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The Man Who Made Evil Dead 2 Fails to Improve on Spider-Man

He Shoots, He Doesn't Score: Tobey Maguire is a not-so-super hero in Spider-Man 2.

By Gabriel Wardell | Posted 6/30/2004

With their serial form, seemingly endless menagerie of villains, and a back catalog from which to spin story lines, comic books are perfect fodder for movie sequels. But one must drill with caution or risk poisoning the well. Think of the Batman sequels, which piled on villains and sidekicks like toppings at an all-you-can-eat sundae bar. Or the downright silly Superman II, the only saving grace of which is that it inspired a running joke in Office Space.

Striving to avoid these pitfalls, Spider-Man 2 finds itself in a precarious position. In following up a record-setting film freighted with high, heroic hopes, returning series helmer Sam Raimi is in search of more than just surpassing the last one’s box-office tally.

Despite a bad back, Tobey Maguire (not wanting to get Kilmered out of a paycheck) is back as protagonist Peter Parker. Late adolescent Peter’s going through an awkward stage. His reluctance to swing around town in a latex suit, climb walls, and string-up criminal mischief-makers in gooey webs leaves his Spider-Man alter ego unable to (ahem) perform. In a critical situation, his web shooter craps out on him and he starts shooting blanks. His Spidey sense no longer tingling, Peter must come to grips with an identity crisis. Is he meant to be a hero, or just a regular college geek?

Whether by design or not, Spider-Man 2 reflects Parker’s ambivalence. Director Raimi, and his heavy-hitting stable of writers (including Smallville co-creators Miles Millar and Alfred Gough—who know a thing or two about superheroes and teen angst—as well as Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon and two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent), aspire to give Spider-Man 2 some sort of deeper meaning. But is it meant to be an action-packed popcorn movie, or a corny, talky melodrama for comic-book freaks?

To be sure, Spider-Man 2 doesn’t stint on the action. Spider-Man’s acrobatic maneuvers as he glides through the Manhattan skyline resemble a high-octane video game. Breathtaking set pieces—ranging from Peter’s race to deliver a tower of pizzas on his moped, to his first confrontation with comic-book nemesis Doc Ock, to a burning-building rescue, to a high-speed fight on top of a subway car that leads to a run-away-train-headed-to-the-end-of-the-line scenario—showcase the best Hollywood’s computer effects
departments have to offer. Yet it is worth noting that so many of the computer-
generated images lack the breathtaking “wow” factor achieved by a crafty documentary crew in Winged Migration. Inevitably, knowing that the effects are created in a computer makes them somehow less impressive.

The film’s balance is thrown off by the incongruity between the action and the melodramatic elements. Douglas Sirkian subplots abound, including Peter’s unrequited love of Mary Jane Watson (smiling, yearning,pouting Kirsten Dunst) and Peter keeping his identity secret from best friend Harry Osborn (pretty boy James Franco), who blames Spider-Man for his wacko father’s death and vows revenge. And then there’s the plight of widowed Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who resorts to teaching piano lessons to stave off (in vain) eviction.

The melodramatic elements run in stark contrast to the light doses of campy and ironic humor, including any time scene-stealing J.K. Simmons (HBO’s Oz, The Ladykillers) chews it up as tightwad yellow journalist J.J. Jameson. Raimi and company throw a couple of knowing winks to the audience, including a Phoebe-esque street performer who sings the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” theme, jingle-twanged out on an out-of-tune fiddle, and Queer as Folk’s Hal Sparks’ riff on Spidey’s outfit. (“It rides up in the crotch.”)

Raimi’s hand is most evident in the hospital awakening of Doc Ock (Alfred Molina—one of the best comic-book villains since Jack Nicholson clowned around for Tim Burton). After an experiment goes horribly awry (doesn’t it always?), his mechanical arms possess the otherwise benevolent scientist, filling him with bad intent. As doctors attempt to separate man from machine, the arms come to life, creating mayhem, splattering the operating room with slapstick gore in a zany burst of Three Stooges masochism.

Now there’s the guy who made the best sequel of all time! Sure, Raimi directed Spider-Man 2, and the movie is destined to make a billion dollars. But for a lot of us, he’ll always be the guy who made Evil Dead 2.

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