From the outside-in, there must be a great freedom in the work that Spiderman does, slinging endlessly upward from rooftop-to-rooftop, graceful in that pendulum arc – soaring, like any great thing unbound by gravity, through the streets of some towering metropolis, to the aid of those very much unlike himself – those who are, in every way, bound by the world that sets itself upon them. There must be, one imagines, some great satisfaction in that. Some amount of peace.

And if Spiderman 2 has any thematic thrust, it is the simple and single-minded destruction of this myth – proving, as it so brilliantly does, the immense weight of Spiderman’s responsibility, both as a hero and a person, struggling to overcome that desperate battle of selfish vs. selfless – a premise that lies at the very center of the Spiderman universe.

Picking up nearly two years after the first film left off, Spiderman 2 finds Peter Parker trying to maintain some balance between ego and alter-ego, and failing miserably at the task. From everywhere, time presses down. Relationships suffer. Happiness dwindles. For every rescue or brave criminal capture, there’s a missed opportunity or a loved-one in wait. Mary-Jane is moving on with her life, and Harry with his own, both touched, in such opposite ways, by the events of the first film.

And, of course, Peter Parker in the middle, between one life and the other, bearing, as he must, the heavy weight of his existence.

So when the well-meaning Doctor Otto Octavius, in the course of an experiment gone terribly wrong, becomes the proud owner of a mad set of tentacles, Spiderman’s two lives come crashing imminently together.

The character of Doc Ock – much like the Green Goblin before him – like Spiderman, himself, and the tortured Harry Osbourn – is a character at battle with himself as much as anyone else. A villain made, rather than born. The back-and-forth battle of nemesis and altruist. Sympathetic but nonetheless dangerous.

In many ways, the performance here by the serpentine Alfred Molina is an infinitely more nuanced portrayal of a man torn in two, overstepping in great leaps the already brilliant performance of Willem Dafoe in the first film. There’s a cruel confidence about Ock in this chapter, one that is matched only by the subtle presence of his former nature. For every battling moment there’s a beat of self-awareness, a smile for every snake-like sneer, endearing in the audience some hope of salvation.

And just how the transformation of Otto into Ock begins to link the stories of Parker, Harry and MJ forms the great body of this far surpassing sequel.

In truth, there’s little here that doesn’t eclipse the effort of the first film, which in its own right was one of the better comic book offerings since moviemakers first began to put panel to film.

The film is larger in every way than its already sizeable predecessor, yet succeeds at being widely more intimate. Finely scripted and superbly performed, the film never fails to include true moments of character between its lavishly filmed action sequences, striking the perfect balance that its characters continually fail to achieve. There’s an arc here, obvious in the film’s final moments, that propels these characters into the inevitable sequel with both purpose and aplomb. Nothing here feels forced, as if the characters and themes are evolving naturally into the costume of an already powerful franchise.

This time, as expected, the action elements are wonderfully large, making true use of the city’s magnificent scale, as Spidey and Ock battle ever upward to the height of buildings and down again onto the roof of a speeding A-train. There are really only three or four extended fight sequences throughout the film, and while in any other movie this might seem too few, the sequences are well-spaced and of such scope that the pause in-between is necessary for the audience to catch its collective, cinematic breath.

The only real downside to the film is its tendency to reiterate not only its thematic points but certain set-pieces, as well. While, thematically, it’s nice to have a motif of sympathetic, inwardly-torn villains, it seems that inner voices might abound a bit too greatly in Spiderman’s New York. From Goblin to Ock to Harry’s slow decline toward the villainous – and, even, to some degree, to the seeds sown for Venom’s appearance in the next film – there seems to be an overwhelming epidemic of good-men-driven-mad in the Spiderverse at large. And the visual repetition of a climax taking place both over and beside the river (a la the first film) and yet another sequence set in a burning building (also, vis a vis the first film) present a certain unsettling sense of déjà vu.

Aside from these otherwise trifling gripes, Spiderman 2 is as near to cinematic perfection as a comic book film is ever likely to get, surpassing – dare I say it – both Superman and Batman for the title of All-Around-Best-Comic-Book-Film-Ever. Now begins the three-year wait for the next and possibly best chapter in this continually improving series.

Spider-Man 2 is out June 25, 2004.

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