(You’ll be warned before any spoilers)
The fights are spectacular. The rest of the movie could suck and it would still be worth seeing for the fights. Spidey and Doc Oc struggle up and down the sides of buildings and in and around a subway car, a whirlwind of mechanized limbs and twirling red and blue. Just about every webslinging trick that Spidey’s ever pulled has its place, from the net to the slingshot to little web projectiles—the only thing that’s missing is the web parachute (even when I was a kid that one struck me as rather implausible). The action is steeped in the comic book tradition, but seeing it presented as one kinetic whole is a terrific thrill. No other superhero movie matches it.
Fortunately, the rest of the movie does not suck. The worst that can be said is that, in laying on the whole “power ‘n’ responsibility” theme, the writers forget about “show, don’t tell” and trot out monologues for things that are abundantly clear without them. The other thing that gets laid on thick is just how much Peter Parker’s life sucks, but that’s not a problem: Raimi, with his obsession with slapstick, is the perfect director to show Peter being tripped, blindsided, and thwapped upside the head by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Slapstick isn’t the only Raimi touch here—this film shows the quirks of its director much more than its predecessor. When Doc Oc wakes up in the hospital, the ensuing mayhem is a straight-up homage to Evil Dead, complete with chainsaw. More importantly, Raimi lingers on lightly comic scenes, like Peter squaring off against the snooty usher (Bruce Campbell’s splendid cameo), or sharing cake with the landlord’s daughter who has a crush on him, or Spidey riding an elevator down from the top floor because his faith in his powers is shaken. The time for those sorts of scenes comes at a premium in a summer blockbuster, but they’re in there and the film is better for it. In fact, explosive battles aside, the film’s pace is patient, even slow.
(Don’t read on if you’re averse to minor spoilers)
Alfred Molina is splendid as Dr. Octopus, but competing with him for the Oscar are those four arms. Unlike in the comics, the arms are vested with artificial intelligence, and writhe of their own will like mechanical snakes. Dr. Octavius’ descent into villainy begins when the inhibitor chip that keeps them under control is smashed in an accident. The up side: giving those arms an (insidious) will of their own is a great touch. The down side: Octavius’ villainy comes too easily. There’s nothing to ponder there about the dark side of human nature, just a broken chip.
I loved the dark ending of Spider-Man, but by the time we get around to end of the sequel, Peter has been through so much that a ray of hope is required. And it’s there: after all the crap he puts up with, he finally has things more or less together. A good thing, too, because in addition to the unequivocal foreshadowing of the return of the Green Goblin, we meet at least two more potential future supervillains in Spider-Man 2, stacking the deck for future installments. We should be so lucky.