* * * * (Guest review by John Ulmer, The Movie Addict)


STARRING: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy

2004, 127 Minutes, Directed by Sam Raimi

In Spider-Man we got the introduction, and now we get the story -- a darker, deeper, more poignant tale that defies the boundaries of comic book movies and dares to venture into the territory of motion picture excellence.

The first Spider-Man was a very good movie, and one of my favourite films from 2002. It contained a sort of underlying complexity, surrounded by a simple cover that made it worthy of recommendation. The set up of Peter Parker's superhero powers was the most entertaining aspect of the movie, and its fight scenes were explosive in more ways than just one.

Now, in Spider-Man 2, the complexity becomes even more elaborate. The film takes on a dark edge that deals with the hero behind the mask -- Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the human being, not Spider-Man, the invincible superhero alter ego. The action is reduced to secondary importance; the characters take first place. It studies them, their motivations; what makes them tick. The first film didn't only introduce Spider-Man, but also his friends -- now, we sit back and watch their progression unfold on screen.

The film picks up two years after the original. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) continues his academic pursuits, whilst parading about as Spider-Man when he finds the time. However, with his grades falling, his part-time jobs failing, his love life crashing and his social life burning, Peter decides to abandon his alter ego persona and develop a social life. Then Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina) -- an eight-limbed fusion of human form and robotics -- begins to terrorize the city, in the hopes of resurrecting a science project that turned him into the mechanical monster he is. The four extra limbs have altered the Doctor's personality, and he is no longer a friendly scientist but a deadly villain. With crime rate up 75%, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) marrying a famous astronaut, Harry Osborn (James Franco) planning revenge on Spider-Man, and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) losing trust in her nephew, Peter must choose between his friends and his duties -- be Spider-Man, or Peter Parker? His final decision is predictable, but the film deals with his course of actions leading up to his final decision, and adds a strong sense of humanity and realistic struggle to a rather unrealistic story.

Doc Ock was always my favourite villain from the Spider-Man franchise (closely followed, or equalled, by Venom, who is rumoured to show up in the next instalment), and Alfred Molina does a commendable job of portraying him. He isn't exactly how I had imagined him, but far more believable given the circumstances of his transformation. Maguire once again proves that he can handle this role and Dunst is given a larger part in the film, whereas Franco is thankfully given less screen time (although the implications of his final appearance in the movie are breathtaking).

Some action enthusiasts might be disappointed in the lack of constant fighting in Spider-Man 2, and the majority of the film is indeed spent focusing on the characters. I liked this. Spider-Man 2 returns to the roots of comic books, in which the characters are the focus -- not the action. I am not a comic book fan, but one thing I have learned over the years is that comic books do present an extraordinary medium for character study -- comics allow people across the world to share the trials and tribulations of the story's protagonist(s). X-Men was successful because it utilized this structure of storytelling, placing unbelievable characters in a believable world; Spider-Man 2 is even better, one of the most thrilling rides in years. It creates a surge of joy that I haven't experienced since the first Spider-Man came out.

All in all I think most praise should be given to director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, A Simple Plan), who handles the material with respect for the fans, while simultaneously managing to entice non-fans into Spidey's web. And the movie manages to have a lot of fun despite its serious nature -- look for a cameo by Bruce Ash Campbell from the Evil Dead franchise as a so-called snooty usher, and even a brief appearance by Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin (yes, he's still dead, but his spirit lives on).


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