Spider-Man 2 directed by Sam Raimi, written by Alvin Sargent from a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon based on the comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, produced by Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin, with Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina and James Franco. 129 minutes. A Columbia/TriStar release. For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
A thicket of writers, including Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys), seems to have been needed for Spider-Man 2. The final script credit, to Hollywood veteran Alvin Sargent (Oscars for Ordinary People and Julia), suggests that it took a remarkable level of cine-literary talent to craft the kind of story that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko used to come up with every 18 months or so, if I recall correctly, back in the 60s. Sam Raimi's two Spider-Man films are painfully precise in their recreation of the 60s superhero, aka Peter Parker, a tongue-tied, moonstruck adolescent who must stifle his emotional impulses to protect those around him.
So this sequel is even angstier than the first film - it's almost as self-doubting as Batman Returns. Which is fine if that's what you're looking for in a superhero movie, but it plays against Sam Raimi's greatest strengths as a director.
Raimi's forte is a hyper-caffeinated lyricism that shows up in the way he flings the camera about the cabin in the first two Evil Dead films and in his undervalued earlier superhero movie, Darkman. It's evident here in the gleeful energy of his depiction of the digitized Spider-Man whipping through the canyons of Manhattan.
He's also, on the minus side, inclined to let actors wallow in their own pain, which means we get a lot of Tobey Maguire's deadpan suffering, making this more of a Peter Parker than a Spider-Man movie. On the evidence of his work in Ang Lee's Ride With The Devil and The Ice Storm, Maguire needs a director who discourages that side of his personality.
The acting honours in Spider-Man 2 are divided between J. K. Simmons's J. Jonah Jameson and Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus.
Simmons has a peculiar genius for playing self-absorbed comic assholes, and Jameson is a wonderful vehicle for Simmons's ability to capture hair-trigger mood changes. Jameson's a character who can alter his entire belief system if necessary, without even acknowledging the change.
Molina's got the right mad scientist gleam about him, even before a tragic lab accident transforms him from brilliant physicist into insane brilliant physicist in thrall to the voices in his megalomaniacal mechanical arms.
Blowing up traditional comic books into gigantic movies tends to reveal the thinness of the material, and directors use different tricks to mask this. Tim Burton invented a gloomy visual grandeur for Batman, and Bryan Singer's X-Men films work with a densely populated cast.
Raimi's made the right visual decisions for Spider-Man, employing a big, very clean palette, no doubt the better for the CG wizards to work their magic.
But that same decision reveals that Peter Parker's emotional ambivalence is just about his only personality trait. He loves Mary Jane but won't start a relationship. He revels in being Spider-Man, but it tortures him. He's loyal to his aunt but suspects family is a trap.
Is Spider-Man the first superhero with an inability to commit?