WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Peter Parker is now in full control of his arachnid-based super-powers, but not remotely in charge of his own affairs, forever struggling to be on time for events in his personal and private life. Whilst Peter battles not to let down his friend Harry, the love of his life MJ, his aunt May, his employers or his college professor, he wonders whether he has room for Spider-Man, even though a menacing new danger to the city means New York needs him more than ever.
Between the exposition-laden efforts of the first Spider-Man and the villain-heavy, revisionist and criminally dance-obsessed Spider-Man 3 falls this movie, unsurprisingly named Spider-Man 2. Picking up smartly from its predecessor, Spider-Man 2 finds Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) a stressed man, failing to balance his secret superhero identity with a part-time pizza delivery job, photographic assignments for the Daily Bugle and a demanding Physics course.
Not only that, but his mind is still full of Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) – now a successful and attached actress – and two reasons to feel guilty: firstly, because he has to hide his secret from vengeful best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), whose father Spidey had to kill. Secondly, because he still feels responsible for the death of his Uncle Ben and therefore his Aunt May’s loneliness, especially as she is about to lose her house. Spidey can just about keep crime on the streets of New York under control, but he is hopeless at his jobs and making dates, causing Peter frustration and everyone around him to despair.
Given all this, it’s something of a surprise that the film can even fit in a baddie, but it does in the imposing shape of Alfred Molina’s Dr Otto Octavius, a brilliant (and surprisingly sympathetic) physicist who falls, following the sort of accident that always happens in comic-book movies, prisoner to the alien, self-preserving arms that he created to manipulate a dangerous fusion-based energy source. Because only Harry has access to the precious chemical needed to recreate the experiment, and only ‘Doc Ock’ can give Harry access to Spider-Man, a pact is sealed that puts Peter and ‘MJ’ in mortal danger; since Peter has resolved to forsake Spider-Man in order to live his own life, that danger is keener still.
From a bravely pessimistic premise that sees Peter fairly unhappy (witness, for instance, his crummy flat), Spider-Man 2 is a gripping adventure that weaves comedy, romance and action around a tight plot that makes good use of characters with little that is wasteful or indulgent. Not only does it pose moral questions of Parker – if you are in a position to look after the weak, are you duty bound to do so? – but also of the villain, with Molina bringing great humanity to the Doc Ock role whilst his sinister tentacles cause havoc.
The cast are all comfortable in their roles, Maguire handling both the action and comedy with aplomb, although as usual everyone is outshone in the comedy department by J K Simmons as the Bugle’s ballsy editor. Franco comes across as suitably conflicted, unable to cement his feelings about Peter into hatred, whilst Dunst effectively portrays MJ’s quandary, in love but unwilling to wait for Peter forever. And whilst some may feel that the film is a little light on web-slinging, the action sequences arrive at regular intervals and are both convincing and exciting when they happen, the stuntwork and CGI both a big step up from Spider-Man.
You could also argue that at times the film has the characters explaining the plot out loud to themselves, and at others – especially during the slightly soggy middle third – the story’s sentimental bent tips over into outright gooiness: although I believe it has the best of intentions, and Rosemary Harris delivers the lines with great tenderness, Aunt May’s ‘everybody needs a hero’ bit is too much for me.
Still, the film is to be congratulated for fully considering the burden of saving people’s lives on the superhero, and since the soggy part picks up to an impressive balls-to-the-wall finale, including a thrilling subway train sequence (religious imagery and all) and Doc Ock kidnapping MJ but ultimately doing the right thing, a pause for breath is not entirely a bad thing.
Spider-Man 2 is by no means perfect but manages to achieve an all-too-rare balance between action and characterisation, mass-market appeal and comic-book fandom, young and old and (perhaps most interestingly) male and female interest, winding up with a happy-tense ending for MJ and Peter and a clear set-up for Harry’s involvement in the third instalment. It may or may not be the best superhero movie out there, but it is one of the best paced, best written, and is almost certainly the most human.