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When Spider-Man hit theaters in the spring of 2002, I thought it had distilled the perfect formula for cinema superheroics, a careful blend of in-costume action and out-of-costume drama, seasoned with a dash of unrequited adolescent longing and liberal portions of Tobey Maguire's insistent adorability. There was no reason to doubt that the recipe would work equally well in a sequel.

Clearly, the filmmakers also felt they had found a replicable formula; they just took the idea a little more literally. Like the first film, Spider-Man 2 features as its villain a scientist who a) works for the company Oscorp; b) acts as a father figure to Spidey's alter ego Peter Parker; c) has an experiment go badly awry, giving himself superpowers but also making him crazy; d) endures a schizophrenic struggle between his good and evil selves before succumbing to the latter; and e) takes hostage Peter's longtime crush Mary Jane in order to get to Spider-Man. Indeed, repetitions are everywhere in the film: another rescue of public-transit passengers plummeting toward death; another inspirational speech by an elderly relative; another comically bad street musician singing about Spider-Man; another scene in which costar Kirsten Dunst's top is soaked to reveal her as conspicuously under-undergarmented. For all the critical raves it received, Spider-Man 2 is, in the end, more remake than sequel.

This is not a new trick for director Sam Raimi, whose second film, Evil Dead 2, was essentially a retelling of his first. But whereas in that case it was an act of moxie--re-envisioning the terrifying original as a horror-comedy--this time around it looks like a failure of nerve. The first Spider-Man unexpectedly raked in over $400 million in domestic box office, and that bonanza weighs heavily on the sequel. It can't be easy making a movie for which anything less than $350 million in ticket sales will be considered a failure. And while Spider-Man 2 has managed to clear that hurdle, it did so by hewing programmatically to the blueprint of its predecessor. The first film felt inspired; this one feels packaged.

The story this time revolves around one Dr. Otto Octavius, a brilliant and kindly nuclear scientist who takes an avuncular interest in Peter. Unfortunately, when he unveils to the public his method for creating a sustainable fusion reaction, it turns out not to be so sustainable after all. In addition to undermining his next grant application, the resulting nuclear accident kills his beloved wife and causes his mind to be taken over by four intelligent mechanical arms he had created to manage the experiment. (In addition to being one of the world's foremost physicists, he is also apparently on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence research, "specialization" being a concept that does not pertain in comic-book land.) After awaking in the hospital to find his life in ruins and his appendages doubled, he does what anyone would do under the circumstances: crawl around town on his snaky metal arms, rob the odd bank, fix up a secret lair, and fight Spider-Man at every available opportunity.

As if Spidey didn't have enough on his plate already. Not only does he wear a costume that "rides up a bit in the crotch," as he politely explains to a stranger in an elevator, he's having trouble juggling work and home life. Superheroing, it turns out, has long and unpredictable hours, and the pay sucks. Peter's attempt to line his pockets in the lucrative field of pizza delivery, meanwhile, is continually interrupted by armed robberies and children playing in traffic. Worse, so are his efforts to acquire a college education and to woo Mary Jane: On his way to see her perform in a Broadway play, he doesn't merely witness a crime, he's literally run over by it. (Peter's knack for attracting trouble raises the interesting but unexplored question of whether he could rid New York City of crime simply by moving somewhere else--Hoboken?--and bringing it with him.) Rebuked by Mary Jane for missing the play, Peter has a take-this-job-and-shove-it epiphany, hanging up his mask and tights so that he can treat himself to the finer things life has to offer, like physics class. But never fear: He reverses the decision in plenty of time to set the stage for Spider-Man 3.

Unlike the first movie, which unfolded more or less organically, Spider-Man 2 consistently feels schematic. One reason is dialogue that almost never rings true to life. In some cases, the flat writing is intended to grease the movie's narrative mechanics. Virtually every line spoken to or by Peter's best friend Harry, for instance, includes the words "father" or "Spider-Man" (sometimes both) to make sure no one forgets that the former (last movie's scientist-turned-crazy-villain) died in the course of a dispute with the latter, and Harry is still very unhappy about it. Similarly, when a reporter asks Octavius, "If the artificial intelligence in the arms is as advanced as you suggest, couldn't that make you vulnerable to them?" one half expects him to respond, "Funny you should ask. That's exactly what's going to happen in five minutes."

