In a choppy back and forth sequel that reduces Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics half-hero to anti-hero, Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) in Spider-Man 2 must choose between saving people and pursuing the woman he loves (Kirsten Dunst, reprising her role and trying too hard). But what there is of high-flying action is wedged between cynical mini-skits.
Director Sam Raimi, who also directed the more enjoyable Spider-Man, returns with an edict to stick Spidey with the tragic flaw. This time, freelance photographer Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) moonlights as a failed deliveryman while struggling in college—toting a duct taped backpack—who can’t afford to pay the rent, which doesn’t seem to bother him. Riding through clogged streets, Parker encounters a city of rude, scowling residents.
Professionals are worse; a top business secretary stiffs Parker for several pizzas—a banker tries to steal money from the bank—and an entire hospital operating team is wiped out with glee. Scientists are again depicted as idealists whose work leads to total destruction. The humor is abruptly interjected and often repeated, showing what looks like a homeless woman singing Spidey’s theme song off-key—twice, in case we missed the joke. Cynicism rules, except for selected battle scenes. Spider-Man—feet encrusted in clay—still uses a pay phone (as in the first movie) only now he cannot afford to finish the call. Fiddling with change at the phone booth, he is the un-Superman.
Whenever the story gains momentum, Spider-Man 2 slams the title character into buildings, knocks him around or piles on an irrelevant joke. Deprived of a plot propellant—a world worth saving—and contradicting the slightest trace of heroism, Spider-Man 2 is too cartoonish to be cynical and too cynical for an exciting comic strip on screen, which describes the first picture.
On the upside, each character faces a choice. Parker must choose whether to save the world. Actress Mary Jane must choose Parker or her astronaut boyfriend. Parker’s pal, Harry (James Franco), sulks about Spider-Man killing his father. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent’s fragmentary free will subplot also applies to Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and the movie’s mad scientist villain, played by Alfred Molina, who is always a joy to watch.
When Spider-Man takes on the mechanically-armed Molina in some nonsense about fusion—despite frequent distractions, including a superfluous scene using Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”—the action jumps off the screen. But saving New York is more burden than favor and Spider-Man’s attempt to stop a runaway train lacks purpose. New Yorkers step up to help but they, too, stumble—and heroes do not show up out of some vague sense of duty.
With an overly conflicted Spider-Man, a villain deprived of common sense, actress Mary Jane mangling her lines and a city that shuffles more than it bustles, there isn’t much left to care about.
Spider-Man eventually puts some swoop in his swing. By then, any leftover values have been drowned out by the snickering. While it is not 100 percent anti-heroic, Spider-Man 2 is designed for those who like to see the hero humbled and, not incidentally, unmasked.
Spider-Man’s most telling line—”why is this happening to me?!?”—sums up the overloaded movie’s reactionary approach. With action sidelined for the sake of scorn, this disabled webslinger is stuck in his own stuff.
The DVD, dubbed Spider-Man 2.1, is as rough as the movie. The never before seen footage adds cynicism, not action or character development.
There are numerous features, including a pop-up trivia track, commentary, a scoring session bit with a camera angle gimmick and a self-congratulatory special effects piece focused more on an Oscar nomination than on what was done to earn it. This two-disc DVD, referencing technical jargon, lacks enthusiasm.
Posted on Box Office Mojo in 2004.