A great villain can make a significant difference in a comic-book franchise. The first “Spider-Man,” for all its charm and romance, didn’t have one. The sequel does.
Partly due to stiff special effects, partly because the character was such a one-note monster, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin wore out his welcome long before the finale of Vol. 1. The effects are much better, and so is the villain’s backstory, in Vol. 2, which gives Alfred Molina the opportunity to play one of the few interesting bad guys of the new century.
In “Spider-Man 2,” Molina is cast as Dr. Otto Octavius, a scientific genius who is somewhat full of himself. His ego poses no danger to anyone until his theories are tested, but then everything goes horribly wrong in a lab accident. When his spine becomes fused with mechanical tentacles, he gives in to the dark side of the machine he’s created — and merged with.
The doctor’s good intentions are still buried somewhere in this mixture of flesh and metal, but the grasping tentacles tend to take over, occasionally making threatening gestures toward the eyes and brain that supposedly control them. Octavius is partly civilized, part id, like the tragically split scientist in both versions of “The Fly,” who fights a losing battle against the instincts of an insect.
Molina, who takes the role seriously and consistently avoids camping it up, keeps the movie leaning forward whenever its hero, again played soulfully by Tobey Maguire, threatens to smother it in his sorrows. As Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, Maguire spends much of his screen time in Hamlet-style indecision, trying to lead a normal life and court Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) but succumbing to the irresistible call of spinning webs, rescuing innocents and defying gravity as he sweeps through the canyons of Manhattan.
In other words, the villain’s predicament is exactly reflected in the hero’s dilemma. They’re both at war with themselves, they both resemble spiders (though in different ways) and they both relish the opportunity to demonstrate power. The villain just has a more colorful role to play. And since the first film showed us what Spidey can do, Octavius has the advantage of novelty — not to mention improved special effects. Music, editing and cinematography are also notably better this time around.
Sam Raimi, who directed the first “Spider-Man,” smoothly blends spectacle and intimacy once more. Especially effective is the emotional finale to a runaway subway sequence; Spidey’s fans get a chance to show their appreciation for him, as they bravely stand up to Octavius. As for Mary Jane, she’s acquired another boyfriend while making the big leap to becoming a New York stage actress, and Dunst revels in the chance to make her more conflicted and vulnerable.
Raimi even dares to make “Spider-Man 2” a few minutes longer than the original, perhaps acknowledging that Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent’s script deserves the vote of confidence. Unfortunately, the ending suggests that the Green Goblin will be back for the next installment. Please, rethink this.