Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
Strange that a film being hailed as the best comic book adaptation ever should open the same weekend that Superman's dad died. I'm always wary of the hype that a sequel is better than the beloved original (when in truth it's only fresher in mind), but a mid-90s rating on the TomatoMeter can't be wrong. This film is a true marvel, the first superhero movie I can recall in which I actually grew impatient with the superhero scenes, waiting for the secret identity to come out and play. The film's real power is not in its dizzying f/x showcases (which do not disappoint for what they're worth), but in the depths it manages to find in the soul of Peter Parker, who maintains a sunny disposition in the face of near-crippling bad luck and self-sacrifice. If this sounds like I'm overanalyzing a two-dimensional fictional character, don't get Sam Raimi started on the subject! Better yet, do; the only complaint I have about the film is that it ends, leaving us yearning for even more psychoanalysis and soul-searching from a man in colored tights. If "Batman" and "The Crow" failed to make it seem possible that superhero angst could be made not just believeable, but even fascinating, here's the counterpoint.
There's little to be achieved in comparing this film to its predecessor, since they are so similar in content and excellence. But I can't help making certain points: Where a real menace like Doctor Octopus (thank goodness they said his full name!) allows for some much better battles than the tacky Green Goblin, there's little room for psychological conflict between a hero and villain who have barely met, and in that absence you realize how much was actually going on between Peter and Norman two years earlier. My biggest gripe about the original, that Spidey's wisecracking sense of humor was lost in script revisions, has been partially addressed here with more one-liners (even from Ock), but I'm still not satisfied that the writers care what a definitive element of the character it is. I'm also pleased to see the tradition of Marvel references continue: Fans will recognize not just people and names, but even poses and specific moments from the comics; this film is not willing to throw away its source material after buying the license like too many others. Finally, with all due props to Willem Dafoe and Cliff Robertson, the film gets more quality out of Alfred Molina and Rosemary Harris in essentially the same roles in the sequel; here's proof of the benefit of hiring classically trained actors for popcorn movies, as they single-handedly give the film extra layers of nuance.
It's impossible for me to discuss the film in full without giving away surprises in its final act, so here's your big fat spoiler warning for the rest of this review. I'll also speculate on future films based on my knowledge of the comics, so stay away if you don't know what happens to various supporting characters in the original storyline.
Forgetting my familiarity with the comics and my investment with the story as a viewer, as a cinemaphile it was extremely gratifying to see genuine progress with both Mary Jane and Harry in the final act. I had been dreading the possibility (even likelihood?) that the sequel would end with the characters in the same place, with MJ's unreciprocated gestures of love for Peter and Harry confiding in his best friend Peter that he'll get revenge on Spider-Man for his father's death. The tendency for studios is to stretch these things out indefinitely, abusing our emotional investment in the characters. When MJ ran past the fountain in her bridal gown and the wedding march chimed on the soundtrack, it struck me as one of the most joyous images I had ever seen put to film, and that sensation was no doubt influenced by the sudden dawning that the movie was willing to go somewhere with these characters instead of spinning them around in perpetual circles. So thank you, Mssrs. Raimi and Sargent and Chabon, for getting it right this time and establishing a precedent of progress for the series. Hopefully the third film will complete Harry and MJ's character arcs before the actors move on to other projects and the series proceeds without them.
Speaking of which, I must voice three requests for the next sequel if they're going to set up Harry as the villain, which is a treacherous thing to do since they seemed to exhaust the cinematic possibilities with another Green Goblin already. First and foremost, they need to come up with more interesting things for him to do in the costume scenes, to use his villainous superpowers in new ways, or we're in for a boring retread of the original. If the writers can come up with new things for Spidey to do in every film, then certainly they can come up with new things for one of his villains to do just once. Second and least importantly, I hope they open with another villain next time, in a throwaway action sequence to calm the cravings for Spider-Man before settling in for so many scenes of Peter Parker and Harry Osborne, sort of like how the James Bond films open with an unrelated action sequence to whet the appetite. The Lizard is one possibility because he's so one-dimensional as a monster, but Curt Connors could have enough conflict with Peter to carry the fourth film all by himself, so bring in Rhino or Hammerhead or one of the villains who would be inadequate as the main antagonist but could still make for a single interesting battle. Third and most important to me personally, make good on the bridge scene. The moment when Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy by dropping her from the bridge while Spidey rescued the tourists was one of the greatest moments in Marvel history, the moment that elevated the lame Goblin to his status as Spidey's greatest nemesis in the first place, but the original film cheated by allowing Spidey to save the girl and the crowd. As much as I want the new Goblin to do different things from the old Goblin, I do hope he reenacts what Norman meant to be his shining triumph, but this time he drops the girl and the tourists a moment earlier, giving the scene its proper payoff, a dead girlfriend. Hey, Kirsten Dunst wants out of further sequels, doesn't she? Here's a way to write her out, to do the classic moment justice, to follow through on the risks that MJ willingly assumed in the second film, to give future Spidey films years' worth of angst, to remind viewers why the Goblin in so important in the first place, and to sucker-punch the audience members who think Peter gets happy endings, all in a single moment of film. Plus, it would allow us the rare opportunity to see Spidey hate his enemy as much as his enemy hates him, allowing for an even more interesting dynamic between them. If the producers decide not to go this route, and I'm not holding my breath, then I hope they come up with a resolution just as (or even more) appropriate, meaningful, and shocking, as the final shot of the second film hints they will.