Now’s not a bad time to be a fan of comic book movies, as long as you forget Fantastic Four ever existed, which by itself is not a bad idea. We currently have three well-executed comic-based franchises in full swing: the X-Men, the Christian Bale version of Batman and Spider-Man. With X-Men helmer Bryan Singer also directing the new Superman movie, there is going reason to hope that we will soon have a fourth.
Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2 work because they share two similar virtues. One, they are true to the comic book roots of the story. Too many times, filmmakers feel the need to re-invent superheroes, as if they were justifying lowering themselves to this sort of material. Fortunately, neither Christopher Nolan nor Sam Raimi have any such insecurities. Two, both films recognize the need to connect with the hero on a human level. Batman Begins let us see the very real anger over his parents’ murder that drove Bruce Wayne to don the Batsuit. Similarly, many of Spider-Man 2‘s plot complications revolve around Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire) messy romantic, academic and professional lives. While Spider-Man is saving New York city, his alter ego’s more mundane world is falling apart.
The film finds Peter Parker in one hell of a sophomore slump. The strain of sharing his life with the webslinger is taking its toll. He’s lost his job as a pizza delivery man, he’s falling behind in his college classes and, to make matters worse, the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), has gotten fed up with waiting for him to return her obvious affections. She’s marrying the astronaut son of bombastic publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons). His Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is facing foreclosure on her house and his best friend, Harry Osbourne (James Franco) is obsessed with killing Spider-Man, whom he blames for the death of his father (Willem Dafoe) in the last movie.
It’s enough to make a superhero say “Screw it” and chuck his costume into the trash can, which is exactly what Peter does.
Unfortunately, a brilliant physicist named Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina) has also had a bad day. His experiment with nuclear fusion has gone spectacularly wrong, killing his wife and driving him mad. The robotic arms he had fused to his body for the experiment have taken control of him. Now determined to repeat the experiment on a bigger scale, even if it destroys New York City, he starts robbing banks to fund the project. With Spider-Man gone, the man Jameson calls “Doctor Octopus” or “Doc Ock” has got the town to himself.
He only needs one last thing to complete the experiment, a rare element called tritium. He goes to the man who supplied it for the first experiment, Harry Osbourne, who has a counter-proposal. Bring him Spider-Man and Doc Ock can have all the tritium he needs. To lure Spider-Man out of hiding, Doc Ock kidnaps Mary Jane.
There was some criticism of the casting of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man but I think Sam Raimi and his casting got this one exactly right. The appeal of Spider-Man has almost been the contrast between his super-human feats and Peter Parker’s very ordinary life. The young, often socially awkward males that make up comic books’ core audience need to identify with him and Maguire embodies that personality flawlessly.
The casting of Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, on the other hand, was an absolute no-brainer. We’re supposed to believe Peter Parker is hopelessly in love with her and with Ms. Dunst in the role, quite frankly, most of us guys in the audience would have a much harder time believing that he wasn’t.
With any bigger than life action movie like this, whether it be Spider-Man, James Bond or a Die Hard film, the success of the story is directly proportionate to quality of its villain. Alfred Molina as Doc Ock more than makes up for the mis-calculations they made with Willem Dafoe’s character in the first film, where they took one of the most expressive faces in the business and stuck it behind a mask. As Doctor Octavius before the accident, he quickly makes the scientist a believable and sympathetic character, both a loving husband and a mentor to Peter Parker. This connection we feel to the character makes his turn to the Dark Si… um, to evil all the more tragic, as well as providing the basis for a final resolution to the story which resonates a lot more deeply than the end of almost any other comic book movie in recent memory.
With a young, but first-rate cast and a director who has a genuine feel and enthusiasm for the subject matter, there’s good reason to be confident that I will be equally enthusiastic about Spider-Man 3.