Spider-Man 2. Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Sam Raimi. Produced by Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin. Written by Michael Chabon, Miles Millar, Alfred Gough and Alvin Sargent. Based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Running time: 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for stylized action violence). Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy.

Spider-Man 2

In the first Spider-Man, Peter Parker's uncle spoke the words made famous in the comics: "With great power comes great responsibility." In the first film, Parker learned this, often the hard way, leading up to the touching finalé, in which he gave up true love in exchange for keeping his red suit. In Spider-Man 2, the true extent of a hero's responsibility becomes painfully clear. The film is not about mindless action or pleasing the masses (although the action will certainly do that), it is about the emotional turmoil it's characters go through. It's a personal drama disguised as an action movie.

And that's what makes Spider-Man 2 one of the best movies I've seen so far this year. Director Sam Raimi understands that the appeal of the comics comes from the inner conflict of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and the rest of the major characters. These people have to make tough decisions and take actions that may affect the rest of their lives.

And Peter realizes what being Spider-Man means; that no matter what he does, he will always have enemies, he will always have responsibilities that take precedence over his personal desires - "Am I not supposed to have what I want?" he asks. "What I need?" So he gives up, he tosses his costume into the dumpster; of course we know that he'll eventually come back, but his emotions are real, and we feel them. When he is forced to hide his emotions from Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the woman he loves, the anguish this causes him is palpable.

Raimi's most extraordinary achievement is combining these emotions with the action sequences of the film. His success makes the action more than just thrilling set pieces; we care about these characters, and the fights have distinct effects on their lives. This gives the action multiple layers that make these sequences far more compelling than those in the typical summer blockbuster. The thrilling climax, a fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) on a speeding subway has an unexpected conclusion with possibly deep ramifications.

The villain is more compelling than in Spider-Man, too. While Willem Dafoe's conflicted Green Goblin from the first film was fairly chilling, Doctor Octopus is far more human. Dafoe was a sleazeball who just happened to go nuts, Otto Octavius is a great man, a scientist working for the good of mankind. He is being controlled by the four arms attached to his back, not some ingrained evil. His final moments on screen are painted in the broad emotions and over-the-top dialogue of superhero films, but they are still genuine in a way that is all too rare.

With Spider-Man 2, the genius of casting Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker becomes ever clearer. The heart of the whole film is Peter Parker, not his alter-ego, and Maguire is as compelling a Parker as could possibly be imagined. Kirsten Dunst's role has increased in importance to the story arc, and her performance is one of subtle emotions and facial expressions. The only major addition to the cast, Alfred Molina, proves perfectly capable of playing both the good Dr. Octavius, as well as the imposing Doc Ock. James Franco, as Harry Osbourne, is constantly simmering with anger. The rest of the cast, including Rosemary Harris as Peter's Aunt May, is effective.

The final scene of Spider-Man 2 is just about perfect, a culmination of events that is at once touching, thrilling, and bittersweet. It satisfies the desire to see Peter finally happy, yet there is also a deeply felt sadness that lingers far after the film is over. As Spider-Man swings off into the night, and Mary-Jane looks off (in an amazing final shot), consider this: who is the real hero?

© 2004 Matt Noller