More often, however, the stilted dialogue is intended to convey moral gravity. Characters don't talk, they declaim. The "With great power comes great responsibility" speech uttered by Uncle Ben in the first movie has spread like kudzu throughout the second one: Now, everyone is speaking Homily. Octavius explains, "Intelligence is not a privilege, it's a gift. You use it for the good of mankind." Mary Jane offers, "It's wrong that we should be only half alive ... half of ourselves." The doctor that Peter goes to when he's feeling less than super tells him, "It's gotta make you mad not to know who you are. Your soul disappears. There's nothing as bad as uncertainty." Not one but two dead characters, Uncle Ben and Harry's father, reappear to lecture their boys on the paths of good and evil, respectively. And then there's Aunt May, who gets this movie's Big Speech: "Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there's a hero in all of us." This is not how people talk in real life--or, for that matter, in comics (you can't fit that many words in the speech-bubble, for starters); it's how they talk in plays, and not good ones.

The cast delivering these lines is also a bit uneven. Maguire is excellent in the title role, again finding a precise balance between courageous resolve and adolescent insecurity. It's hard to think of any actor who could better embody the idea of the "hero in all of us," and this awkward charisma carries the film over numerous rough patches. (Though one has to wonder what will happen to his career if his voice ever changes.) Alfred Molina is less well cast as Dr. Octopus. He never really pulls off the Smeagol-Gollum bickering of good and evil selves, in large part because he never really seems crazy. (This was not, needless to say, a problem for Willem Dafoe in the first movie.) Besides, playing archetypical Good and Evil isn't really Molina's bag. He's better in roles that have a bombastic sleaziness to them, like his Rahad Jackson in Boogie Nights and Jeremy Burtom in The Imposters. Molina might have been able to show this side had the filmmakers included the quasi-seduction by Doc Ock of Aunt May that took place in the original comics. But they didn't. (It's a shame, too. While finessing the age difference might have been tricky, that storyline would have offered an opportunity for new tensions between Peter's personal life and his superhero one, perhaps obviating the need to keep repeating all the old ones.)

As Harry, James Franco is almost unwatchably tiresome, though this is mostly because the script gives him little to do apart from drinking bourbon and acting petulant and unbalanced. (His dad, too, drank Maker's Mark during his descent into homicidal madness. Is this really the product placement the company was looking for?) J.K. Simmons is again magnificent as fiction's most obnoxious boss, J. Jonah Jameson, and as a reward gets the movie's best line: "A guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight arms. What are the odds?" Kirsten Dunst continues to show off her pretty-but-not-unattainably-so appeal as Mary Jane (or "M.J."), though her (literal) girl-next-door appeal is dimmed somewhat by the character's stratospheric ascent from diner waitress to billboard model and Broadway star.

The real problem for Dunst, however, is that the filmmakers have badly fumbled the Peter-M.J. relationship. When the first Spider-Man film came out I thought it contained one significant misstep: M.J.'s telling Peter she loved him at the end. If there's a single lesson television should have taught us (besides that we all need a new car, always) it's that it's much easier to sustain romantic tension between characters--David and Maddie in "Moonlighting," Sam and Diane in "Cheers," Joel and Maggie in "Northern Exposure"--when their feelings are still hidden from one another. Where, I wondered, were Peter and M.J. going to go now that she'd declared herself and he'd turned her down? The solution provided in the second film is essentially to repeat that scene ad inifinitum, with the characters occasionally alternating roles. The movie begins with M.J. again mooning over Peter and him again rejecting her overtures out of a sense of superhero duty. When, in what seems the blink of an eye, she gets engaged (to a character so flat and underdeveloped that he might as well have been named Romantic Foil), Peter quits the superhero gig and starts pitching furious woo--which it's now her turn to rebuff. Then, at the precise moment when she changes her mind and is ready to dump the fiancé for Peter, he changes his mind in the opposite direction, opting once again for a life of heroic solitude. It would all play better as farce than as romance. The two are so busy having tragic, heartbreaking encounters that they never have time to show us why it is they want to be together in the first place.

