SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Director: Sam Raimi

If anything is assured in the motion picture industry, it's that a successful movie will spawn a sequel. Many times, these sequels are undeserved or not necessary. I mean, how many people did you hear begging for Blair Witch 2? Other sequels merely regurgitate the plot of its predecessor and present us with the exact same thing we saw before with some minor changes (such as the majority of the Friday The 13th sequels). But a few times, we get a sequel that is a little different, one that actually continues the story for a change. Movies like Terminator 2 and the final two-thirds of the Back To The Future trilogy are examples of that, but what's rarer is a sequel that's actually better than its predecessor. That list is so short, you could probably count all the movie's on the list on two hands and have fingers left over. But one of the movies on that list is Spider-Man 2. The first Spider-Man was great, but its sequel actually surpasses it. Spider-Man 2 is one of those rare sequels that is more entertaining than its predecessor, earning a spot as not only one of the best sequels ever, but joining an elite list as one of the best superhero movies ever made.

SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)It's been two years since the end of the previous movie, and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is finding it extremely difficult to lead his dual life. He loses his job as a pizza delivery boy and nearly loses his job as a photographer at the Daily Bugle, he's slowly flunking out of college, and he has barely enough money to pay his rent. For the life of me, I can't figure out why ol' Pete's landlord is always up in his grill about the rent. You couldn't pay me enough money to live in Peter's apartment, so I don't really blame him for being a little lax in regards to his rent payments. In a fair world, Peter's building would be condemned and scheduled for demolition, because people in third-world countries have better living conditions. But hey, it's just a movie, I should really just relax.

Anyway, Peter's one more crappy situation away from a complete nervous breakdown, but he isn't the only one who's struggling; his loved ones are struggling too. His beloved aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is unable to make ends meet, and is facing a foreclosure on her home. Peter also often finds himself struggling to get along with his best friend and OsCorp Industries chief Harry Osborn (James Franco). Harry has become quite bitter since we last saw him, blaming Spider-Man for his father's death in the prior film and resenting the fact that Peter won't tell him anything about our friendly neighborhood web-slinger. He also seems to have become a raging alcoholic, but that's just the impression I get. Of course, little does Harry know that not only was his father the Green Goblin, but that his best friend and the man he wishes death on are one in the same. Unfortunately, not only is Peter's friendship with Harry strained, his relationship with budding actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) on thin ice as well. He and Mary Jane obviously love one another and want to be together, but despite her best efforts, Spider-Man is higher on Peter's list of priorities. While Peter's desire to keep Mary Jane safe from various supervillains is noble, his inability to explain why he continues to disappoint her unfortunately pushes Mary Jane into the arms of another man: respected astronaut John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), the son of Peter's boss, Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons).

But Peter's life is about to get much more complicated. After a little discussion with his physics professor, Peter sets about on actually doing some schoolwork for a change. He decides to write a paper on Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a brilliant scientist whose latest project is being funded by OsCorp. An enthusiastic Harry introduces Peter to Dr. Octavius, and the pair have a long talk that stretches into the evening. The two bond over dinner, and when the discussion turns to their love lives, Dr. Octavius and his wife Rosalie (Donna Murphy) offer Peter some quality advice on how to win a girl's heart. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Octavius and OsCorp host a demonstration of the doctor's project, a self-sustaining fission reaction that could infinitely generate the power of a small sun. What's even more impressive is the tools that Dr. Octavius utilizes to manipulate said fission reaction: four massive robotic arms that plug directly into his cerebral cortex via a series of pins into his back, operated by an artificial intelligence programmed to follow the doctor's mental commands. Dr. Octavius plugs his robotic tentacles in and begins the process, but unfortunately, an error in his calculations leads to disaster. Fate decides to play a cruel joke on the gentle scientist, as the fission reaction goes out of control and causing an intense magnetic fluctuation that results in Rosalie's death and the four robotic arms becoming permanently fused with Dr. Octavius's spine. Said fusion also destroys a crucial piece of safety equipment and allows the A.I. of the arms to directly access the doctor's brain. With his wife dead and his dream ruined, Dr. Octavius is a broken man. The tentacle A.I. senses it, and using their open tap into the doctor's brain, the tentacles direct Dr. Octavius to stage various bank robberies to fund an even bigger version of his fission reaction generator. Dr. Octavius protests at first, but relents, soon earning the nickname "Dr. Octopus" (or simply "Doc Ock" for short) from the Daily Bugle. He creates for himself a new laboratory in an abandoned warehouse on the East River, but the bad part is that if his previous error goes uncorrected, his fission generator will end up vaporizing the entire island of Manhattan.

