Spider-Man 2 is a rarity in the superhero-action genre — a sequel surpassing the original. This time around, the franchise taps into the grace and glow of the source material, those Marvel comics dating back to the 1960s. That's accomplished with help from two powerful newcomers — comics-besotted novelist Michael Chabon, who helped write the script, and a dazzlingly realized villain, the infernal Dr. Octopus.
As the film begins, young Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has problems less pressing than an evil father figure with eight arms. He's a mess. His superhero activities interfere with everything from studying physics at Columbia University to his part-time job. It's not easy delivering pizzas when you've got to stop to save every kid running into traffic.
Parker is tormented with guilt over the death of his Uncle Ben, and Aunt May faces foreclosure on his tidy little childhood home. Then there's the dream girl, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). So stricken is Parker by his failure to properly woo her, he's considering revealing his secret identity. The stress is such that poor Spidey's web shooters have stopped working, sending him crashing, impotently, into alleys and bruising more than his body.
Enter Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who puts everything in perspective. We meet him first as a brilliant scientist on the verge of adopting young Parker as a protégé. But an experiment gone awry leaves the good doctor stark raving mad, with his spinal column accessorized with a tangle of coiling mechanical arms. ("A guy with a name like Otto Octavius ends up with eight limbs," marvels the sleazy editor of the city's tabloid, the Daily Bugle. "What are the chances?")
Havoc erupts, of course, and director Sam Raimi never once condescends to his audience as the films whips to a finish through the office canyons of New York. Raimi borrows brilliantly from his previous work in horror movies to raise the stakes and elevate the suspense. (Winks to Raimi's longtime fans are evident in sequences such as a brutally exultant hospital melee involving a chainsaw.)
Raimi's directorial skill goes far beyond splatter. He's one of the best lensmen in Hollywood, and this widescreen DVD transfer effectively captures the pleasures of shots that tip over vertiginous skyscraper ledges, drift around characters in the throes of psychological turmoil or thrust the viewer within a fight raging on, around and in an uncontrolled train shooting towards an abyss.
As in the original, Maguire effortlessly communicates an emotional center — he's the heart of the film. The script finds plenty of excuses for that red mask to peel off — a very good thing, given Maguire's preternatural expressiveness. He has a silent film star's stillness and ability to emote with his eyes. So does Molina, who could have made a big ham sandwich of his role as Doc Ock, but instead imbues the villain with an empathetic dignity that renders him all the more chilling.
The two-disc set offers more than 10 hours of extras, and while there's a fair amount of annoying repetition, the technical featurettes in particular hold interest. (In fact, one of my favorite commentary moments happens during the hospital fracas. As Doc Ock's frantic tentacles hurl doctors about and shoot through walls, a special effects coordinator murmurs, "Puppet, CGI, CGI, puppet, CGI, puppet" to explain what we're seeing.) The SPX folks also dish about Raimi's insistence on personally bombarding his cast with debris, whenever the opportunity arises. ("He considers himself the best debris-flinger in the business," one notes dryly.)
Cast and crew commentary tracks were recorded the day before opening weekend. They feature an understandably preoccupied Raimi, Maguire (his expressive abilities rather less evident here) and a couple of supremely self-involved producers, none of whom have anything particularly riveting to recount. One misses the wit of raconteurs like Molina or Spider-Man creator Stan Lee.
Other extras include a blooper reel, mainly consisting of bit players flubbing their lines, quickie documentaries plumbing various aspects of the film ("The Women of Spider-Man"), and something called "Spidey Sense 2" — a version of the film packed with pop-up trivia bubbles that ensure that you'll know, for example, what kind of motorcycle Peter Parker rides, how many of them were used in the making of the film, and in which issue of the comic Parker started wearing a helmet. All things you didn't know you needed to know — depending on what playground you want to impress.
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