What happens to a superhero when he's seized by self-doubt? In the case of Spidey (Tobey Maguire), our beloved web-crawler-nerd, the psychological affliction turns him into a wussy, inept bumbler when he's Peter Parker and limits his powers when he's Spiderman. Pretty much of a letdown -- one that doesn't do much to keep the franchise propped up. But, lest you think it's a flop, let's say all's well that ends well.
Parker, of course, is leading a double life, but one affects the other. When it comes to a choice between gravity-defying crime busting or his love for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), well, he can't very well let the criminals take over the city. And, he can't put Mary Jane's life at risk by telling her who he really is and make her vulnerable to his enemies. True love means sacrifice.
It's a case for a super psychiatrist, but superheroes don't exactly have a special yellow pages in which to find one or, for that matter, a peer to consult for a referral.
The creators of this character have set him apart from other action heroes exactly with this duality, insisting on a level of vulnerability that affords him true suffering. He may be a super hero but he's no super human. People step on him, insult him, disrespect him and take advantage of him. When he's simple Peter trying to make ends meet he comes up against impossible job demands; when he's trying to maintain his studies in class they're compromised by the exhaustion of an overloaded crime-stopping schedule.
To craft a menace that's a match for Spidey's powers, director Sam Raimi and his team of writers (Michael Chabon, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Alvin Sargent) create the physicist, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) on whom student Peter is doing a paper for his physics class. After a little theoretical banter with Peter that's above most of our heads but adequate to impress, the doc unveils his new machine that harnesses self-sustaining fusion to extend man's power. But, when the demonstration goes wrong it takes over the doc's mind and purpose, turning him into the nasty Dr. Ock, and gives him the ability to walk up tall buildings and spread his metallic tentacled weight around. We're not too clear on what his ultimate intention is but we're certain it's not altruistic and he seems a worthy combatant for the web spinner. The chase up the clock tower with Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) in Doc Ock's grip and the train battle are immediate action and digital effects classics, seamless in execution.
While there are abundant action scenes that exhilarate the spatial senses and obviously kept the CGI team harnessed to their workstations, the emotional weight that Peter bears threatens to become a soap opera. I had trouble with the overkill in emphasizing his angst and his oafish lack of coordination when he's not wearing his suit. He trips, falls to the ground and Raimi has people stepping on him, swiping him, splashing him, whatever he can think of to belittle and demean and make him appear graceless. Where one incident would have conveyed the message, we get ten. The exaggeration is the weak element of an otherwise stylish sequel.
Just as Peter should have trusted the talented and intelligent Mary Jane to make her own decisions, Raimi might have trusted us with a more sophisticated approach to this romance. She keeps asking him in a variety of ways if he feels about her the same way she feels about him and he's a study in vacant non-commital and Freudian denial. More originality might have been exacted within a more adult framework than resorting to the tired contrivance of a competing love interest. The Hamlet-like self-paralysis wears thin.
So, while Peter Parker pursues his internal demons, he deals with a multitude of external ones. While trying desperately to make a living and pay his rent, he deals with his culpability in the death of his uncle, a friend who wants to take revenge on him for the death of his evil father, continual abuse from J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) his editor on The Bugle, and solace in the companionship of his devoted Aunt May. Spidey's web of issues is ever complex, and it's all here for our stimulation and engagement.
What's not here is the moment of discovery and emergence of Spiderman that was the uplift of the first episode. The actual love relationship with Mary Jane awaits the next installment and the holding power of this one rests heavily on the improvements in the action and visual effects. I'm not raving as much as others, but the franchise is more than safe, in our hero-loving hearts and at the boxoffice.
The Soundtrack Album