Review: Spiderman 2

[Minor spoilers ahead in the form of some high-level plot synopses; no more than you could infer from the trailer, though]
Spiderman 2 is the type of exhilarating summer popcorn blockbuster that seemed like a momentous happening when I was a young boy. Maybe there is an age when I'll outgrow that, but I suspect that some of us will always enjoy a movie like this, and others never could. Thank goodness, too, because the first Spiderman was a letdown, and Peter Parker is the superhero for the geeks of the world. A science nerd, shy, clumsy around women, oppressed by bullies, who one day gains not only superpowers but also some mysterious magnetic charm over babes like Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, one whose clever mind finds outlet in witty repartee while sparring with assorted villains with costumes and names as ridiculous as his own. [I stood in line for a long time next to some of these thirty-something geeks tonight, and while we share some common interests, I'm glad to say I dress better and shower more regularly]
Most superhero comic book writing is patently absurd and childish. Literature is no different. The best superhero stories give us heroes who have human emotions and problems. If you can empathize with the man behind the mask, your sense of fantastical uplift is that much greater when the hero is doing the superhuman. Peter Parker is the easiest of the major superheroes to empathize with. He's a teenager trying to make ends meet, in love with a girl, struggling to fit in socially, rather than a superhuman from another planet (which is why Christopher Reeve's vulnerability was pitch perfect for the Superman movies) or a billionaire (Bruce Wayne has two alter egos, his wealthy playboy side and his sadistic vigilante side; the lonely orphan is repressed out of existence. He'd make a great Freudian subject.). He wants to do good, but out of a sense of loyalty to family and friends. In the comic books, Mary Jane is the supportive wife who supports her husband in his career aspirations while seeking work of her own. They're urban DINKs.
The first half of the movie gives the characters and narrative some real heft, something the first movie lacked. Peter's double life as Spiderman is taking its toll on his schoolwork, love life, and freelance career as photographer and pizza delivery guy. In an interesting twist on the mythology, Peter's frame of mind is closely tied to his powers; where there's a will, there's a web.
What keeps the movie fun is that the screenwriters, director, and actor sprinkle the movie with audacious humor. In-jokes (listen for the theme song from the old cartoon and watch for the appearance of several characters from the Spiderman mythology), guest appearances (Elvis is alive!), one-liners, freeze frames (one particularly memorable one), and even a musical interlude set to Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. It's a level of confidence in the material that wasn't in the first movie (except for one moment when Willem Dafoe took off his shirt to climb onto a metal platform and uttered, "Ooh, that's cold!" when metal straps were placed over his chest), and it liberates the movie creator's joy and love for the material.
The movie has a refreshingly utopian view of Manhattan. Spiderman has to take an elevator in one scene in this sequel, and the way the other person in the elevator reacts to him is true to New York City; celebrities find the anonymity granted by others in Manhattan soothing. In another scene, as in the first Spiderman movie, Spidey receives assistance from his fellow New York City citizens against his foe.
Peter goes through one day that's so bad it achieves a comic-book feel, campy and iconic. Each depressing episode flashes one after the other like frames in a comic strip. It feels more like a comic book than some of Ang Lee's more explicit imitation of that art form, such as the split frames. Even certain camera angles, like an extreme upward shot of Tobey Maguire, his fists clenched, recall the visual dynamism of comic book panels.
Among many competing themes, it's primarily a love story. Tobey Maguire's Spiderman isn't as much of a smart-ass as the Parker of comic books. He's more sullen, mopey, and doe-eyed; a quiet romantic. It's an interpretation that flows from Maguire's minimalist acting style, and it strengthens the on-screen love affair. A wounded heart that yearns plays sweeter than a smart aleck who covets. Kirsten Dunst looks younger than the Mary Jane Watson in print, and that's a good thing. Dunst's MJ is a model, yes, but one with teenage crushes and insecurities of her own. She quiets her face, droops her eyelids, and hunches her shoulders when she's feeling doubt or sadness. This MJ is a creation all her own, and theirs is the Romeo and Juliet romance of pop fiction.
The superpowers and supervillains then serve as amplifiers to push the human problems in the movie up to life-or-death heights, like MSG in takeout Chinese food. Unrequited love is much grander when the girl you love is a model, plans to marry an astronaut, and finally needs you most when she's kidnapped by a mad scientist with four metallic arms.
In the one scene that feels hokey, if such a thing is possible in a superhero movie, Tobey Maguire converses with his dead Uncle Ben in a car floating in a sea of white nothingness. Were they in the Matrix? I thought perhaps Morpheus would show up to ask if Peter wanted the blue or red pill. It's a metaphor played too visually literal. But other than that, the screenplay has a clean, classic structure, one reason the trailer was a model of clarity.
The special effects are improved from the first movie, though the movement and look of Spiderman in the long shots when he's soaring through the city still lack weight and realism. In closeup and medium shots, when Tobey Maguire is in costume, or when he's being tossed against solid objects, the sound and textures and human-executed physical movements contribute to a sense of realism. Doc Ock's mechanical arms look and move like real metallic appendages when viewed up close. In contrast, the CGI Spiderman who swings from building to building moves too quickly. If the camera would just stay still for a second and lock the background in place, Spiderman would look more realistic, but perhaps that would also expose flaws in Spiderman's texture. The other problem in the long shots is the lighting. When he is swinging dozens of stories above the ground level through a pastel-colored CGI city, Spiderman's form seems immune to shadows, and that flattens his figure. No DP can light a scene that high in the air, but it's an area for improvement in visual effects.
Perhaps this will be the last movie I see at Cinerama. If so, it was a good movie to end with. I've seen all sorts of movies at Cinerama, from experimental movies to arthouse movies to grand epics like Lawrence of Arabia to SIFF entries, but what I'll remember it for are the big summer blockbusters, the Star Wars and LOTRs. I won't miss the now flaccid seats or the hours spent waiting in line alone, but I'll miss the arrival of friends just before being let in, the smell of butter popcorn just inside the entrance, the fully-automated bathrooms (if the doors could be opened by a wave of the hand, the only thing your hands would have to touch in the men's bathroom would be your own zipper), the massive screen, and the digital surround sound system, and the whooping and cheering and palpable energy of a fired-up opening night crowd. When the lights would go down, it felt like re-entering a womb, except one with an impeccable A/V system.