Directed by: Sam Raimi || Produced by: Avi Arad, Laura Ziskin
Screenplay by: Alvin Sargent || Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, Donna Murphy, J. K. Simmons, Dylan Baker, Mageina Tovah
Music by: Danny Elfman || Cinematography by: Bill Pope || Edited by: Bob Murawaski || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 127 minutes
There are two superhero movies that have been released this new millennium (so far) that I would qualify as out-and-out classics, not only as stellar examples of their big budget subgenre, but also powerful films, period, in their own right. One is of course The Dark Knight (2008), British auteur Christopher Nolan’s finest film, which can stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with the best of cinema’s fabled crime dramas; the other is about as far across the comic book-movie spectrum of tone and cinematic color as one can get —- that movie is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.
While the original Spidey adaptation was a surprise hit for the teenage web-slinger and helped usher in the current domination of spandex-clad hero pictures, the series was just getting started, as fate would have it. Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent crafted an even more emotional and melodramatic story than the first, amping up both the scale of the set-pieces and the soap opera relationships between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and Harry Osborne (James Franco). The interpersonal drama of Spider-Man has always been the property’s strongest suite, and under Raimi’s guidance the film expertly and intricately links the colorful, emotional backstory of Parker’s personal life with not only the excitement of superhero action and villainous plots, but also the psychological and philosophical toll of leading a double life.
Though much of SM 2 (really, the entire franchise…) is cheesy or melodramatic in the best, theatrical sort of way, the script has so much heart and its characters so easily relatable beneath their over-the-top, graphic novel exterior that the story feels as realistic from an emotional standpoint as the action is exciting. Parker struggles with the very real and well written conflict of personal fulfillment, self-actualization if you will, and his responsibilities toward his “great powers” and his commitment to do the right thing. His psyche swings from very natural, understandable desires to take care of himself, as well as support his friends and family, to the larger scale battles against mad super villains like Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus as well as the daily grind against petty crime. Further compounding the drama are MJ’s and Harry’s personal struggles with career aspirations and paternal guilt complexes, not to mention their interconnected relationships with Octavius and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris).
Again, none of Raimi’s original three Spider-Man films are that different from one another, no matter how much current fanboy banter may argue otherwise. Three is definitely the weakest and the most bloated, while the second is the best paced and features the most effective melodrama, and then the first is somewhere in between and features the most personal villain of the bunch; but at the end of the day, they all tell three parts of a bigger story; they all come alive with colorful characters who have believable motivations, empathized by the power of Raimi’s humanistic camera. The only true differences between the three films are the precision of their execution of superhero melodrama, but even the least well received Spider-Man 3 is an entertaining pastiche of monomyth, blockbuster action, and interpersonal intrigue. What elevates this second and best chapter above the first and third, as well as most any comic book-movie not named The Dark Knight, is that it nails the right number of characters and maintains the proper level of ensemble soap opera antics just long enough. It has the tightest screenplay and features Raimi’s best action cinematography, as well as his most patient, most sympathetic portrayal of Parker’s inner growth.
If part one was about Parker assuming the responsibilities of Spider-Man, then part two is him coming to terms with the pressures of that title and learning that it need not come at the expense of his personal self and social needs, and finally part three concerns how his social life accepts his responsiblity as Spider-Man. Thus the trilogy comes full circle, but by the nature of Parker’s growth and his place as the series’ protagonist, the middle section features the most excitement and the best drama. Those features combined with the franchise’s best screenplay and some of Raimi’s best direction of his career make part two a true winner.
Lastly, I’d be negligent not to analyze Alfred Molina’s fine portrayal as Doc Oc in this review. While his character lacks the franchise impact of Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborne/Green Goblin (whose death was affecting the series well into Spider-Man 3), Molina plays both sides of his mad scientist supervillain very well and has great chemistry with not only Maguire, but also Harris and Franco. He also stars in arguably the greatest Spidey action-scene of all time in the subway sequence about 3/4 through the film.
In the end, SM2 stands head and shoulders above the rest of the franchise and most of the superhero subgenre not necessarily because it pays appropriate homage to its source material (thought it certainly does that), but rather because it demonstrates some of the most engaging character growth and realistic human drama in cinema of the past fifteen years. It takes delicate care of its characters and respects their motivations, in other words. Alvin Sargent and Sam Raimi picked the best elements from a collection of drafts for the film’s final screenplay, and Raimi ended up having the final say in the expert depiction of this great, supremely entertaining melodrama, as any competent, self-aware filmmaker should.
Why Sony thought they knew better than their director for part three is beyond me.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Though it isn’t much different than its predecessor or followup from a stylistic standpoint, Spider Man 2 boasts the series’ best story, character development, and action, and thus it is superior. Maguire, Dunst, and Franco transcend their melodramatic archetypes of both part one and two and become fully fleshed out, impressively acted characters in their own right. Fake characters have rarely felt more real. Molina continues the series’ trend of strong villains with depth and motivation to match their heroic opposition. Raimi begins, builds, and finishes this film with great character moments throughout, both loud and quiet. When was the last time we saw a freeze-frame in a Hollywood blockbuster?
— However… the story itself is rather predictable, to say the least.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? Fun Fact: Molina also played the guide who got impaled by a spear-booby trap in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).