Review: Spider-Man 2

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Okay I'll admit it, I've never been a fan of Spider-Man. In my comic book reading days I was more a DC Comics kind of guy, preferring Batman and Superman over the web-slinging Spider-Man. That's not to say that I didn't like Spider-Man or read the occasional book, because I did (working in a comic book store means you kind of have to), but he never topped my list. There's no escaping the fact that 2001's Spider-Man is the key example of the comic book movie genre: over-the-top action with cheesy and sometimes downright awful dialogue. However, despite the really cool trailers, including the one pulled after September 11th, I never really got into the film. Sure, it was fun to watch and as passable entertainment one could do much worse, but after coming out of a matinee screening I wasn't blown away. I guess I was in the minority, as the movie would go on to do huge business including setting a number of box office records. I wasn't surprised, though, and when a sequel was announced I thought maybe they'd do better the second time around just like what happened with X-Men and the far superior in every regard X2. So with a group of crazed Spidey fans in tow and after lining up in what seemed like the longest lineup for a screening since X2, I went into the advance screening with a fairly high level of anticipation. And after a number of ushers tried to nab the two seats I was saving for a couple of late-arriving friends and an unfunny intro from the supposedly legendary morning radio show team, the logo appeared and the web-slinging began.

When last we left our web-slinging-by-night superhero friend, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) had decided to leave Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) in order to prevent himself from falling any further in love and exposing her to the dangerous supervillians that could exploit her to get to him. A couple years have passed and Parker is still struggling to make it in the real world. He's had problems holding down jobs and studying due to his superhero abilities. In fact, he's dangerously close to failing an important science class and his final grade is dependant upon an assignment on a famous scientist. The scientist he has chosen is Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a man employed by new OsCorp boss and Peter's friend Harry (James Franco). Octavius has planned to sustain fusion and create an all-powerful energy source that at its full capacity can be used to power an entire city. At the same time, Mary Jane's career as an actress has taken off and she has become engaged to be married to John Jameson, son of J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), the publisher of the Daily Bugle and one of Peter's many bosses. Peter still loves MJ, but the crime fighting causes him to break every promise to her and the two look like they will never be together. Meanwhile at Octavius's big launch, the experiment goes horribly wrong, blowing up an entire city building, and when the last corner of the building has fallen, Ock is a changed man. He's now determined to rebuild his experiment, avenge his wife's death, and rid New York of that menace Spider-Man. But at the same time, Peter has decided to hang up his red suit and focus more on becoming a human being and reconnecting with those he's pushed away in the past few years.

As a sequel to one of the biggest summer blockbusters of all time, expectations for Spider-Man 2 are no doubt going to be huge. Can the film be bigger and better then its predecessor while still offering something different to audience members who may not have enjoyed the first? The answer both is yes and no, and while I enjoyed this Spider-Man film more than the first, it's still far from something that I'd consider the ultimate superhero movie. Let's start with the good. Sam Raimi has worked with most of the same people on this sequel and with the budget upped and the ratio swapped to the more cinematic and wider 2.40:1 scope, this is a much grander-feeling film. Everything is bigger and more epic-looking, with stunning action sequences and jaw-dropping visuals as Spidy swings himself through New York City. The opening and closing action set pieces are extremely entertaining and when the action is occurring, it's something to behold. It never looks overly real, but this is a comic book and so the ability to suspend belief in what's happening on-screen is pretty much a given. The computer-generated effects (and man there are a lot of them) look pretty good and Octavius is a much more exciting and evenly-matched villain than the Green Goblin. Spider-Man himself still looks fake when he's swinging through the air as he turns into what appears to me at least to be a weightless-like figure, but I'm sure that's by design. This isn't supposed to be a physically accurate or real world scenario, so while it's distracting, it's to be expected. After all, how many cities have superheroes.

