Why does Spider-Man work so well as a comic-book hero? When he's not helping the city, his alter ego, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is just like everyone else. He has problems keeping his job; he can't make it to Mary-Jane's (Kirsten Dunst) stage performances; the rent is overdue; the Daily Bugle's editor's (JK Simmons, in an outstanding comic turn) interest in Parker's photos is motivated by the need to sell papers and the desire to spread vitriolic, anti-Spidey propaganda. Everyday life was never quite as difficult as this for Bruce Wayne.

The first film's story was economically delivered through the terrific opening credits, a spider's criss-crossing web, framing comic-book panels, which delve into the important story aspects and (re)initiate the viewer. In fact, if you haven't seen the first film, I'd strongly advise you not to - just stick with this one. It's all explained on-the-run, in skillfully unintrusive exposition.

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Harry Osbourne (James Franco), the late Green Goblin's son, and Peter's best friend has sworn vengeance for his father's death at the hands of Spider-Man. Dr. Otto (Ock) Octavius (a career-best Alfred Molina) has developed nuclear fusion, using tritium fuel and scary robotic arms embedded in his nervous system. The inaugural demonstration goes badly wrong. Otto's wife is killed, and he loses control of the irremovable haywire arms. The merest whim and they go to work, clanking like Japanese taiko drums.

Ock becomes obsessed with fixing his flawed invention and strikes a deal with Osbourne for Spider-Man's head. It is to Molina's credit that the dual personality of the diabolical Doctor is an even match for Spider-Man and quickly establishes himself as someone to be feared.

Maguire's everyman performance is refreshing, while the vulnerability of Spider-Man is continually preyed upon. The first film had little to subtantiate its mantra "with great power, comes great responsibility". Spider-Man 2 delivers a narrative which soundly reinforces this ideal throughout. He loses powers - an impotence of sorts - and cannot balance his love for Mary-Jane with his responsibilities as Spidey. This romance is paramount to reaching the material's soul, not a cheap aside as it was in the prequel.

Spider-Man 2 does not descend into camp, nor nostalgia, but the characters, while limited by their own archetype, express wishes, ideas and establish common thread with the audience. They represent ourselves as we transpose our hopes and dreams upon them. I'm delighted Maguire and Dunst returned to these roles, since they may not have realised how superb they would become.

The real quality of Spider-Man 2 is in its writing. The first movie has all the class of a bad big-budget Saturday morning cartoon. All the cliches are present and correct - doll-faced girlfriend, father/son dynamic of villain/hero and the usual guilt/exhilaration attributed to betrayal and violence. Sam Raimi's second outing takes all these elements and turns them on their head, providing enough ammunition to drive the next scene, and the next. Structurally, it's superb.

There are several set-pieces designed to frighten the viewer. It's quite awesome; the free form manipulation of an audience through excellent atmospheric plays and a few did-I-really-just-see-that moments. Leave the young and sensitive ones at home - moderate fantasy violence and an instance of horror, when Doc Ock mutilates a surgical team.

The film delivers in spades when it comes to the action. Even the completely ridiculous moment where Parker's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is taken hostage and juggled by robot arms up and down a skyscraper. There's a crazed genius to the way it's framed and scored. We have invested ourselves in all of the characters by now and it's thrillingly edited and pieced together.

Subtlety, however, is not part and parcel of Raimi's visual storytelling and, as such, the photographic impact of the film has also been greatly improved. A wonderful looking string of shots meld impressive digital and practical effects, under the watchful eye of effects supervisor John Dykstra and cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix series). The CGI, while remaining frequently obvious, leaps with believable fluidity, which standard stunts and camerawork cannot achieve.

Unlike the previous film, Spider-Man finally has some real weight to his high flying acrobatics and the cinematography, while not as playful as Hulk's split-screen fun, is easily superior when it comes to camera movement and framing. Raimi finally delivers on the promise of the visual creativity of the Evil Dead series, with a few sight gags, which remind you cognitively, just who is pulling the strings. It is a glorious bull's-eye of creative direction.

This is one of the year's best films, and the most improved franchise I have seen in a long time.

Reviewed on: 25 Apr 2005
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Spidey reluctantly returns to save New York from a mad scientist.
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Read more Spider-Man 2 reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2
Jennie Kermode ***

Director: Sam Raimi

Writer: Alvin Sargent, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, JK Simmons, Donna Murphy, Daniel Gillies, Bill Nunn, Aasif Mandvi, Willem Dafoe, Cliff Robertson, Dylan Baker, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi

Year: 2004

Runtime: 127 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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