harry Osborn, James Franco chews the scenery with gusto (A favorite moment: having just been saved by Spider-Man from certain death, Harry growls, “He humiliated me by touching me!”). With fewer scenes here than in the first film, Franco still convincingly articulates the character’s descent into a most self-indulgent madness, mirroring (no pun) the sad transformation of his father.
As villainous Doctor Octopus, ne Otto Octavius, Alfred Molina does not disappoint. Like most of Spider-Man’s enemies, Octavius is a good man driven insane (or, in other cases, turned into, say, a giant lizard) by the hubristic use of science. He manages the transformation adroitly, convincing us that even at his most malevolent, thievery and murder are never his goals, only the means to further his monomaniacal ambitions. He surely sees his victims as noble sacrifices to the advancement of science.
From the opening credits, which efficiently recap the events of the first film through the watercolors of fan-favorite Alex Ross, it’s clear that the filmmakers have tried to do this movie the right way, giving its comic-book roots the requisite Wagnerian pomp. The most rewarding aspect of their dedication is the way they have, for the first time ever, found a fully satisfying moving-picture equivalent for the action depicted in the still images of the comics.
The combat sequences in Spider-Man 2 are probably the finest ever seen in a superhero movie. The CGI is much more ambitious and convincing than it was in the first film, giving the animated figures a weight and fluidity of motion that, in most sequences, makes it almost impossible to tell where the real actors end and their computer-generated avatars begin. The “camera” moves about them weightlessly, giving a sense of the freedom of near-flight that Spidey’s web-slinging allows. Doctor Octopus’s mechanical arms are lithe and fearsome, sentient, serpentine, and purely malevolent.
The amazing penultimate action sequence, in which Spidey uses his every last ounce of strength to save dozens of lives, brings the payoff to the Christ motif. His unconscious body is passed, arms outstretched, over the heads of those he’s saved. He is laid on the ground and revived, seemingly, by their appreciation, their faith in him. His sacrifice was worth the efforts and the risks, and it was, thankfully, not final. He will live to fight again.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.