(director: Sam Raimi; screenwriters: based on a screen story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko/Alvin Sargent; cinematographers: Anette Haellmigk/Bill Pope; editor: Bob Murawski; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker), Alfred Molina (Doc Ock/Dr. Otto Octavius), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Elizabeth Banks (Miss Brant), Bruce Campbell (Snooty Usher), Rosemary Harris (May Parker), J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), Daniel Gillies (John Jameson), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), Vanessa Ferlito (Louise), Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin/Norman Osborn), Dylan Baker (Dr. Curt Connors), Aasif Mandvi (Mr. Aziz), Cliff Robertson (Ben Parker), Donna Murphy (Rosalie Octavius); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Avi Arad/Laura Ziskin; Columbia Pictures; 2004)

“There are a lot of dull spots where there’s only banal chatter.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stan Lee’s action super-hero comic book story created in 1962 returns for a sequel to its 2002 blockbuster hit and provides the same cheap thrills and plot points, but tightens the narrative in this improved version. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a busy young NYC man attempting to keep jobs as a pizza delivery boy and as a freelance photographer with the Daily Bugle while attending college and fighting crime in his secret life as the high-flying masked and costumed Spider-Man.

Under Sam Raimi’s forceful direction and Alvin Sargent’s cheeky screenplay and the collaboration of story writers Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, the action scenes are dazzling and the CGI and FX special effects help more than they hinder in developing the story line. Unfortunately there are a lot of dull spots where there’s only banal chatter, that put a damper on the whole project.

The film plays with the world’s need for heroes and the public’s need for escapist films. It throws in a little thinking to the action and romance mix, to give the comic book story more depth. The surprise offered is that not only is the villain unmasked but so is Spidey, which leads the flawed crime-fighter hero to see himself more clearly and the scientist villain to be exposed to the world as an ego-tripping madman. Their unmasking is tantamount to being de-mythologized.

The brilliant Peter is failing his college courses because of non-attendance and is fired from his delivery boy gig for not delivering pizzas on time, which leaves him unable to pay the rent in his slum apartment on time. But Spidey keeps busy fighting crime in midtown Manhattan by his high-flying act of swooping through the mass of skyscrapers lining the streets, as the city sets are digitally rearranged and colorfully presented in comic book pop art colorings.

The first half of the film has Peter despondent that he had to give up the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), to devote himself entirely as a crime-fighter. Spidey is conflicted by his decision, not sure if he did the right thing and if the sacrifice to help humanity has only made him an unhappy camper. The insecure Spidey does some deep thinking about this even as he goes to the local laundry-mat to wash his costume. He has developed a reputation as someone who is lazy and irresponsible, and disappoints model/actress Mary Jane by failing to see her perform in the Broadway revival show The Importance of Being Earnest. He fails to show even though he intends to keep his promise to attend but keeps answering calls to fight crime just as the show starts.

To make matters dimmer, Peter’s best friend Harry Osborne (James Franco) has sworn revenge on Spider-Man for his evil father’s death.

Spidey is also concerned that his kindly elderly Aunt May Parker (Rosemary Harris) is about to lose her humble working-class suburban frame house because she can’t pay the mortgage since hubby Ben was killed in the first episode. Ben’s death leaves Spidey guilt-ridden that he caused the death because of his selfish reactions to a situation where he was unjustly treated.

Peter’s boss at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), relentlessly ridicules him and gets him to cover a debutante ball, where the newspaper man’s dashing astronaut son John (Daniel Gillies) announces that Mary Jane has accepted his marriage proposal. J.K. Simmons gives a welcomed comical performance that provides the film with most of its laughs. Spidey, in the meantime, endlessly pours his heart out over letting this foxy gal go and is in the middle of an identity crisis when the film is saved for the moment from this schmaltz by the villain played magnificently by Alfred Molina, who is so good in his role as the mad genius scientist Dr. Otto Octavius that he completely overshadows everyone else in the film.

The brilliant scientist is acting on an uncertain risky fusion project financed by the petulant Harry (trying to be villainous like his father Papa Osborne who financed high tech projects in an unsavory alliance between big business and science–this merger is the monster that the comic book author is fighting as the source of evil). On the day of the experiment in front of invited guests a tragic malfunction leaves Octavius as a widow with an identity crisis and all his dreams broken, and appearing like a monster as grafted to his body are four diabolical mechanical limbs with a mind of their own. The scientist originally had good intentions to make the world a better place, but this accident made him lose his humanity and become a lunatic interested only in power and self-aggrandizement. The madman with the unstoppable smart tentacles becomes known in the tabloids as Doc Ock and his main rival is Spider-Man–the only one who could stop him. But Spidey threw away his costume in the trashcan when his powers failed him and hoped this was a sign that he should live a conventional life, and now in order to battle his powerful evil foe he has to retrieve the costume from being pinned to the wall of his editor’s office (hung like a trophy from an animal hunt).

The film must resolve Peter’s all-too-human touchy romantic situation with Mary Jane and the fight-to-death with Doc Ock, and Spidey must live with the knowledge that his closest acquaintances know his identity and a number of people on the subway saw him unmasked as he performed an heroic deed–as they exclaimed in surprise that their hero is only a kid. The film accomplishes all those aims, but never develops an edgy story or fully develops its characters–though as many critics have rightly mentioned, it provides a better characterization than most comic book films. But, nevertheless, the Franco character never convinced he had enough balls to be an arch villain, while Dunst in a poorly written role never convinced that she could be happily engaged to a good-guy astronaut and still be so smitten by Maguire’s puppy love that she acts in an ludicrous manner to resolve this problem.

The action scenes were not enough to overcome the clumsily developed story lines, as overall I found myself enjoying the film only in spots and never felt it was any better than being an acceptable science-runs-amok fantasy film.

REVIEWED ON 7/2/2004 GRADE: C+   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”