Creativity, Wit and Daring
Spider-Man 2 just might be the single greatest super-hero movie ever; it is unquestionably the wildest, most joyous, flat-out comic-bookiest comic-book movie of all time.
That last adjective represents a claim I made for the first Spider-Man movie also but there my enthusiasm was tempered by several factors, including the absence of an adequate establishing sequence for the hero, a villain hampered by a lame costume, and a third act that, while sturdy enough, seems lacking in flair and imagination.
Nothing in the original prepared me for the sheer energy, creativity, wit, and daring of this sequel. Spider-Man 2 left me bursting with excitement like no super-hero movie since I first saw Superman II in theaters and I wasn’t yet in high school then.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a Spider-Man nut since my earliest youth. Other boys at school would debate who was the greatest, Superman or Batman; I always knew it was Spider-Man. From the sheer ordinariness of the real person behind the mask, to his wisecracking, almost playful combat style, to his doting relationship with his Aunt May, Peter Parker has always been to me both the most human and the most colorful of classic comic-book heroes the quintessential comic-book hero.
Other heroes have made the transition to live action with relative ease, Superman in particular doing it, successfully, in at least a half-dozen different incarnations. Even Tim Burton’s Batman had his moments. As for the X-Men, even in the comic books they were always a different breed of pulp hero, in principle not much more bound to their pen-and-ink origins than the Men in Black or the hit man Tom Hanks played in Road to Perdition.
But Spider-Man? He might work as animation, but could he make the leap to live action? Would the costume look cheesy? Could any special effects bring his superhuman athletics to life? (Yes, there were those Nicholas Hammond TV movies in the ’70s; suffice to say they left these questions open.)
With Spider-Man, Sam Raimi proved that the costume could look cool, and that CGI could serviceably approximate Spider-Man’s agility and speed better than any gymnast in a harness, even if the effect was closer to animation than to live action. Raimi also proved that a director with imagination could cast actors who were right for the parts of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), Peter’s Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson), and even irascible newpaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons).
Surpasses All Expectations
But if Spider-Man falls short of being the quintessential comic-book movie, Spider-Man 2 surpasses all expectations. Not only does it consistently outdo its predecessor in every respect, it does so without simply ignoring the first film, instead lovingly building on it and extending it in innumerable ways.
Even the opening credit sequence echoes the original while simultaneously going beyond it, using the CGI web effects from the original opening as the basis for a far more dynamic eye-candy sequence, juxtaposed with photos and paintings by talented comic-book painter Alex Ross reestablishing the characters and recapping the plot points from the first film. The opening graphics alone are so entertaining that I stopped reading the credits to watch them.
Spider-Man 2 captures the essential issues and dilemmas of hero-hood better than perhaps any previous movie, even Superman II. Going beyond Spider-Man’s signature theme of power and responsibility, Spider-Man 2 explores the relationship between responsibility and sacrifice, even to the point of giving up one’s hopes and dreams.
It also touches on the necessity of being honest in relationships, offering a fresh take on the classic dilemma, definitively articulated in Superman II, of the conflicting claims upon a hero by the world and by his best beloved. It’s all done on a cartoon level, of course, but the filmmakers’ affection for their characters is palpable, and they pull it off.
At the same time, Spider-Man 2 delivers the most stunning comic-book action sequences ever committed to film. Here at last is what previous super-powered cinematic battles could only dream of being, from Superman battling the Kryptonian super-villains to Hulk versus Aborbing Man in Ang Lee’s Hulk.
Partly this is because of Spidey himself, who’s faster, smoother, more convincing, more spider-like than before. Computer effects are still evident, but less glaring. And both Maguire (or whatever stuntmen may share the costume with him) and his CGI counterpart have learned to move and carry themselves more like the hand-drawn original.
