Note: This review is entirely free of major spoilers, though some very minor story details may be mentioned.
It seemed nearly impossible that Sam Raimi would be able to outdo the first Spider-Man film, a summer blockbuster that outdid every other movie it faced in terms of action, adventure and, of course, its soaring worldwide gross. However, that is exactly what Raimi has done in Spider-Man 2. The enhancements are more than just superficial, though, as the incredible special effects and cinematography are accompanied by storylines and character growth that not only push these characters to new levels, but also pave them intriguing new paths to be followed in the next instalment of the Spider-man franchise.
When Spider-Man 2 begins, Peter Parker is hardly living the life of a typical superhero. He can barely manage to hold a basic job, his grades in college are taking a steady decline and his career as a photographer appears to be going nowhere. His obnoxious landlord is hardly the understanding type and his dreary apartment is cramped and lonely. The only joy in Peter's life appears to be his routine foiling of small-time criminals, though, ironically, it may be his decision to be Spider-Man that can be blamed for his loneliness. When Peter's birthday arrives and his Aunt May organizes a small party, the reunion with his Aunt and friends Harry and Mary Jane is unsettling and brings both confrontation and unwelcome news. Peter's future seems anything but bright. The story truly kicks into high gear, though, with the introduction of Dr. Otto Octavius, Oscorp's new resident genius and Peter's scientific idol. Octavius's incredible ideas in fusion energy are sure to be a huge movement for Oscorp and the mechanical arms he created to handle dangerous jobs are an amazing invention in themselves. However, the first public experiment in fusion energy goes quite awry and the ensuing catastrophe is the catalyst for the rest of the film. Combined with Peter's lingering doubts concerning his double life, it is clear that life won't be getting any easier for the Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man.
Everything that made the first Spider-Man great is expanded upon in this second chapter and, in most cases, improved greatly. The webslinging effects are nothing short of astounding and this time they are able to give Spider-Man weight and realism that he often lacked in the previous chapter. Doctor Octopus also proves to be a visual marvel and is far more intimidating than the Green Goblin was able to be. His four mechanical tentacles are absolutely stunning; their constant serpentine movement and mechanical "whispering" give unbelievable life to what are basically large chunks of metal and wire. The fight sequences between the hero and villain are also much more interesting than what was seen in the previous film. It is hard to say that the aerial battles between the Green Goblin and Spider-Man were ordinary, but they certainly seem so when compared to a fight that Spider-Man and Doc Ock have on the side of a moving train. That is not the only jaw-dropping battle the two characters share, though, as there are numerous other instances of sensational action.
Even with the fantastic visual effects, somehow the quieter character moments remain interesting and emotionally effective. This is largely thanks to the very memorable performances from all of the primary actors, as well as the secondary ones. Alfred Molina is most notable as Doc Ock, who brings a very likeable and empathetic aspect to the same character he successfully portrays as remarkably frightening. One of Octavius's trademarks is his pair of dark glasses, though it was good to see him go without them for a large portion of the film. Molina's eyes are darkly haunting and absorbing, while still being very expressive. Rosemary Harris was also especially effective as Peter's Aunt May and brought a very quiet sadness to her role as an optimistic and kind old woman that was heart-breaking. Tobey Maguire is still as perfect for his role as he ever was and has nice chemistry with Kirsten Dunst, who is able to convince the audience that her character is indeed worth the heart-ache Peter endures for her. Furthermore, James Franco is quite successful in making the drastic changes in the previously unfocused Harry Osborn seem natural.
Spider-Man 2 is also particularly successful in linking itself to the previous chapter. To continue to empathize with Peter's predicament it is necessary to still understand the pain of loss that he has suffered, as well as his immense guilt. It is also important to understand Harry's loss and how his very different upbringing makes his reaction so different from Peter's. Two nicely placed character cameos illustrate that point very well and also continue to connect this sequel to the first film, instead of them seeming like totally separate stories.
It's very difficult to create a sequel that not only lives up to the original, but also surpasses it. Luckily, director Sam Raimi and his crew have realized exactly what made the first movie a success and what needed to be improved. The final product is a film that exceeds its already wonderful predecessor in every way, while still staying well connected to it. If you enjoyed Spider-Man in 2002, you'll be blown away by Spider-Man 2. If you had your problems with the first instalment, then the second may just rectify. Either way, Spider-Man 2 is a complete success from start to finish.