Whatever a spider can, and then some

Monday, 19 July 2004 — 10:42pm | Comics, Film, Full reviews

Two screenings, three weeks and $300 million later, my recollection of everything I wanted to say about Spider-Man 2 is admittedly spotty. Given that virtually everybody who wanted to see the film already has, this will be less of a review in the sense of a recommendation than it is a reflection.

Before I proceed, it is probably beneficial to establish where I sit with respect to comic superhero movies – my value system, as it may be. Of the standard DC and Marvel stables, there is not one superhero movie that I would proclaim to be the hallmark of the filmic subgenre of the comic adaptation. A good many of them make a decent stab at it and grind to a halt halfway through. Take Superman, for example – an epic journey of self-discovery for the most part, then it hits a brick wall with that “Can You Read My Mind?” nonsense. X-Men had some nice character setups going on, then stops and says, “Oh, crap – we need an evil plot in order to lead to a final fight. Bring on the United Nations!”

And speaking of the United Nations, while the campy Adam West Batman and the television series from which it protruded were a pretty close approximation of the colourful, tongue-in-cheek comics of the sixties (and a great deal of fun), it would be a stretch to call the feature film a shining example of cinematic storytelling. Batman – now that’s a character that has never truly been done justice – not even by Tim Burton, even though he was on the right track. With a powerful backstory and the best dramatis personae of supervillainy in any franchise at the disposal of a given filmmaker, I expect better.

The most honest effort I have seen to take a comics franchise to the next level is Ang Lee’s Hulk, which was an example of phenomenal storytelling technique, only it lacked an involving and coherent story to tell. In trying to bridge the occasional gap between art and entertainment, this well-made and underrated character drama veered just a tad far from its prerogative to the audience, but stopped short of living up to its intellectual promise. What was admirable was what Hulk wanted to be. This will become important.

Settling on an answer to what sits at the pinnacle of superhero movies is something to be done begrudgingly, as the best of them are still short of being five-star instant classics in the pantheon of all films, not just the ones derived from panels and text bubbles. By the best of them I refer to X2 and the first Spider-Man, two very different films in terms of what works and what does not. X2 is a very difficult film to complain about, because identifying specific flaws in such a thoroughly enjoyable thrill ride is no easy task. It wrangled a large cast of characters and somehow gave them depth and individuality, means and motives. Unlike its predecessor, it had a plot – a match of wits in which even our chessmasters, Magneto and Xavier, proved fallible. There is so much to like about the movie, what keeps it back is hardly a specific complaint as much as it is a desire to have seen it go further and be iconic in all respects instead of merely very good. It built real-world character dynamics on the foundation of superheroic powers, and left unspecified room for improvement.

Spider-Man, instead of being all-round very good, had its fair share of both milestones and annoyances. Without a doubt it laid claim to the most interesting protagonist, and the presentation of the origin story was beyond compare. However, as a movie not entitled Peter Parker (or even Pavitr Prabhakar), there was a certain imperative to include a few superheroics. Enter a second half with a schizophrenic evil corporate executive with a green helmet and a hoverboard as a thoroughly insufficient villain in a thoroughly insufficient hero-villain conflict.

So with all that said, it should be easy to extrapolate what it was I wanted to get out of Spider-Man 2: cinematically-conscious storytelling that takes advantage of the motion picture medium while remaining true to the comic book aesthetic, complex characters delivering complex lines, the continuation of the insofar compelling Peter Parker story, and a much better handling of “Spider-Man versus the bad guy” – lofty demands, but not impossible.

Lo and behold, I got my wish.

The film begins with a thrilling opening titles sequence. One thing you cannot fault the Marvel films for is their brilliant opening titles, regardless of the quality of the rest of the film – the Braille in Daredevil is a fine example; even The Punisher started with a bang. (Shame about the rest of the movie, though.) Spider-Man 2 outdoes them all with a dynamic sequence of panels that evoke some moments in Hulk and emulate pages of art being flipped in all directions. The panels contain still paintings of the first film’s most pivotal moments, particularly the inverted kiss, in a two-minute recap of the story thus far. It is a fine and innovative example of how to get an audience to sit through a lot of names, and the first of many little things that stack up to make an intruiging whole.

The Peter Parker story is once again the highlight of the movie, and cements him once again as the most human protagonist out of all the movie superheroes, the ordinary boy charged with living under extraordinary circumstances. Time and again, Spider-Man 2 reminds us that these extraordinary circumstances do not absolve him of the trials and tribulations that come with being a fresh-faced, sleep-deprived college kid. Playing the web-slinging good guy does not pay the rent, get the girl or deliver the pizza on time. It’s a realist’s approach to a world governed by the fantastic; no film does it better, and in no film is it more appropriate.

