Spider-Man is an odd kind of superhero. Beyond the surprise factor inherent in his ability to swing into a scene at high speed, he seems to possess no special strength or ability. As played by Tobey Maguire in director Sam Raimi’s very entertaining rendering of the Marvel Comics franchise, he is just a reasonably pumped young man with his wits about him, and an ultra-noble mission. Plus, of course, many emotional problems attached to his difficult double life as a masked do-gooder and meek, aspiring photo-journalist Peter Parker – especially his inability to come clean to Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst).
Although he is quintessentially a big-city dweller – and Raimi is unafraid to evoke, with a light and fleeting touch, the film noir ethos of dark streets and towering skyscrapers – Spider-Man is also a pre-technological kind of hero. His sense of the location of evildoing is based on nothing more than what he happens to glimpse down a lane, or the handy sound of a distant police siren. There must a heck of a lot of modern crime he misses.
It is the villains in these stories who are technologically able, harbingers of many scary, new forms of power. His principal foe this time is Dr Octopus (aka Doc Ock, played with relish by Alfred Molina), an idealistic scientist literally transformed by his own creation – a set of four arms that can wield almighty modern forces.
No matter how many anachronistic, corny, clumsy or discrepant elements we might be able to detect in the comic-book myth of Spider-Man, one thing is certain: Raimi loves them all. The Spider-Man movies have put him in touch with what he did best at the promising start of his career, in films like the Evil Dead series and Darkman (1990). He is able to juggle a nuttily camp sense of unreality with a heady, adolescent aura of catastrophic personal melodrama. The combination works just as well here as it did in the first film of the series.
Raimi and writer Alvin Sargent no longer have the luxury of being able to dwell on the fanciful origins of this hero. They need to get the story moving straight away. For about the first fifteen minutes, there is touch of banality: the main complication in Peter’s life appears to be his propensity for being late for everything from pizza deliveries to university classes. But events start to hot up once Peter’s agonised apprehension of Mary Jane’s new love interest begins to be juxtaposed not only with the birth of Doc Ock but some troubling malfunctions in his spidery prowess.
Where the former Spider-Man movie was cleverly geared around typical issues of pubescent development, this instalment touches on what Australia’s television rating system gingerly refers to as ‘adult themes’. Indeed, the Spider-Man films are essentially about men and their appendages. While Peter has trouble squirting, the evil Doc thinks with his arms. Anyone who doubts that Spider-Man 2 is a drama of male potency – both the lack and excess of it – should pay strict attention to Mary Jane’s key, final line: “Go get ‘em, tiger”. (She looks a little sad after she says it, perhaps because in this merrily schizo entertainment, it’s not her that he proceeds to go get.)
While revelling in such subterranean themes, Raimi’s, offbeat, cartoonish sensibility is also simultaneously able to capture a certain innocence long gone from blockbuster movie entertainment, at least in America (Hong Kong and Bollywood offer contrary models, of which Raimi may be well aware). He is even able to recreate an old staple of the romantic comedies of half-a-century ago: Mary Jane may be a modern young woman, but it is only after comparing the memory of Spider-Man’s kiss (a highlight of the first film) with the lip action dished out by her new boyfriend that she can truly ponder the path her life must take.
Nothing pales for film-geeks faster than the creative possibilities offered by special-effects technology, so Spider-Man’s relentless motion through the air already seems jaded to some viewers. But Raimi works hard to keep the thrills alive in a set-piece involving a train that outdoes Brian De Palma’s work in Mission: Impossible (1996), and the gags come fast and furious in scenes that show this hero at his most hilariously detumescent.
© Adrian Martin June 2004