You know that terrific scene in Kill Bill Vol. 2 when Budd buries the Bride alive? Confined in that cramped 2'x 8' wood coffin, the Bride, short on air, wakes up, remembers Pai Mai's lessons and tries to punch her way out. It's an oppressive, suffocating scene, and that same claustrophobic discomfort pervades the first half of Spider-Man 2. Except in Spider-Man, the confinement is all emotional and psychological.
As the sequel opens, we find Peter Parker a prisoner of his Spidey tights. No time for work, friends, school, or family -- his life has been subsumed by his guilt and sense of responsibility. It's a crackerjack set-up, the most convincing depiction of what it feels like to be a superhero ever put on the screen. Raimi shoots scenes tightly, often indoors and in cramped quarters, while Tobey Maguire plays Parker with just the right amount of befuddlement and frustration, that self-doubt always bubbling near the surface. Raimi creates this palpably oppressive air so that when Parker finally dons the red & blue tights and swings across the city, it's exhilarating. Like the Bride breaking out of her coffin, the open spaces liberate Parker and the viewer like a shot of pure oxygen. The movie asks you to share that same feeling of freedom and relief that Parker feels as he surfs the concrete jungle.
In orchestrating a perfect movement between entrapment and exhilaration, Raimi makes a sequel that stands markedly superior to the accomplished original, no small feat. In the original, I kept wanting to see less of Spidey himself; the webslinger's rhythm always seemed a little off and the effects were lame. His appearances felt obligatory, as if Raimi were contractually mandated to deliver Spider-Man appearances at 20 minute intervals. And the Green Goblin was little more than a bomb-throwing goon on an airbike. In the new and improved version, because Parker gets so beaten down (and the viewer with him) when Spidey gets into action, it's just an awesome feeling. I felt liberated with PP. (And when Spidey loses his powers, that oppressive feeling of aridity returns.)
Not only does the rhythm feel right, the action scenes here are just phenomenal, with the first Doc Ock/Spidey encounter on the skyscaper ranking among the best I've ever seen. There's unsurpassed fluidity of movement and spatial clarity in the shots, coupled with the explosive force of Doc Ock's killer tentacles. That menacing sound of metal to pavement when Doc Ock unleashes those tentacles is an achievement in itself. As for Doc Ock, I can't believe they turned one of Spidey's lamest villains into a compelling, powerful nemesis. Big props to the dignified Alfred Molina, the MVP of 2004, and Spider-Man 2's technical team.
Is it perfect? No. The movie loses some momentum from the perfect first half as Kerryesque speechifying drags it down, and JJJ becomes an obnoxious sideshow rather than needed comic relief. But those are quibbles. This is the best superhero movie ever made, fully living up to the best of the Lee-Ditko Spider-Man comics.
One request: Venom, not Green Goblin II, for Spidey 3.