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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Raimi's Beautiful Balancing Act
by Jeffrey Chen

This summer is turning out to be great, mainly because the two movies I anticipated most have been dreams come true. First, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban exceeded my expectations. And now Spider-Man 2 arrives in a shiny summer package to outdo its competition.

Once again, much credit goes to Sam Raimi, director of the fabulous first Spider-Man, who isn't shy about spilling all the contents of nerd psychology all over the screen. After all, the story of Spider-Man is really a nerd's story, and by nerd I mean a person who never fit in with the pretty crowd, likely got picked on a lot, yet never stopped believing in good things. Being an underdog actually strengthens that morality; continued belief in one's underdog status maintains it. Raimi understands this, and plays this angle to the hilt in Spider-Man 2. He, again, works with a story that cares less about a superhero trying to save the world than it does about a superhero who wants to do the right thing for himself and for others.

In presenting the story, Raimi creates an admirable balancing act. The new movie toes the line between honest melodrama and amusing humor while providing the great comic book action you paid to see. Angst is well complemented by numerous comic bits, many of which stem from that angst (one scene featuring the song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" is priceless). The love story between Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is the dominant subplot, and just when you find yourself sighing at Peter's predicament, you have to chuckle when his stress manifests itself as, uh, performance issues. Peter's life is a whirlwind, an unsolvable puzzle pitting a public hero persona and a will to do good against the private figure who wants to treat himself fairly, yet never does this feel heavy-handed -- its relative weight is set with surgical precision in this calculated universe.

Themes and scenes re-appear from the first movie to give the whole story a feeling of cyclic inevitability and to present the  idea that Peter is continually undergoing self-evaluation and re-evaluation. The title credits -- some of the best I've ever seen -- contain drawings recapping the previous film, and the new movie revisits the wooing of Mary Jane by a new suitor, Peter testing out his powers on a rooftop, Uncle Ben's death, the upside-down kiss, and the villain conversing with himself. None of this is symptomatic of a creative lapse; instead, it's a reminder of how much the past affects the present, and how growth must sometimes emerge from the repetitive reinforcement of certain life events. How many times must your heart break before you do something constructive about it? That kind of thing. Now that Peter has experienced the pressure of his situation, he finds himself having to make his decisions all over again -- but he's only a little wiser, so can he make the right choices?

Meanwhile, Raimi continues to handle the incredible task of making Spider-Man's world believable yet fantastic. By keeping the environment of gosh-darnism that worked so well in the first movie, he maintains a '50's vision for the movie, with earnest dialogue and an isn't-that-cool? wonder for special effects. Little touches abound -- women scream directly at the camera at least twice; I'm pretty sure Peter Parker genuinely utters "golly" to Mary Jane in one scene; and the people of New York have the big, outspoken personalities of Capra-esque townsfolk (and J.K. Simmons is the most welcome of these folks, with more scenes this time out as J. Jonah Jameson). And, naturally, a Bruce Campbell cameo and Evil Dead references are tossed in for good measure.

And then there's Dr. Octopus, aka Doc Ock. I could've written the whole review on Doc Ock alone. He is simultaneously one of the movie's bigger strengths and bigger weaknesses. His motives and logic are kind of funny -- for instance, in one scene, he tries to get Peter's attention by throwing a car through the window of the cafe he's sitting in. Considering the Doc doesn't know Peter isn't a normal person, such a move would be expected to have about a 95% chance of killing him, which is counterproductive to the Doc's goal of using him to find Spider-Man. OK. But stuff like this can be ignored because Dr. Octopus is easily the most seamless effects-driven super-villain of all comic book movies. He's simply a wonder to behold -- four mechanical tentacles are attached to his back, and he uses them to crush walls, throw objects, scale buildings, and just plain walk. Doc Ock from the cartoons was never this cool. And it only helps that the human within the octopus is played by Alfred Molina, who makes the character tragic, sympathetic, and threatening all at once.

Spider-Man 2 works beautifully because it knows exactly what it is -- a created world that doesn't exist, but presented in a way that makes us all believe in it and wish it did. And it's a story that cares about the humanity of its characters, from the heroes to the villains. It's a delight, a product of pure imagination -- not just Raimi's, but also Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee's, of course. In a television interview, even Lee said, with the enthusiasm of a 16-year-old, that he never could've imagined Dr. Octopus the way he turned out in the movie. Nor could I have imagined the Spider-Man movies would turn out so wonderfully, the perfect blend of great action, great comedy, and great melodrama. Once again, Mr. Raimi, I'd like to shake your hand.

(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for stylized action violence.)

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