US critics have been so ecstatic in their praise of Spiderman 2, it seemed all-too-inevitable that the film would prove a disappointment when it finally arrived in the UK: another over-egged blockbuster, like last summer’s Hulk, whose triumph of narrative complexity, which favoured ambiguity over conventional Manichean characterisation, was undermined by a botched ending and a ridiculous realisation of Bruce Banner’s oversized alter-ego. (At least Ang Lee’s offering fared better than the lacklustre adaptation of Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’). In his review of the film, Roger Ebert claimed that Sam Raimi had not only created the best comic hero film since the trend became fashionable again in 1978, (following the release of Richard Donner’s Superman), but also one that desrved to transcend its targeted summer blockbuster market and appeal to more refined cinema-going tastes.
So amidst such hyperbole, it is a pleasure to report that Spiderman 2 is actually very good. A more rounded and satisfying entertainment than its predecessor, its characters have a depth rarely seen in summer films, and those expecting thrilling set pieces will marvel at the battles on the face of a skyscraper and on top of a subway train. Gone are the moments where the webbed-wonder looked ill-matched with the background against which he had been animated. In its place are impressively staged fight sequences across the city skyline. Punctuating these are moments of pathos, as we watch Peter Parker attempting to cope with ordinary life; no mean feat when you’ve been up all night fighting crime and saving lives.
The film’s major strength is its finely-tuned script. From a story co-written by Michael Chabon, whose novels are well-versed in the stylised world of comic book storytelling (‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ is a wonderful example of a novel that has its cake and eats it – revelling in the pleasures of comic hero lore while at the same time debunking the notion of these myths and poking fun at their heroic foibles), Alvin Sargent’s screenplay takes great pleasure in exploring Peter Parker/Spiderman’s troubled existence. The opening half hour feels more like a male version of ‘My So-called Life’, detailing Parker’s attempts to hold down a job, continue his studies at college, pay the rent and look after his aunt, all the time ensuring that life is safe in the metropolis. Far from simulating ‘nerdiness’ the way Clark Kent does in order to cover his true identity, Parker is one of life’s genuine losers. Indecision, embarrassment and bad timing ensure he is seen by all as a joke. It’s only when he is unmasked in front of a group of subway commuters, shocked by how young he looks, that his awkwardness becomes understandable. Unlike other super heroes, Spiderman is a fledgling, whose powers and temperament are still adjusting to the hormonal imbalances that make most teenagers’ lives hell.
This awkwardness permeates the all-too-believable relationship between Parker and Mary-Jane. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst offer relaxed, unshowy performances, whose ordinariness makes them accessible and likeable, and which has you rooting for them from start to finish. Dunst in particular is wonderful. In a cinema overcrowded with conveyor belt starlets, her persona harks back to an earlier age of screen idols, whose individuality, both in performance and appearance, transformed them from actress to idol. Unusually mature for her years, Dunst’s choice of roles has only enhanced her image: enigmatic and original amidst the airbrushed world of Lohans, Biels, Olsens and Duffs.
Sargent’s script also fleshes out the support characters. May Parker (Rosemary Harris) plays to the film’s core values of responsibility and moral strength in the face of adversity and self-interest, and also makes for a credible – and perhaps cinema’s first – septuagenarian action character. James Franco’s Harry Osborn is a much darker and tortured soul, with the film’s coda offering a glimpse of the story to come in part three. And as Doc Oc, Alfred Molina makes for a worthy adversary. Playing him with a mixture of charm, menace and barely suppressed hysteria, he is a more rounded and entertaining villain than Green Goblin, his prosthetic limbs transforming him into one of cinemas more distinctive megalomaniacs.
It’s unlikely that a better film will hit our screens this summer. Raimi, like Peter Jackson, has lost none of the mischievousness of his earlier work in moving to a larger canvass. That both have allowed a degree of sentimentality to creep in is forgivable, considering their achievement. Whether you like their films or not, both have visualised what Michael Chabon called ‘the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred ageing boys dreaming as hard as they could’.