Spider-Man 2 (PG)

A skilfully woven web

When was the last time you saw a superhero being fired from his job as a pizza-delivery boy? That is the first of many humiliations to be endured by Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, a sequel that not only outstrips its predecessor but has a perversity and quick-wittedness that hardly seem to belong in a comic-book movie. It's about a crisis of conscience: Peter is falling behind on his rent, is failing the grade at college, is feeling generally exhausted, all because his alter ego, Spider-Man, is too busy swinging through the high-rise canyons of Manhattan, fighting crime. Public duty has sabotaged personal choice.

Worst of all, his double life is losing him the love of his dream girl Mary Jane Watson - MJ (Kirsten Dunst). She's baffled by his hesitant courtship, little realising that he's afraid that her life will always be in danger from Spider-Man's enemies. When Peter doesn't show up at the theatre for MJ's starring performance in The Importance of Being Earnest - another tale of love and disguise - she takes it as evidence of his flakiness, whereas Peter has been diverted en route by yet another summons to keep New York safe from wrongdoers. Oh, what a tangled web he weaves...

Raimi and his screenwriter Alvin Sargent (with "story" input from the novelist Michael Chabon) shrewdly avoid the cheap attractions of parody and camp and instead imagine how human frailty and loneliness might affect a superhero. In this regard Maguire is a good choice for the title role, since his faraway look and sleepy voice seem rather more l'uomo vague than dynamic crimebuster: most of the time he appears to be in need of a decent night's kip. His spiritual unease becomes manifest in the malfunctioning of his Spider powers. His hands and feet are losing their prehensile strength, and he can no longer rely on the great looping skeins of webbing he used to shoot from his wrist. Peter tells a doctor that "a friend" of his has had dreams in which he is a failing Spider-Man; when the doctor kindly suggests that identity involves a choice, a light clicks on in Peter's eyes - maybe he doesn't have to be Spider-Man at all.

But renouncing his heroic self isn't as simple as it looks. He can witness a mugging in a back alley and walk away, but will he allow himself to do the same when the whole city is in peril? The menace comes in the shape of a scientist, Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), whose backfiring experiment with fusion leaves him with four retractable metal tentacles coiling around his body like Medusa's snakes. "A guy named Octavius winds up with eight limbs - what are the odds?!" barks the truculent tabloid editor J Jonah Jameson (J K Simmons, relishing every moment of his unpleasantness). "Doc Ock", as he is known, makes for a much better supervillain than the first movie's Green Goblin; where the latter simply cackled hysterically, Molina's chunky torso floats above his limbs in sinister arachnoid fashion, and announces his approach with footsteps as thunderous as a T-rex. Hopes that you-know-who will save the day seem to have been dashed when a vagrant goes to the tabloid with the trademark red-and-blue Spidey-suit he has found discarded in a bin. Editor Jameson offers to pay him $50. "I could get more than that for it on eBay", whines the tramp.

But destiny will out, and our hero must eventually answer the rescue call. As in the first movie, there is something weightless and flimsy in the spectacle of Spider-Man swinging between the Manhattan scrapers, and the question of what he swings from remains uncertain. Tarzan had his vines, but Spider-Man seems to be slinging his jets of goo into thin air. Otherwise, Raimi and his production consultant, Neil Spisak, deserve credit for resisting the urge to create a mausoleum of design; instead they manage to finesse a crisply shot New York with a vivid comic-book overlay, and the cinematographer, Bill Pope, even finds room for the occasional grace note - a lovely Hopper-esque shot of a laundromat at night, and a nod to Warhol, too, as Peter walks distractedly past a wall covered in multiple poster images of MJ.

It's unusual and gratifying to find a multimillion dollar movie that's been put together with some thoughtfulness, that doesn't neglect subtlety in between delivering the smash-bang-wallop. Indeed, it combines them very winningly in a scene where MJ and Peter, tremulous with romantic longing, are on the verge of kissing when their tender moment is shattered by a car flung full at them through a café window: we are suddenly reminded why Spider-Man felt driven to forswear his love in order to protect her.

There are dull patches, and James Franco as Harry Osborn, scion of the Green Goblin, seems to be working himself up into a permanent state of angst, yet even he is a beneficiary of Raimi's generosity with a close-up, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. A showdown will be inevitable in the next sequel.

It's the interest in human fallibility that sets this movie apart. The superhero who bridles at his own responsibility may not sound an especially gripping prospect, but his dilemma is explored with a conviction that, within the fantasy genre, feels almost groundbreaking. "Intelligence is something to be used for the good of mankind," says Octavius before his calamitous mishap, a line that would provoke jeers in your average blockbuster. But it doesn't in this movie.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions