The hero whose nemesis is a mirror image of himself is something super-dude movies seemingly can't pass up. Tim Burton's first Batman has his doppelganger, a revenge-twisted freak, face likewise frozen in a single expression. Bryan Singer's good-mutant X-Men lock mind-waves with bad-mutant Y-Not Men. Ang Lee's Hulk throws down his own dad. Hellboy slugs hell-spawn.
But if Spider-Man 2 director Sam Raimi spins a variation on that theme, he does it his way: with pure-hearted (even Boy Scout-ish) intentions, visual punch and strokes of unexpected complexity. It's not a retread but a real sequel, one that eloquently expands on its predecessor and still serves a good time at the talkies.
Two years after the events of Raimi's Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a broke-ass college boy and freelance news photographer who can't hold a job or even make his grades. It's all because he's too busy crawling walls and swinging from webs around Manhattan, foiling crime in a skintight onesie -- a self-appointed duty that's already forced him to forsake any claim to the woman he loves, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and keep secrets from his beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris).
Not only is Peter the guy who perpetually gets beat to the last hors d'oeuvre; now he's flunking as Spider-Man too, with vision that blurs and a web-spinning gland that shoots blanks at inopportune times. By narratively lucky coincidence, a conflicted Peter retires from superheroism just as a brand-new super-villain appears.
Like Spider-Man baddie the Green Goblin -- indeed, like Spider-Man -- Dr. Octopus is the victim of technology gone awry: a brilliant scientist whom a disastrously failed experiment traps in his own creation, a set of four 15-foot-long prehensile mechanical arms. Mad with grief (the experiment killed his wife), the purply named Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) turns criminal to finance a do-over.
The motto of the Spider-Man saga from its origins as a Marvel comic is "with great power comes great responsibility," and Raimi's film (scripted by Hollywood veteran Alvin Sargent) is as wall-to-wall with talk of responsibility and promise-keeping as an AA meeting. But Spider-Man 2 is really about knowing who you are, and to Raimi that means knowing what your purpose is.
"I'm Spider-Man," says Peter; but as the movie opens that's both an assertion of pride and a confession he can make only to the movie's audience. And though Dr. Octopus is similarly patterned after a multi-limbed creature, and likewise able to scale walls -- leading to some spectacular, digitally rendered aerial battles -- he's full of passionate intensity while Peter seems to lack all conviction.
But Dr. Octopus (yes, it feels as silly to write the name as to read it) doesn't know himself. His invention fuses with his nervous system, and his four robotic, serpent-headed arms whisper to him sibilantly, wicked advisers who must be heeded. He either can't choose whom to be or else relinquishes the choice. Once his dream is shattered and his advisers -- let's call them Cheney, Rummy, Condi and Wolfie -- hiss in his ears, he's a goner for insane visions of power. ("The real crime would be not to finish what we started," he reasons.) The theme is echoed via Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of the industrialist who became the Green Goblin and died in a battle with Spider-Man; obsessed with revenge against Spider-Man, Osborn can't tell the good from the bad, nor even friends from enemies.
There's another emotional layer here, too: Like Spider-Man, the sequel confronts the double-edged allure of father figures. Octavius is a surrogate father to Osborn -- and to Peter, to whom he sermonizes on intelligence as a gift to be used to benefit mankind.
If it all sounds terribly earnest, it is (even in a film that unexpectedly yet pertinently quotes The Importance of Being Earnest). And occasionally -- watching the effervescent Dunst play the lovelorn, long-suffering Mary Jane, or taking in Maguire's soft voice and softer eyes (perpetually rimmed in sleep-deprivation red) -- you wish Spider-Man 2 were a bit less sincere.
But the film's sincerity works, not least because Raimi, who cut his teeth on the low-budget cult-favorite Evil Dead movies, also shoots action with flair: Octopus' operating-room freakout, for instance, is unexpectedly brutal, if also disarmingly stylized with near-expressionistic lighting schemes. And Raimi has devilish fun directing the reliable Molina, whose octo-arms take the time to doff their wearer's fedora during a bank robbery, and put a match to his cigarette.
Raimi's well-rounded vision is shadowed by romantic melancholy and the perpetual struggle toward selfhood. In one of the film's more blatant symbolic gestures, once Peter realizes he must be Spider-Man, he discards his glasses; he sees clearly. But Raimi's most striking device is the repeated unmasking of Spider-Man as Peter Parker. A couple of times, Peter unmasks himself. You'd think that'd violate the Superhero Code of Ethics, or something. But Raimi's message is clear as day: Once you know who you are, you don't have to hide.