Spider-Man’s opponent here is Doctor Octopus, a.k.a. Dr. Otto Octavius, a brilliant scientist augmented with four long, tentacle-like mechanical arms. (Simmons’s Jameson has a priceless, sardonic throwaway line of the sort used in comic-book movies to bridge the gap between their own pulp absurdity and real-world sensibilities: “Guy named Octavius winds up with eight limbs…what’re the odds?”)
Those weaving, menacing tentacles make Doc Ock a far more engaging and dramatic foe for the leaping, lightning-quick Spider-Man than was the Green Goblin. (They also make him more deadly; the original Spider-Man was a bit on the rough side for a super-hero adventure, and the sequel is even rougher.)
Their most spectacular battle, a bravura sequence involving an elevated train, is a breathless action tour de force, and highlights not only the antagonists’ powers but also Peter Parker’s true heroism and capacity for self-sacrifice. (At one point Peter’s sacrificial heroism leaves him stretched out cruciform and potentially broken against Doc Ock’s chosen instrument of torture a christological echo previously noted by Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News.)
Emphasis on Character
I say Peter’s heroism and self-sacrifice, rather than Spider-Man’s. That’s because Spider-Man 2 emphasizes the character rather than the action figure. He doesn’t become someone else when he pulls on that full-face mask; in fact, the mask comes off quite a bit in this film, in part to allow Maguire to display emotions, but also to emphasize the hero’s humanity.
The story, set two years after the first film, takes its time initially establishing how times have changed. Peter is now in college, living in a New York apartment rather than his Aunt May’s Queens house. He works two jobs to try to pay the rent, while Aunt May struggles with mortgage payments she can’t make. (Alter egos like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne never had to worry about money.)
Peter’s high-school buddy Harry Osbourne (James Franco) is following in the professional footsteps of his late father, technology entrepreneur Norman (Willem Dafoe) whom Harry doesn’t know was also the Green Goblin. Harry blames Spider-Man for his father’s death, but Peter, to protect Harry from the truth about his father, can say nothing in either identity to cool Harry’s hatred.
Harry is sponsoring Dr. Octavius’s research, which promises the rather unimaginative goal of unlimited cheap energy for everyone. The filmmakers have substantially rethought Octavius’s nature and ultimate tragedy from his comic-book origins, all to the better. Molina’s performance is everything it needs to be and more, and his tentacles are startlingly like characters in their own right. (One hole in the Octopus effect is that while the scenes with Doc Ock suspended by his arms are perfectly persuasive, whenever Ock is on his own two feet he never really looks as if he’s actually lugging that weight around on his back.)
Part of what makes Spider-Man 2 such fun is that the filmmakers aren’t afraid to kick back and enjoy themselves to think outside the comic-book panel. A delightfully offbeat sequence somewhere in the middle of the film with a brief freeze-frame made me laugh out loud. And there’s a well-conceived appearance by Cliff Robertson as the late Uncle Ben that is neither a flashback or dream nor a paranormal event, and makes perfect sense.
Most of the supporting cast, including Aunt May, Mary Jane, Harry, and even Jameson are utilized both more and better than in the first film. Aunt May gets a key speech utterly in keeping with her role in the comic book, and MJ as a character is a bit more fleshed out (though her wardrobe thankfully keeps more flesh in). MJ’s complicated non-relationship with Peter has become easier to care about, though there’s still a bit of rote stiffness in it.
There are a few plot glitches, though not much that couldn’t have been patched with a single line of dialogue. The most important and glaring involves a scene in which a character succeeds in driving a bargain with Doc Ock, though he’s obviously in no position to do so. Shortly afterwards, a character finds Peter in a public place where it’s not easy to see how anyone could have known he would be.
But these are trifles next to the film’s rewards. If in the end I was less than entirely satisfied with the original Spider-Man, it was partly because I felt that Spidey deserved the quintessential comic-book movie, not just a better-than-average one. I wanted Spider-Man to be the Raiders of the Lost Ark of super-hero movies, but what I got was more like the Pirates of the Caribbean still good, but not good enough.
Here at last is the Spider-Man movie I’ve been waiting for.
(c) 2004 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.
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