With a new supervillain in town, and more stress and frustration piling on as time goes by, Peter soon finds himself losing his powers. He begins slipping off walls while climbing them, he finds it harder to spin webs, and his spidey-sense starts dulling. It's capped off by Mary Jane's announcement that she'll engaged to marry her new beau, which finally pushes Peter over the edge. In perhaps the movie's hardest-hitting moment, Peter dumps his costume into a trash can and proclaims "I'm Spider-Man no more." His retirement from the superhero world apparently creates nothing but rosy skies for Peter. He's finally able to start enjoying life without those pesky crime-fighting responsibilities, he makes nice with his landlord's daughter Ursula (Mageina Tovah), and he even takes a few steps to rebuild his crumbling friendship with Mary Jane. But he isn't able to enjoy his new life for long. Doc Ock turns to Harry for an extremely rare mineral needed to rebuild his fission device, and Harry promises him as much of the mineral as he can get if Doc Ock brings him Spider-Man. How do you get to Spider-Man? Through his personal photographer, Peter Parker. Doc Ock kidnaps Mary Jane and threatens to kill her if Peter fails to produce Spider-Man, thus beginning a third act that climaxes in Peter once again donning his old red and blue suit to not only rescue the love of his life, but prevent Dr. Octopus from activating his device and destroying Manhattan.

Wow. That pretty much says it all, "wow." I mentioned in my review of Spider-Man that I thought it ranked up there with Superman II as one of the best comics-to-film adaptations ever, but Spider-Man 2 quite possibly exceeds it. And I love Superman II too, so Spider-Man 2 has gotta be good to be better than that. As with the prior movie and the comic books, Spider-Man 2 is not about a superhero struggling with a secret identity; it's about a young man struggling with life. And yeah, he's got that whole superpower thing going for him too. The movie succeeds in directly translating what made Spider-Man so popular to begin with. Peter Parker is such an identifiable character, and each of us can connect with him on some level. He's not some godlike crusader from a far-away planet like Superman, nor is he a shadowy millionaire consumed with revenge like Batman. Spider-Man is just a regular kid with an inferiority complex and slipping grades, who's unlucky in love and unready to accept the responsibilities that come with his superpowers. All the feats of daring-do are fun to look at, sure, but the story is what drives the movie.

Sam Raimi returns to the Spidey saga's director's chair, and he once again presents us with a film worth talking about. His directing shines brightly, and even echoes some of his older work with the excellently-done operation scene following Dr. Octopus's accident. While there were some bits I could have done without (such as the awkward Peter/Ursula subplot that went absolutely nowhere, and the cheesy Uncle Ben dream that was probably just included to get Cliff Robertson and the "with great power comes great responsibility" line into the movie), Raimi's work here is much slicker, even better than what we saw in Spider-Man. The CGI is also drastically improved, looking much more realistic. Spider-Man and the Green Goblin looked like video game characters in the previous movie, but Spidey and Dr. Octopus look lifelike here. So whoever decided to improve the CGI, good job. I also would like to give props to Danny Elfman, who keeps churning out these wonderful superhero scores like it's nothing. The guy's definitely earned his reputation as one of the greatest in the industry.

Just like the first movie, Raimi not only gives us a film to talk about, he shows us a villain who's just as conflicted as its hero. While the Green Goblin was a criminal simply because he was a schizophrenic psychopath, Dr. Octopus is a villain simply because fate dealt him a crappy hand in the card game of life. Despite not having a lot of screen time before his transformation into a supervillain, we learn that Dr. Otto Octavius is a peaceful man who's madly in love with his wife and truly desires to make the world a better place. His true nature only makes it all the more tragic when he's becomes a half-mechanical maniac who has no qualms against putting millions of lives in danger in order to make his dream a reality. While his descent into madness can be blamed on his tentacles and their malicious A.I., his new life of crime can also be attributed to the psychological scarring brought on by the failure of his experiment and the death of his wife. He's a broken man with a broken spirit, but the tentacle A.I. offers him a chance to rebuild his experiment through lots and lots of robbery. Because he has nothing else left, he lets the A.I. guide him as an escape from his failure.

The effectiveness of Dr. Octopus's duality is a testament to the talent of Alfred Molina. He'd be the highlight of the cast if it weren't for Tobey Maguire, who returns as the titular web-slinger. He once again carries the movie, displaying the strength and inner struggle that Peter Parker needed. Meanwhile, James Franco turned his James Dean Brood Machine™ up to eleven and gave us another watchable performance. And unfortunately, I wasn't as thrilled by Kirsten Dunst as I was in the previous movie. While she certainly isn't bad, I just wasn't impressed. However, I will give her credit: she and Maguire have great chemistry, and if the Peter/M.J. love story gets an even bigger piece of the pie in Spider-Man 3, I'm ready for it. And a great big thumbs-up to J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, who unashamedly stole every scene he was in.

A few people have dismissed Spider-Man 2 as overrated claptrap, but I absolutely love it. I'm not even that big of a Spidey fan, but there's no denying that Spider-Man 2 is nothing shy of unbelievable. With better CGI, more exciting action scenes, and fun humor, the movie can easily look past the love story being accentuated to almost annoying proportions and a lack of main emphasis on Dr. Octopus. Complaints aside, I found Spider-Man 2 to be much more satisfying than its predecessor, and quite a satisfying movie in general. I'll give the movie four and a half stars, and I think it fits fine there.

Final Rating: ****