I don't think I'm ruining a big surprise when I disclose that M.J. ultimately dumps the unfortunate Mr. Foil for Peter. Irritatingly, however, she does it by skipping out on her wedding, classily informing her groom by bridesmaid-delivered note that she's not interested in marrying him after all. To paraphrase Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer (and Joan Cusack in In %amp% Out, and any number of other cinema rejectees), wasn't this something she could have told him yesterday? The idea that uniting with your true love is somehow more romantic when it entails abandoning your near-spouse at the altar is more than a little troubling. (It doesn't help that M.J. is grinning from ear to ear as she flees the church.) But the Spider-Man franchise has been forced to such melodramatic excess in part because it prematurely inflated the Peter-M.J. relationship to operatic dimensions. By the end of Spider-Man 3, I imagine the two of them will have married, had kids, had affairs, divorced, engaged in a bitter custody dispute, reconciled, remarried, and faced a terminal illness together--all in an attempt match the overheated emotional tone that's been set. How much easier it would be on the scriptwriters if the lovebirds had just spent the first two movies flirting and hoping and trying, with heart in hand and butterflies in stomach, to discover whether the attraction was mutual.

And yes, there will be another sequel, a point this movie could hardly have made clearer. Near the end, a drunken, raving Harry--this is the only kind there is beyond the mid-point of the film--abruptly notices that the penthouse apartment he's lived in all his life has a secret 5,000 square-foot supervillain workshop adjoining the living room. There, he discovers his father's lethal gadgets and sinister costume and gives us a pretty good idea of what he intends to do with them. (A donation to charity seems unlikely.) The scene is so heavy-handed a setup that I hope it was expensed to the promotional budget for Spider-Man 3. Assuming Harry does indeed follow in Daddy's footsteps, he will be Peter's third friend to turn into a villainous maniac. At least the filmmakers will be in their comfort zone.

The Home Movies List:
Movies Super and Not-So

Superman-Superman IV (1978-1987). Over the years, many people have tried to come up with a interesting take on Superman--e.g., "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex," Larry Niven's funny-but-disgusting 1971 explanation of why Lois and Clark should never consummate their love; or the speech about Superman's contempt for humanity that Tarantino gives David Carradine at the end of Kill Bill 2--but the fact of the matter is that he's one of the dullest characters ever invented. And none of the Christopher Reeve movies did anything to change that.

Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin (1989-1997). Batman can work as a camp figure (as in the 1960s TV series) or a sinister one (as in some of the Frank Miller comics, notably The Dark Knight Returns), but he fit uncomfortably in the zone of sinister camp where Tim Burton's movies generally unfold. (Though the Burton movies were far better than what followed.) And given that all you can see of Batman is the lower half of his face, they might have thought twice before casting Michael Keaton, an actor with one of the weakest jaws in Hollywood. Val Kilmer was little better, his mouth and chin bearing an uncommon resemblance to those of Jane Fonda. And by the time George Clooney suited up, the series was past medical resuscitation.

X-Men, X2 (2000-2003). Along with Spiderman, Bryan Singer's dark explorations of the mutant plight offer reason to hope that Marvel Comics finally knows how to get its characters from page to screen. Can Singer help D.C. Comics turn the same corner with his planned Superman Returns? Given that his lead's primary acting experience consists of a stint on "One Life to Live," I'm not holding my breath.

Daredevil (2003). The obvious rebuttal to any claim that Marvel knows what it's doing. A truly dim film that seemed to think piling up more and more bodies would make it "dark," rather than merely unpleasant. And, a propos of my Batman-chin comments above, there's such a thing as overdoing it--and that thing is Ben Affleck.

Hulk (2003). Having used superheroes (the Fantastic Four to be precise) as a metaphor in his family-conflict film The Ice Storm, Ang Lee added a family conflict (between Bruce Banner and his dad) to his superhero movie, Hulk. The combination never really worked for him. Think he ate his heart out when he saw The Incredibles?

Hellboy (2004). Comes apart a bit toward the end, but was still an utter gas. (See my review here.)

 

Christopher Orr is a Senior Editor of The New Republic.

 

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