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Spider-Man 2 ****
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Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina
Directed by Sam Raimi

I am not Woody Allen. I am not Woody Allen. I am not...

     The hoopla surrounding Spider-Man 2 is similar to that of last summer's The Matrix: Reloaded.  When Reloaded faded fast and critics largely panned the follow-up to that franchise's first film, Hollywood must have taken notice and revamped their franchise bids.  I say all of this with the knowledge that it's complete hogwash.  Hollywood will make its moves toward quality only if that quality means more money.  Spider-man 2 was already in development when Matrix: Reloaded was causing groans in theater seats across America.  The real reason Sony/Columbia decided to make the sequel better than the first film is simple:  it makes cents. 
     If you get record crowds to turn out to see your first film, you've got some problems when toiling over the sequel.  First, you've got that huge base of people who saw the first film who'll come back to watch the second one.  But secondlt, and perhaps most crucial, is the second demographic, those who haven't seen the first film and those who saw the first film but are waiting to hear if the second one is worth time and money when there's blockbusters dropping every weekend, one after another.  Spider-Man 2 brings all these people into the theater and will let them walk away satisfied. 
     I often state my love for comics when reviewing for Wonder Reviews, and that love will always come into play when reviewing comic book adaptations on the big screen, especially those adaptations from comics I have actually read.  I grew up reading Marvel comic books, them being the creators of Hollywood's biggest pool of potential blockbuster projects.  I read X-Men primarily, but dabbled in anything Marvel:  Spiderman (no hyphen back then), The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, The Avengers, and just about any other title that I could lay my hands on.  But comics do not always make good movies.  Sometimes, the worst comics make the best movies (Blade, Men in Black, etc.).  Othertimes, great characters aren't enough to get through the Hollywood blender intact.  Spider-Man was one of those films.
     Spider-Man was huge to 2002.  It was a cultural thing.  Everybody and especially their mother had seen it and liked if not loved it.  That's what made me scratch my head.  It wasn't a good movie.  It wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't good.  I never reviewed it for Wonder Reviews, seeing that the release came before the site's development, but it would have earned a rating of **1/2/****.  I can sense an oncoming collective scoff from readers, but I see that film as being vastly overrated and will always site it as part of society's misplaced affections.
      Spider-Man 2 is better.  It's a whole lot better.  It's the best comic book adaptation to hit the screen ever and even gets resounding "hooray"s from me.  Gone is the corny everything of the first film - corny dialogue, over-the-top Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, horrid special effects (and they were horrid, so quit your scoffing).  In its place is a better all around film thanks to an amazing script from Hollywood and literary aces and superb performances from the cast.
     The film opens where the first film left off.  Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has neglected a personal happiness in order to shoulder the "great responsibilty" that came with his great powers.  We've seen superheroes be tormented before, but Peter Parker is living an everyman disaster.  He gets fired from a pizza delivery job, can't keep up with the rent at his dingy apartment, takes the photos that are used by his boss at a city newspaper to slander his alter ego, is in danger of failing classes in college, and can't keep all the people in his life happy...not even himself.
     He is still secretly pining away at Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who has seen her career as a model and actress take off in the two years between the two films.  She, as Peter's best friend Harry (James Franco) points out, is still obviously in love with him.  But he's Spiderman and that means they can't ever be more than what they are. 
     Peter starts to see his life crumble and begins to question whther he has to be the hero the world knows him as if it means he has sacrifices everything the person under the suit wants.  It's this struggle that elevates the stakes from the first film and actually overshadows the action bonanza that encompases the rest of the film.
     Thanks has to go to the team of writers that pulled out the most soulful scipt audiences have ever seen.  Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Michal Chabon worked out the story and Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People) wrote the screenplay.  His keen ear for dialogue (save for the one-liner-filled bank robbery) and emphasizing of all the right aspects of the characters and the story give us the best-written comic book movie ever.
     Director Sam Raimi creates more of a dark atmosphere over the film, but lets little glimpses of light humor creep in.  Sargent's script is funny, and not in the catch phrase manner of past hits.  It has a sitcom feel to most of the domestic comedy that takes place (i.e. - can't get five brooms to stay in closet while you try to close door, trip and fall while you strut down New York Streets confidently, etc.). 
     I can't tell if it was Willem Dafoe or his lines that made Green Goblin such an awful experience for me, but all that failure is gone when Alfred Molina is introduced as Doctor Otto Octavius (aka Doc Ock).  He is a fleshed out villain with subdued ferocity and clever menace.  But what takes the well-written character off the page and places him into the pop culture vernacular of great super villains is the great performance from Molina.  He catches ever detail of the psche and even manages to smooth over lines that would ordinarily be scoff fodder.  Without a great actor to play a great villain, this ambitious sequel wouldn't have gotten much of the respect it gets from me now.
     The two leads are great, throwing away the failed teen romance of the first film, and instead embracing the complexities of adult love and the forces that push us together and pull us apart.  There's much work between all of the characters with Maguire out of his Spidey-suit.  The movie is much better for the emphasis placed on that aspect of the character. 
     Parker is in the midst of seeing his secret love become engaged to his boss' all-american son, growing animosity from Harry for not divulging all he knows about his alter ego, and seeing his beloved Aunt May (the wonderful Rosemary Harris) come to grip with the loss of her husband and his uncle.  All this tension and conflict swirls around the character convincingly, but the film had to have an actor who could react convincingly to the conflict for any of the hard plotting work to pay off.  Maguire does a great job, losing whatever clunkiness he brought to the character in the first film, he plays Parker as a complex, conflicted individual.  Maguire has long been one of my favorite actors, but I was not ahppy with the road he was taking toward blockbuster fare amongst the Hollywood elite.  His work is Spider-Man 2 puts any fears I had to rest.  He is still a great actor and actually flexes more acting muscle in Spider-Man 2 than actual muscle.
     Kirsten Dunst is the love interest, and that role in the film gives her certain responsibilities, but she rises above stock responses and tired acting to infuse warmth and realism into Mary Jane.  Often, it is only her subtle looks that allow us to see anything below the surface of the lines and the situation.  It's her best work as an actress yet and I hope she's not afraid to return to the character as long as a quality script is attached.
     Let me scold Spider-Man one more time.  The first film had New Yorkers throwing debris at Green Goblin and shouting that if he messed with one of them (Spiderman), he was messing with all of them (New York).  Then the fight moved elsewhere.  This was corny and unbelievable and just plain bad.  If a guy throwing exploding bombs off of a flying demon scooter flew by you, you wouldn't throw bricks at him.  If you would, don't when the situation arises.  The bad guy will kill you. 
     In Spider-Man 2, this civilian gallantry is largely forgotten until Spiderman is once again in the clutches of a super villain.  Spiderman ends up on a L-train car with dozens of supportive New Yorkers.  When Doc Ock threaten Spiderman, each passenger steps in the path of the villain and says "you'll have to get past me," then the next one says "and me," and so on until every passenger is in his path to the fallen hero.  I cringed.  I felt myself begin to dislike a movie that had been great up to that point.  Then Doc Ock abruptly and evily swiped the passengers out of the way before going after Spiderman again.  That's when the real turning point came for an ever-ready critic of the genre.  They were small aspects of both films, but it showed how far the filmmakers had come.
     If you want to get the bang and quality for your buck that is never guaranteed with summer blockbusters, go see Spider-Man 2.  You'll be happy you did.                 

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