What is happening to Hollywood sequels? You used to be able to rely on them being more poorly crafted than the original movies, cheaply made and frequently not even starring the same actors. The studios could depend on them to make around 60% of the revenue earned by the original, which represented a good, reliable return for minimal effort. The critics could sit back happily with a superior smirk and the word “Typical!” hovering on their lips. The only people disappointed were the audiences.
But now we’re in a run of Hollywood sequels that are classier, more spectacular and even better made than the originals. Toy Story 2, Shrek 2 and now Spider-Man 2 are all improvements upon very good predecessors. And whereas the first Spider-Man was so violent it earned a 12 certificate that prevented much of its potential audience from enjoying it in the cinema, this time director Sam Raimi has wisely toned down the brutality to gain a PG certificate - which should ensure that it becomes one of the biggest blockbusters in history.
It is also, within the limitations of a comic-strip action spectacular, an intelligent, well-written film. This is the Hamlet of popcorn movies. Alvin Sargent’s script burrows into the psyche of a young man who can’t decide whether he wants to be normal or a Super-hero. To swing at high speed from skyscrapers and rescue damsels in distress or not to swing at high speed from skyscrapers and rescue damsels in distress, that is the question.
To most of us, the question would have a simple answer: take the glory and swing. But for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the solution is not so straightforward. The life of a Super-hero has grave disadvantages. It leaves little time for his science degree at college, it tires him out, and it’s financially unrewarding.
Saving people from certain death is always making him late, which makes his boss angry when he doesn’t deliver pizzas on time, and his actress girl-friend Mary-Jane gets upset when he can’t even be relied upon to turn up to see her act in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Moonlighting as Spider-Man also makes it impossible for him to declare his love to Mary-Jane, because he’s afraid that as the girl-friend of a Super-hero she will become an immediate target for all the local Super-villains.
Raimi has great fun illustrating Peter Parker’s existential nightmare, cleverly setting his period of freedom from the responsibility of being Spider-Man with a version of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.
Moviegoers with longish memories will know that the same song was used to show the happiest time of Butch and Sundance’s lives as they messed around with Katharine Ross before being hounded to the deaths by the law.
Here, the same song is used ironically, with Peter celebrating the fact that he’s getting higher grades at college and wandering round with a goofy grin, trying not to notice as mayhem and muggings go on around him.
It’s tempting to ascribe the movie’s success to its obvious entertainment value. It’s the first comic-strip movie really to involve the audience with its Super-hero’s thought-processes.
All the acting is of superior quality. As the love-interest, Kirsten Dunst is cute without being cloying, and she’s curiously sexy as she kisses her new boy-friend on the lips upside-down and wonders why this doesn’t give her quite the same thrill as when Spider-Man used to do it.
As our hero’s wise. saintly auntie, Rosemary Harris is, as always, a class act. The less reliable Alfred Molina as the super-villain Doc Ock gives one of his best, and most complex, screen performances, helped by tremendous special-effect arms that turn him into a formidable, homicidal octopus.
And J.K.Simmons is funnier than ever as the tabloid editor of the Daily Bugle, alternately denouncing Spider-Man or hailing him as a hero according to whim. He’s valuable comic relief whenever the film seems in danger of taking itself too seriously. “A guy called Otto Octavius gets eight limbs,” he muses on learning the existence of the new super-villain Doc Ock. “What are the odds?”
Sam Raimi does a terrific job of deepening the subtext of his movie without short-changing us on humour or thrills. There are plenty of exhilarating action sequences to make audiences cheer – he has a cartoonist’s eye for an iconic image - and this time the near-seamless integration of live-action with computer-generation makes it far less easy to see where Maguire or Molina ends and the digital effects begin.
But when a movie makes more money in its first six days than any movie in cinematic history, it is clearly tapping into something that’s of some cultural significance.
The subject of the movie is, in a word, responsibility. Peter Parker tries to avoid the responsibility that comes with being a super-hero, but comes to realise that it’s something you can’t back away from. The bad guys will find you anyway, threaten your loved ones and indeed your whole society.
The reason the movie strikes so resonant a chord with Americans at present is that the USA sees itself as the only super-hero, or super-power, on earth, and has been going through a very similar crisis of conscience.
Like Spider-Man, America has discovered that some of its most well-intentioned actions are portrayed in parts of the media as acts of criminal aggression, and there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of bad guys in the world.
In coded form, Spider-Man 2 asks what America should do: attempt to retreat to normality as it was before 9/11, or accept its responsibilities as a super-power and stand up to be counted.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the hero of the movie chooses the latter course, and it’s cheering that - even with Michael Moore’s dishonest documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 around to demoralise the masses – the vast majority of the American people appears willing to accept the challenge of responsibility.
The success of Spider-Man 2 this Summer may well provide a more reliable clue to the outcome of November’s Presidential elections than Michael Moore’s much-touted documentary. Most Americans are clearly convinced by the film’s argument that isolationism, passivity and defeatism are simply not an option.