Alfred Molina gets a juicy role in the biggest blockbuster he’s appeared in since Raiders of the Lost Ark (his debut film), and he fully deserves the attention. Molina’s performance in Spider-Man 2 is a flawless mix of human-scaled emotion and operatic comic-book excess — a far more successful experiment than Willem Dafoe was allowed to pull off in the original Spider-Man (2002). I didn’t much care for that film, and wasn’t much anticipating the sequel, but Spider-Man 2 has two large things going for it: Molina, of course, and also a series of intricately engineered super-brawls that do a more electrifying job of aping comic-book action scenes than anything else I’ve seen.
Director Sam Raimi, who also helmed the first, delivers a far more fluid and confident piece of work this time out. Having proven himself by shepherding one of the biggest hits in recent memory, Raimi feels free to play now, to dabble in comedy (there’s a wonderful extended shot of Spider-Man sharing an elevator with a nonplussed yuppie), to linger on character moments (this part doesn’t always work as well), and to spend untold amounts of money reproducing the clash between Dr. Otto Octavius (Molina), who becomes Dr. Octopus, and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), who almost becomes an ex-Spider-Man.
Peter is run through the wringer in Spider-Man 2, a dorky Job stumbling over indignities at every turn. He gets fired from a pizza-delivery gig. He’s browbeaten by his boss at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, once again a staccato hoot in the role). His true love Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is dating JJJ’s astronaut son. His best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) hates Spider-Man’s guts. His beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is having trouble holding onto her house. The combined stress affects Peter’s webslinging and wallcrawling (he also needs glasses again). All this, plus Dr. Octopus is terrorizing the city. Eventually, the Spider-Man costume winds up in a garbage can, and Peter embarks on a new life as just a normal college student.
Raimi and his writers (including novelist and comics fan Michael Chabon) have obviously studied Spider-Man’s appeal — Stan Lee created him as a corrective to the spotless titans who dominated comics for years, who seemed to have no lives outside their costumes and therefore no personal problems. At times, Spider-Man 2 overstates the case, and every time the saintly Aunt May shows up — especially when she makes a dreary, endless speech about heroes — the movie nods off. But when Doc Ock is on the screen, all is forgiven. Molina gives this villain — who has four mechanical tentacles that do his bidding but also sway him towards the Dark Side — as much shading as he can, and also an intensity of focus. He’s obsessed with completing the experiment that went awry, killed his wife and fused those arms to his spine. Defeating Spider-Man is only a means to that end. The Spider-Man movies, on reflection, are blockbuster essays on the deformative power of science: Peter rose from his lab accident as a hero, but others like Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius weren’t so lucky. (If you add in the origins of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, you get the sense that Stan Lee harbors a deep mistrust of technology and especially radiation.)
Spider-Man 2 isn’t quite God’s gift to comics fans, but it’s head and shoulders above the thin, rushed first film. It stays with the anguish of lonely, beleaguered Peter, who can’t make it to Mary Jane’s play because he’s off being Spider-Man, and who can’t tell his loved ones the truth because it would endanger them. Raimi finds heroism in Peter’s self-denial, but as a director he denies himself nothing. That sequence aboard the elevated train, with Spider-Man and Doc Ock flinging and bashing each other, is going to go down in action history. I’ve been harsh on Raimi in recent years, only because I’ve felt he was being a bit of a Peter Parker himself, muting his true gifts in order to make it in Hollywood. But in this film the joy is back. Narratively lumpy as it sometimes is, Spider-Man 2 marks Raimi’s return to the pure cinema of fun.