In 1982, 22-year-old director Sam Raimi emerged from suburban Detroit with Evil Dead, a giddy, gory horror film he'd made with his friends. Dead reshaped the horror genre and inspired countless low-budget fright fests, but its schlocky appeal was largely due to Raimi's unique style, which boasted volatile camera moves, slapstick humor, and an unrelentingly entertaining tone. 20 years later, he seemed a perfect fit for Sony's film adaptation of Spider-Man.
But Raimi stumbled. Spider-Man didn't feel like it was directed by that kid from Detroit; instead, it felt like it was assembled by a multinational corporation looking for the next big thing. Sony got their profitable franchise, but Raimi had whitewashed Spider-Man's appeal in the process--Spider-Man wasn't a great Spider-Man movie, but rather a disappointing glimpse of how great a Spider-Man movie could have been.
That promise is fulfilled, however, in Spider-Man 2. With infinitely more confidence and a welcome return to his madcap style, Raimi's Spider-Man 2 actually feels like a Raimi picture, with frantic camera zooms, dizzying action sequences, melodramatic music cues, and a wholehearted sense of excitement in every frame. Here, Raimi is an ideal match for the pulpy comic; if the first Spider-Man was generic studio tripe, its sequel is what happens when a blockbuster's budget meets creative skill and enthusiasm.
Picking up two years after the first film leaves off, Spider-Man 2 plays to the comic's inimitable strength: observing nerdy Peter Parker's (Tobey Maguire) daily balancing act between school, part time jobs, and wooing Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)--even as he pulls on tights every night as Spider-Man. Things get crazy when Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) fuses four twisty, serpentine metal tentacles to his spine. Dubbed "Doctor Octopus," Doc Oc's appearance has pretty poor timing--right when the eight-limbed megalomaniac starts wreaking havoc, Peter tires of the juggling act of his life and decides to ditch the red and blue spandex.
Borrowing heavily from 1967's Amazing Spider-Man #50 (which bore the tagline "Spider-Man No More!"), the screenplay is solid, if overly operatic. What's surprising, though, aren't its action beats or effects sequences, but its focus on the characters. While Spider-Man's origin took up most of the first film, this installment examines the choices and sacrifices Peter must justify because of his powers.
The cast echoes Raimi's confidence this time around, with Maguire adeptly anchoring the narrative, James Franco offering a surprisingly dark turn as Peter's best friend, Harry Osborn, and even the usually abhorrent Dunst... well, she's tolerable, at least. Molina notably eschews the generic mad scientist shtick, instead providing a performance that's simultaneously menacing and sympathetic.
Throughout, Raimi delivers amazing, spectacular action sequences. The sprawling set pieces are more kinetic and imaginative than any of recent memory, and one fight sequence--which starts at the top of a skyscraper and climaxes on a hurtling train, half of New York City away--is especially noteworthy; Raimi combines live action, CG, and a frenetic camera to achieve a breakneck pace.
For better or worse, the entire film feels lifted right out of the comics. That's great for comic fanboys, who will spend two hours in orgasmic glee, but mainstream audiences are rewarded, as well--this time around, Raimi and Sony demonstrate enough faith in their source material to make Spider-Man 2 not only a valid adaptation of the comic, but also a legitimate film. Within this are the comic's inherent flaws--much like a schizophrenic comic book, the film asks the audience to shift between introspection, melodrama, and overblown popcorn summer fare, sometimes within the same scene. But during the rare occasions Spider-Man 2 falters, it differs from its predecessor in that it, at least, has the self-assurance to risk doing so.