It may be a relatively minor heresy, as these things go, but I prefer the first Spider-Man to Sam Raimi’s praise-showered sequel. More accomplished in terms of character work, effects and interweaving plotting it may be, but Spider-Man 2 just isn’t as much fun.
There’s certainly amusement to be had from Raimi revelling in his use of Peter Parker as a punching bag – not as extreme as the tortures inflicted upon Bruce Campbell’s Ash, but in the same ballpark – be it the character’s pallid resistance to embarking on a relationship with MJ – Dunst gets stick for being an unsympathetic love interest, but really, MJ’s simply driven to others’ arms by Peter’s anaemic retreat from any kind of consummation – his guilt over Uncle Ben, and over Norman (both Aunt May and Harry have things to say when they learn the respective truths), his financial woes, his study woes, or his existential doubt over his calling.
The latter comes via a slightly irksome Superman II-esque subplot in which Peter loses his powers (from Spider-Man No More!) It feels too soon to be going down that route, straight after the character’s genesis. The rejection-of-calling trope generally is an overused and inert one that rarely works (something like Iron Man Three approached things creatively, divesting its hero rather than have him out-and-out give up, but even that gets brick bats from those who think it dispensed with the essence of what you want to see in an Iron Man movie).
Alfred Molina delivers a reliable, authentic performance as Octavius (less so his virtual double), but for me, while Doc Ock is technically superior to his villainous predecessor, he’s still little more than a Goblin redux (amenable but ambitious scientist conducts experiment that turns him into a psycho) – just without the unvarnished relish Dafoe brings to such Machiavellian mischief making.
Yes, the operation sequence attempting to remove his vestigial limbs is a Raimi masterclass in PG-13 comic book horror, but it’s also notable that the picture stints on the action for long stretches, expecting the character arcs to be sufficiently involving to support the longueurs; there’s a bank robbery (Peter luckily happens to be on the scene) and the subway train sequence (which has tremendous action beats, but also irks both for the compulsion the Raimi trilogy has to show Maguire unmasked at any opportunity and the reheat of New Yorkers uniting in the face of a (terrorist) threat that already felt clumsy in the first movie).
Doc Ock takes Aunt May hostage. Then he takes MJ hostage. Then he disappears for a good spell. There’s also another burning building (the main takeaway here, rather than Peter’s heroism, is the father who doesn’trush inside to save his daughter but leaves Peter to it). Raimi has a knack for making whatever’s onscreen at least watchable, Oz the Great and Powerful aside, but Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Julia, Ordinary People) – from a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, the latter recently announced as the Picard showrunner – charts very traditional beats. We even have a repeat of the main villain capturing Spidey and yet again failing to unmask him (albeit, he leaves that to Harry).
The Octavius material is at least appreciably front-loaded, so we get to know him as a nice guy – with a nice wife – before things go pear-shaped. He even tells bad jokes (“We found the rubber band”), which may not have been, but seems like a very Raimi touch. But Doc Ock just isn’t an interesting baddy, and his plans aren’t very interesting either. It isn’t until the final confrontation that Molina is able to recapture some juice, as Peter pleads with Ock for control of his tentacles (their responsive AI nature is another neat touch). If this makes it sound like the movie is failing, it’s more to point out that I don’t think its areas of success are as unparalleled as is often made out.
On which subject, while Franco brings his natural charm to bear as smug, abrasive and now increasingly obsessive Harry – this works in the Raimi movies, but repeating it in the Garfield outings when it had already been thoroughly explored was a big mistake – the relationship between Peter and MJ isn’t compelling the way it needs to be. I’m sure Mageina Tovah’s Ursula, the moon-eyed ditzy daughter of Peter’s landlord (Elya Baskin), is there simply as a holding pattern of someone who can see Peter’s better qualities, but she’s so much more affecting than MJ, you rather wish these two “losers” got together instead of being asked to care whether MJ goes down the aisle with J Jonah Jameson’s son.
Elsewhere, JK Simmons dutifully steals the entire show whenever J Jonah Jameson’s onscreen, the priceless moment of the movie being his sustained laugh in response to Peter asking “Can you pay me in advance?” Raimi naturally throws in humorous touches throughout – I particularly like the busker of the classic Spider-Man theme reflecting Peter’s moods and Campbell’s snooty usher – as well as setting up elements that would never have a payoff, from Dylan Baker’s Curt Connors as the Lizard to the potential avenue for Man-Wolf to appear (Harry’s son’s a spaceman). That said, this is simultaneously much more keyed in to sequel continuity, with Harry discovering his father’s hidden chambers and being haunted by his mirror self setting up the third instalment.
Raimi also shifts to the 2:35:1 aspect ratio seamlessly, although aerial sequences are consequently now very much using streets as corridors, blocking off the sides of the frame to achieve a similar effect to previously. Spider-Man 2 won the best visual effects Oscar (the only such award for the Raimi trilogy), but it’s nevertheless noticeable how some of the virtual Doc Ock and Spideys haven’t aged well; as with the previous instalment, Raimi knows not to linger on shots – a failing of the Wachowskis in The Matrix Reloaded – but he’s unable to disguise the joins.
The irony is that Spider-Man 2’s tentacle removal scene was trumpeted as Raimi unleashed, but he’s actually more visually anarchic in the first movie. There’s a degree of responsibility here that dampens down the proceedings a little too much. For every masterful composition (and the car hurtling through the restaurant window remains masterful), there’s a feeling that this is almost too measured, sustained, composed. Being mature and studied, hitting all the right notes, doesn’t altogether suit the director, even if it brought the greatest acclaim of his career.