(Reviewed June 16, 2004, by James Dawson)
I have no idea why the first "Spider-Man" was such a blockbuster hit. I mean, it was okay, but nothing terrific. Even I, a lifelong comics fan, had absolutely zero desire ever to see it again after one viewing. (Go read my review here for details.)
"Spider-Man 2" is even less impressive. There is exactly one good scene in the entire flick. When Spidey has to save a runaway subway train that's on an elevated track, nearly everything clicks. The special effects are good, the physics are halfway convincing and there is actual edge-of-your-seat suspense. I loved the way the effects guys threw in lots of great details that went above and beyond what would have been necessary to make the scene believable. (Watch the glass break behind Spidey's outstretched arms, for example. Nice!)
The Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus fight that precedes the runaway-train bit, however, sums up what is wrong with nearly all of the rest of the movie: The action moves far too fast to be credible (even in a comic-book universe); Doc Ock is so obviously more powerful and quicker than Spidey that it is impossible to believe the webslinger ever would have a fighting chance against him; and the punch-ups are more sadistically violent than "comic-bookish," turning what should be "biff smash pow" fun into the next best thing to a horror movie.
Other than the saving-the-train bit, nearly all of the movie's effects scenes look as if they belong in an arcade video game, not on a big screen. Spider-Man and Doc Ock (or their CGI simulations, I should say) simply do not move in believable ways or at believable speeds, and usually do not seem to exist in the movie's plane of reality. All of their moves seem to be in fast-motion or just slightly "off" enough to take you right out of ye olde Suspension of Disbelief Land.
There are other problems. For one thing, I couldn't help picturing some slickee-boy agent in a thousand-dollar suit chewing a fat cigar and saying to the producers, "It's like this, see: My boy Tobey Maguire needs some more face time this go-round. Capish?" You won't believe how often Spider-Man is maskless in this installment. By the time the credits roll, one hell of a lot of cast members and extras know that Spidey's alter-ego looks an awful lot like Peter Parker from the neck up.
Another huge mistake occurs when Peter Parker 'fesses up to Aunt May that he is the one responsible for Uncle Ben's death in the first movie. What the hell? The fact that Parker carried that guilty secret around with him from his first appearance in 1962 at least until the mid-1970s (when I stopped reading the comic book) was part of his tragic burden, as it were. For all I know, he may never have spilled his guts to this day in the comics (although I honestly have no idea what has happened in the last 30 years of continuity). And yet here he is, deciding to get it all off his chest in only the second movie? Sheesh!
Also, I hated the fact that "Spider-Man 2" has so much in common with "Superman 2." (This is in addition to shots that are identical to some in the first "Superman"and could be passed off as homage: the whole damsel-dangling-from-a-building bit, or Peter Parker running into an alley and pulling his shirt open to reveal his costume underneath.) Here are both movie's three main plot elements (even if their order is shuffled between the two films): hero loses powers, hero decides to stop being hero and (somehow, I don't think I'm spoiling anything) hero changes mind about retiring.
Here's another major gripe: One unfortunate change the first movie made to Spider-Man was changing his web-shooting ability from mechanical (devices strapped to his wrists in the comic book) to organic (in the movies, his body has physically mutated so that he shoots webbing directly from ducts within his wrists). When the comic-book Spider-Man ran out of webbing by using too much of the stuff between refills, it was kind of charming, in an "ever have days like this?" kind of way.
But when the movie Spider-Man loses his ability to shoot webs, and starts falling from great heights in disturbingly painful ways, something creepier and too-heavy-for-the-material is to blame. Turns out that Spidey has a psychological block, one that comes off like a weird take on sexual dysfunction "confidence problems." (Hey, kids! Spidey can't stay up!)
There's another reason why this change is just plain wrong. In the comics, when Parker once decided to be "Spider-Man No More," it was a conscious decision untainted by extenuating circumstances. He simply made up his mind and that was that. In this movie, however, he is helped to reach the decision by the fact that his powers have become unreliable, which undercuts the integrity of the move and the drama of the moment.
It was exactly this kind of unnecessary change that hindered the first Spider-Man movie's version of the character's origin. In that movie, Parker allows the thief to escape because Parker has just been screwed by the person who got robbed. Parker regards letting the thief escape as a way to get some small measure of revenge, in other words. In the comics version, the reason Parker does not impede the thief's escape is because he does not think that stopping the thief is his responsibility, and he can't be bothered to care. In other words, he has no personal stake in the situation. A small change, but a big difference.
Even the things the movie tries to get right often go wrong. We know from the comics that money always was tight for Peter Parker...but he sure didn't live in a decaying, bathroom-down-the-hall tenement slum. At least, he didn't back in the Stan Lee "golden age" of the character.
And we know from the comics that Parker is a bit of a loser...but do we really need to see him fail to get the last hors d'oeuvre from a serving tray TWICE to get the point?
Kirsten Dunst looks kind of blah as Mary Jane Watson in many of her scenes (and still bears absolutely no resemblance other than hair color to her comic-book counterpart). Just about everything the villainous Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) does is over-the-top violent, and not in a good way. Every time he came on screen, and those scary mechanical arms started whipping around like evil snakes and raising the body count, I kept thinking, "A lot of kids in this audience are gonna be pissing their beds tonight!" The Danny Elfman score is exactly as annoyingly forgettable as the shlocky rock songs dropped willy-nilly onto the soundtrack. And there are at least two endings too many, coming long after I had checked my watch more than once.
In other words, director Sam Raimi has pretty much given us "the same mixture as before." I have no idea why that strategy paid off last time--but if you liked "Spider-Man," I suppose you'll enjoy this one, too.
Back Row Reviews Grade: D+
To see my reviews of director Sam Raimi's other two Spider-Man movies and 2012's Marc Webb-directed "The Amazing Spider-Man," use the links below:
"Spider-Man 3" (2007)
"The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012)