Moving to the bad. The first item is my biggest complaint with the movie and the reason that I was muttering under my breath and laughing (in some places uncontrollably) throughout the screening. Don't believe me, ask any of the three people I went with. I know this is a comic book movie and therefore by definition alone, given the source format and origin of the character, should feature some cheesy dialogue. However, in the case of Spider-Man 2, the dialogue in places (mostly scenes involving Peter and Mary Jane) is so painstakingly poorly written that I thought I was watching a really really bad B-movie. I almost cringed during any of the so-called emotional moments as I was not locked up in their struggle to be together but more what screenwriter Alvin Sargent had these two people saying. Near the end of the film, MJ (as Peter often calls her) tells Peter to "go get 'em tiger". Yes, that's a direct quote. Who says stuff like that? Again, I'm not expecting complete realism as this is a comic book story with an over-the-top set of events and circumstances. Still, it's hard to think of how one could make an emotional moment any more humorous than to say that when the guy goes off to what might be (if not for his superpowers) his certain death. Do they really care for one another? It's not clear here. So who's to blame for this laughable, almost Raspberry Award-calibre dialogue? It can't be Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who were responsible for creating the excellent TV series Smallville. It has to be Sargent, who is given the sole screenplay credit while Millar and Gough receive "Screen Story" credit. Either way, whoever is responsible for the dialogue should be forced to watch the old Batman TV series starring Adam West time and time again, as words like "POW", "KAZAM", and "BAM" are a marked improvement over much of the dialogue in the film. The story also suffers from some unbelievable ideas, including the final action set piece involving a runaway train, which is ludicrous. But all the story and plot device problems don't hold a candle to the dialogue. Though I still question where all the traffic went in the last action scene.

My other reservation with the film is not as big of an issue as the laughable dialogue, but is still enough of a detractor to warrant mentioning. The film feels a bit long at 2 hours and 6 minutes, including the 7-minute-long credits (short by today's action blockbuster standards). This probably has something to do with the fact that while the film starts out strong and has a few action moments within the first 45 minutes, after that the action dies down quite a bit and the story becomes more a coming of age/reflection piece, as Peter contemplates his future as the web-slinging one. It's in this middle section of the movie that most of the comedy occurs, aside from the laughs generated from the aforementioned dialogue. This section of the film isn't so much boring as much as it's just a bit slower and drags on for a bit longer than it might otherwise need to. To me, this exposition was needed, but much like The Hulk " which was sort of an arthouse superhero movie book-ended by two unimaginative action pieces " it just seemed to drag on and on. Luckily I never felt close to dosing off given the buzz and energy of the sold out crowd (and the fact that had I passed out I would have been mocked endlessly by my friends).

Acting in comic book movies has never been all that important to me and Spider-Man 2 doesn't change that. Tobey Maguire, who was good in The Cider House Rules and Seabiscuit, continues in the dual role of Peter Parker and Spider-Man. He seems goofy enough to be Parker, handles the action scenes decently enough, and fits the whole Spidey body-type, but for whatever reason I just have a problem imagining him as a superhero. Perhaps it's the laughable dialogue or maybe it's the fact that he seems more adept to handling drama and comedy (albeit unintentional material masking itself as comedy). Kirsten Dunst is an actress I liked quite a bit in Bring it On and The Cat's Meow, but hasn't impressed me much lately. I hated Mona Lisa Smile, her last picture, and she's adequate at best in this movie. Mary Jane, or MJ, is saddled with some of the dumbest lines and dopiest facial expressions. Dunst tries hard to overcome this, but even her pretty looks can't help her here. James Franco does better here as Harry Osborn than in the first one, but his performance is still stilted. The real standout performance here comes from J.K. Simmons, best known from OZ and Law and Order, who plays J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle. Simmons steals every scene he's in. He's a comedic force to be reckoned with here in his expanded role. Spidey fans should also be on the lookout for Raimi alumni Bruce Campbell and Stan Lee in small cameo roles.

Spider-Man 2 is without a doubt one of the summer's biggest blockbuster releases and in a summer of sequels where most have delivered and bettered (or at least equaled) their predecessors, this one won't disappoint either. If the audience reaction at the filled-to-capacity advance screening I attended is any indicator, this film will have huge legs at the box office and earn Columbia Pictures and Marvel a bucket load of money. Although some of the dialogue is at the same intellectual level as Paris Hilton's "That's hot" catch phrase on the moronic The Simple Life, the action is wicked, the story is above average for a comic book picture, and the set pieces and action spectacles are mind-blowing. Spider-Man 2 is probably going to be the action film to beat this summer and with good reason. Still, in the eyes of this critic, it has too many faults and shortcomings to become the quintessential superhero picture. That said, the less you think about it and the more you go to sit back and have a fun time at the movies, the better. It's not painful to watch by any means (well maybe the dialogue), but it's nothing more than summer popcorn fare. Sit back, relax, and watch Spidey swing from building to building on his way to more box office records.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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