Probably many of us have trouble reconciling our jobs and our home lives, but masked superheroes have an especially rough time. Beyond the never-being-in-the-same-place-at-the-same-time business, there's that old Pirandellian conundrum: Is Bruce Wayne pretending to be Batman, or is Batman pretending to be Bruce Wayne? At least if you're Wayne, you have a butler to run interference and a manor under which to build your bat-cave: Money does make it so much easier to leap among disparate roles in an over-compartmentalized life. At the other extreme, there is Peter Parker/Spider-Man—desperately impoverished, lovelorn, without confidants, persecuted by an unscrupulous tabloid editor when he dons his spider suit and racked with guilt when he doesn't.
The gravely splendid Spider-Man 2 (Columbia Pictures), again directed by Sam Raimi, dramatizes this schism as powerfully as any superhero picture since Superman II (1980): Its protagonist (Tobey Maguire) is so conflicted that neither side of him can properly function. The movie is a cut above the pretty-darn-good original: The special effects are more tightly woven into the human drama, the villain is better dramatized (and acted, by Alfred Molina), and the love story is a few notches up the evolutionary scale from the first movie's adolescent infatuation. But it's the tone of the picture that's most striking. This is nothing less than a superhero's lament—Spidey Agonistes, a comic-book spectacle in which the primary struggles are behind the mask.
There were a lot of threads left dangling in the last Spidey movie, which is gorgeously recapped in a credit sequence limned by the great Marvel artist Alex Ross: a look back in anguish, with a score by Danny Elfman that hits notes of both yearning and unrest. Amid the comic-book panels is a recurring picture of Mary Jane "M.J." Watson (Kirsten Dunst)—the only photo-realist touch, as if she exists on more than a single plane. She is certainly the most solid thing in Peter Parker's life. The opening finds him at loose ends. His romance with M.J. has been choked off, with neither party sure just what to do now. His best friend, Harry (James Franco), has sworn vengeance against his alter ego—and can't let the subject drop. His college grades have nosedived. His finances have dwindled to the point where he's begging to keep a pizza delivery-boy job. He lives in a noisy hovel with a landlord who seems to take sadistic pleasure in chasing him for rent. He can't seem to keep an appointment. His time is out of joint.
And things are no happier on the superhero front. In the first film, Peter's discovery that his teenage body could suddenly shoot white sticky stuff was confusing, but also scary and exhilarating—as it is for so many of us. Now, he discovers that once in a while when there are a lot of other things on his mind, that sticky stuff won't come. In Peter's case, more than self-esteem is at stake: A couple of 30-story plunges to the street are enough to make even the most Olympian superheroic athlete quiver with performance anxiety.
It's a long downward trajectory for poor Peter. For the first 90 minutes, he can't catch a break, and the only thing that keeps Spider-Man 2 from becoming too much of a Job-like downer is Maguire's lightness and magnanimity. I don't know how to praise this actor enough: He'd win a sweetness contest with Jake Gyllenhaal. Hearing the news that M.J. has a boyfriend, his head sinks, as if it suddenly weighs 300 pounds. He forces it up, gives it a shake, manages a sickly smile, and stammers, "That's good … companionship … " That gentle, high, slightly hoarse voice, that touch of effeminacy in his manner: It's no wonder that almost every woman alive wants to eat him up.
There's still, alas, only a tenuous link between Peter and that little, digitized, computer-game figure that hurtles with impossible fluidity through those wide CGI avenues. I had hoped that Raimi and his army of FX people would get a little more real with the action this time, but the figures of Spider-Man and his tentacled antagonist, Doc Ock, are often downright cartoony. That said, they've made these sequences explosively kinetic, with sharp angles, rock-'em-sock-'em editing, and a brilliantly three-dimensional cityscape. The action is unreal, but it spins your head, bombards your senses, and otherwise envelops you. It's the closest thing to a virtual-reality comic book without a helmet.
It helps that the filmmakers have demystified the Spider-Man costume: It gets laundered (badly), dumped in a trashcan, and finally mounted on the wall of the office of the cigar-wielding editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). In climactic scenes, the superhero is only partially costumed—Peter's head on Spidey's body. The disjunction is painful, the superhero both inside him—in his DNA—yet alien to his nature. After one excruciating feat of heroism, Peter lies unconscious on the floor of a subway, his face naked, and the passengers register the discontinuity, as we do. One of them murmurs, "He's just a kid."
They might have said the same of the movie's villain, Dr. Otto Octavius. Molina looks more than ever like an overgrown bull-calf—soulful, not unkind, but prone to snorting and charging when he doesn't get his way. He doesn't get his way—big time. After a cataclysmic attempt at creating nuclear fusion, he ends up bereft, mad, and, more to the point, controlled by four giant nano-chip-generated tentacles that snap and hiss into his ears like H.R. Giger's aliens. His tentacles hoist him up and propel him along, and Raimi is careful to emphasize the disjunction here, too—the real man in the middle with his beer belly hanging out. Doc Ock might have been a comic sight if it weren't for the director's horror chops. The villain's awakening sets the tone: an operating-room massacre that's like the second Evil Dead picture compressed into one furious, bloodcurdling minute—complete with chainsaw.
The script—which is credited to the veteran Alvin Sargent, with a story by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar and, tantalizingly, the novelist Michael Chabon—is beautifully worked-out, but at times it takes itself a bit too seriously. I could have done without half of Aunt May's big speech about how kids need a hero—although not without the great Rosemary Harris' impassioned delivery. But by then there's a ton of feeling pent up: a dam waiting to bust. The climax isn't a battle: it's Spidey and M.J. high above the city, having their moment at long last. And Spider-Man's final swing is exultant, like a Fred Astaire happy dance. Spider-Man 2 has the cleanest emotional arc of any comic-book movie, ever. For all the simulation, it breathes.