Spider-Man 2 (review)

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Peter Parker Blues

Boy, sucks to be Spidey these days: he’s lost his job delivering pizzas, he’s flunking out of Columbia University, and that red-and-blue costume runs in the wash. But it gets worse: his attempts to protect his friends and family from Spider-man’s enemies are working too well — he’s driving them all away. Poor Peter Parker. You wanna just hug him.
Call it the eternal loneliness of the superhero. Or a secret-identity crisis. In what must be quite the most tenderly tragic comic-book movie ever made, Our Hero contemplates chucking all that great power and great responsibility for a quiet, “normal” life. You can’t blame him — everyone knows no good deed goes unpunished — and, if you itch with a frustrating powerlessness in the face of Bad Things, you can’t fathom him, either: He’s actually able to make little slices of the world better, and he wants to give up the immense satisfaction that must bring? If there’s a peculiarly deep and prickly potency to Peter’s confrontation with the realities of genuine sacrifice and the price of real heroism, surely it’s because he faces it at a time when all most of us are asked to endure is the trumped-up sacrifice of shelling out a few more bucks to top up the SUV, and all most of us are asked to shoulder is the dubious heroism of showing up at the mall to rack up more credit-card debt… and we’d take on the hard stuff if we knew where to find it and we knew it’d do some good.

That’s a lot to pile on a popcorny movie about a guy in tights — asking it to play out our national psychodrama of yearning and rage — but Spider-Man 2 can take it. Damn, but there’s a whole stew of bittersweet contentment and pity that comes along with this film, like it really gets the perpetual-outsider-ness of the superhero and makes it big enough to encompass us all and sad and distant enough to keep us out all at the same time.

Or maybe that’s just the geek in me delighting in a film that understands the alienation of the geek.

Cuz this is geek heaven, of course. Spidey 2 ain’t all wallowing in angst. There’s some incredibly tense and thrilling superhero action stuff that ranks among the best committed to film. There’s an awesome new villain for Spidey to battle. There’s an immensely mad-science-cool fusion/cybernetics experiment happening right in midtown Manhattan. There’s tons of humor, including every moment onscreen for the incessantly scene-stealing J.K. Simmons (The Ladykillers, Hidalgo) as the newspaper editor who really hates Spider-Man and doesn’t realize he’s (occasionally) employing him as a freelance photographer. There’re the requisite hilarious cameos from director Sam Raimi’s pals Ted Raimi (his brother) and Bruce Campbell (Bubba Ho-Tep, Intolerable Cruelty), his longtime partner in cinematic crime. And best of all, there it is, smacking you in the face and leaving you reeling with drooling-fan recognition, director Raimi’s trademark gonzo filmmaking: The hospital-operating-room scene — you’ll know it as soon as it hits — is pure Evil Dead II, all kinetic cinematography and chainsaws. The whole package is enough to almost — almost — make you wish Raimi’d go back to making clever cheap little films that forced him to be this creative — and to make more good use of brother Ted and Campbell, whom so few people seem to know what to do with.

Raimi (Spider-Man, A Simple Plan) gets the geek stuff here in a big, noisy way — it’s the quieter appreciation that the duo of Michael Chabon and Tobey Maguire bring that makes the film a thing of actual significance and fills it with a warm reality. Chabon — only one of a handful of screenwriters here, but his touch is all over this — and Maguire collaborated, in a sense, to get to the essence of a different kind of geek in the wonderful Wonder Boys, and here, the two of them conspire to make Peter and his dilemma gently, tartly soulful. (Oh please oh please let it be Maguire playing either lead in the upcoming film adaptation of Chabon’s roots-of-comic-book-culture novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.) Spidey 2 isn’t just the most romantic comic book ever — yup, it’s even more romantic than Clark Kent and Lois Lane flying among the clouds — it’s the most palpably passionate movie of any kind I’ve seen in ages. How Chabon and Maguire — and Raimi and the rest of the cast and the other screenwriters — managed to keep all the feeling both sublimated and the entire point of the endeavor is a glorious mystery. All I know is, ain’t a girl alive wouldn’t like to be gazed upon the way Maguire’s (Seabiscuit, Ride with the Devil) Peter gazes upon Mary Jane Watson… and ain’t a girl alive wouldn’t glare back at him in annoyance and thwarted ardor the way Kirsten Dunst (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mona Lisa Smile) does every time he runs away immediately after.

Sounds bizarre to call a film “real” that features an elevated subway train running through midtown Manhattan — never mind a guy who shoots spider webs from his wrists — but there it is: In the sneaky sweetness of the movie, like how the reaction of Peter’s Aunt May (Rosemary Harris: The Gift, Sunshine) to the imminent success of that crazy science experiment is an authentic “How lovely.” In Peter’s dorky adorableness that’s Clark Kent and Superman all at the same time. In the quiet torment of Alfred Molina’s (Coffee and Cigarettes, Identity) Dr. Otto Octavius, Spidey’s reluctant new archvillain who’s just a good man driven mad with grief who happens to have superstrength and eight limbs. In the restrained fury of James Franco’s (The Company, City by the Sea) Harry Osborn, Peter’s pal who’s still smarting from Spider-Man’s killing of his father.

They’re people with whom we can all identify, mired in awful situations not of their own making, ones spinning out of control with unintended consequences, and floundering desperately for a decent resolution to the mess. And not, sad to say, finding any happy endings. You know, just like reality.

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