I so want to like SPIDERMAN 2 with the unreserved satisfaction that I found with the original. Here is a franchise that is unafraid to tackle serious, real-life issues such as the stickiness of human interaction and dwindling bank accounts, while still pursuing serious reel-life fun. Alas, where the original SPIDERMAN dealt metaphorically and with great aplomb with the terrors of both technology, as in a science experiment gone awry and producing a super villain, and puberty as in those horrifying changes that happen to Peter when the radioactive spider sinks its fangs into him, part two falls short, mired in a torrent of insipid dialogue.
It picks up two years after the original left off. Our hero, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is dancing as fast as he can living the life of a poor, geeky kid with a killer secret identity as the friendly neighborhood Spiderman. The story still deals in metaphors, but with less aplomb and with considerably less zing. Peter is dealing with the real world in what is shaping up to be a seriously bad week, he loses his job delivering pizzas, gets badgered by a testy Russian landlord for overdue rent, discovers that his beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is facing foreclosure on her house, hes about to flunk out of college, and he disappoints the secret love of his life Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) once too often all because super hero duty came first. The result is what might be termed a premature mid-life crisis for Peter, especially after he discovers that MJ, as he affectionately calls her, is hot and heavy with a hunky astronaut type.
Its a laudable intention, and when done as well as the original, this sort of thing adds welcome texture and substance to the usual roller-coaster ride that is the raison-detre of effects films. Alas, in a misguided attempt to have art imitate art, the film suffers its own mid-life crisis, substituting schmaltz for wit, and sappiness for irony. Director Sam Raimi and his actors are saddled with dialogue that slaps on the saccharine with a trowel of prodigious proportions. While Raimi is a delight when dealing with horror, suspense, comedy, or schlock, cloying sentimentality turns out to be his kryptonite. Beyond that failing, there is the failure of the de rigeur supervillain of the piece to be either fun or creepy.
Hes Doc Oc (Alfred Molina), and his particular gimmick is a set of four mechanical arms with their own artificial intelligence that stretch almost to the horizon. He originally strapped them on to manipulate a dangerous substance that he was engineering to solve the worlds energy crisis. Of course, theres a terrible accident in the lab and, as a result, the AI in those mechanical arms take over the good scientists mind. In short order, he, and they, are menacing New York in general and MJ in particular.
Molina is an actor of considerable depth, but the contraption to which he is welded for most of the film plays like a bad send-up of the classic Ray Harryhausen stop-action animation. There is a certain charm in the way those arms burble to Doc Oc, lulling him into doing evil that shows how well this could have worked. And we cant forget the nice irony in having Spidey do battle with a nemesis that has eight arms and that was, before the accident, named Octavius, but not enough.
The action sequences in the first half come off as a little tired, as though they were thrown in to meet some sort of quota. Things pick up in the second half with a flying car interrupting a meaningful chat between Peter and MJ. There are a few other moments of that old magic, when Spidey is forced to take a long and very uncomfortable elevator ride, in costume, to get down from the roof of a building after his web-maker stops working, or when a passenger on the subway hes trying to save asks him if he has any more bright ideas after the few hes used fail to do the trick.
To its credit, the franchise is telling a larger story, with the characters growing and changing in each installment and within a context that the rest of us can easily identify with, superhero costume notwithstanding. The films promise to be more than just an excuse to toss an imaginative super villain at us along with a few wisecracks. And there’s Maguire. When hes in costume, he knows how to assume the fluid Spidey body language until the CGI can send him hurtling through the urban canyons with a dazzling grace. Moreover, he effortlessly reconciles the seemingly insurmountable problem of embodying what should be two mutually exclusive elements, the geek and the hero with genuine emotional nuance. It makes his longing for MJ palpably real and heartbreaking. Most of the time, though, what we have spooling out at two hours or so of screen time is wildly uneven bit of filler that sets up the dynamics of the inevitable sequel.