If there was any doubt after the first movie that Tobey Maguire was perfect for the role, the sequel erases it. He demonstrates resolve, sadness, longing, innocence, confusion, reluctance in the face of responsibility, self-conflicted concealment in the face of unspoken truths – it’s all there. In one sequence in the middle of the film that hearkens back to a certain musical interlude from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Peter tries to crawl back into the warm and comfy shell of an ordinary life, Maguire has all the same nerdilicious charm as Ewan McGregor’s scenes in Down With Love when he is masquerading as the astronaut Zip Martin.

Kirsten Dunst, reprising the role of Mary-Jane Watson, evolves with her character. In this movie, Mary-Jane gets a little further in achieving her ambitions of modeling and acting, but what happens at the funeral in the end of the first movie has some personal ramifications that are not forgotten, and serve as the basis for her relations with Peter Parker throughout the movie. She displays a touch of bitterness on her own search for happiness, and there are few complaints to be had about how Dunst handles this. James Franco as Harry Osborn is perhaps the weak link of the trio; Harry has some very strong scenes where his ambitions of being a tycoon like his father show through, and a particularly memorable one at a reception where he is quite intoxicated and takes it out on Peter, but some of the later scenes that require fear, confusion and moral uncertainty are not quite there.

Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) is one of the highlights of Spider-Man 2, and addresses exactly the biggest problem with the first movie, which was an uninteresting and unchallenging villain that the rest of the work was above. (No offense to Willem Dafoe, so much as the material he had to work with, or lack thereof.) In film journalism one often sees the term “comic book villain” used in a perjorative sense, to describe soulless evil clowns written and played in as over-the-top a fashion as is manageable. This is not the case with Doc Ock, who may be the most satisfying megalomaniacal villain in any superhero movie. The Green Goblin, in contrast, was a soulless evil clown on drugs who conveniently murdered Oscorp’s board of directors and still got away with his secret identity intact, with the occasional bout of talking to himself that everybody forgot about as soon as they saw Gollum do it right in The Two Towers. He’s an evil corporate executive who wants his government contract, damnit – oh, and let’s fight Spider-Man since he’s a good guy, and we shan’t have any of those getting in the way.

Doctor Octopus – now there’s a villain: someone whose characterization actually has something to say about mad science, which is by movie standards a really novel idea. He begins as the groundbreaking fusion scientist Otto Octavius, a happily married and well-mannered genius who is secure in his precautionary measures – until the technology goes awry and his sentient robo-tentacles take over. Even then, his motivation is not to destroy the world with his great ball of fire, but a desire to finish his life’s work and show the world that said great ball of fire is harmless, furry and energy-efficient. He fights Spider-Man because the titular arachnid pulls the plug on his invention early in the film – with good intentions, naturally. Best of all, when it comes down to the effects-heavy fight scenes, he is enough of a match for our hero that the combat is interesting. The strategic employment of super power against super power breathes life into the extended, show-stopping action sequences in a way that was never once present in the first movie, where the Goblin hovered around a lot and chucked a few radioactive snowglobes here and there without so much as a “Rosebud”.

Spider-Man 2 is rife with visual symbolism both picturesque and subtle, from a pivotal moment when Peter’s rimmed spectacles shatter on the ashphalt to him standing across the street from an unnoticing Mary-Jane under a theatrical marquee reading “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Oscar Wilde’s text is woven into the film in a way that refrains from being overbearing, but hints at the subliminal relevance of the excerpts in question. There are some genuinely funny moments where the humour is clean, situational and completely derived from the timing of a given shot, like a scene where Spider-Man ascends an elevator in full costume and fuller awkwardness.

Danny Elfman’s score to the first Spider-Man gave the initial impression that it was less memorable than his work on the likes of Batman, without an instantly recognizable theme to trumpet around – but as an audience we have had plenty of time to get used to it over the past two years, and to hear it reprised in all the right spots here is refreshing. Unfortunately, it does not carve out an identity for Spider-Man 2 like John Williams did for The Empire Strikes Back with the Imperial March or for Attack of the Clones with “Across the Stars”, but like the score to the first, perhaps this will sink in.

Does Spider-Man 2 have problems? Well, yes – but that depends on the weight you put on these specific logical gaffes. Spider-Man’s mask comes off quite frequently, though it provides an opportunity to see some expressive facial exertion, without which climactic sequences like the scene with the runaway train would not be the same. He survives some fairly impossible falls without so much as a scratch, which is ambitious by Jackie Chan standards and pushing it even for a comic book. To paraphrase Aunt May (who also makes a welcome return), he’s not Superman, you know.

I do have an issue with how far the stories of the respective characters go in this movie; namely, it may seriously undercut the potential of future sequels, especially if Sam Raimi wants to do another one after the third, which is currently in the germinal stages. I refer specifically to Mary-Jane’s decision at the end of the film, a temporary resolution of the romantic arc just as unsatisfying as the end of the last one, only this time around, the choice is really asking for trouble. In that sense, the ending stretches a bit long, especially because it goes a few scenes beyond my favourite shot in the movie, the one of Peter and Mary-Jane suspended on a web side by side, a scene that has a poetic finality of its own. Still, it can be argued that reasonable choices have no place in dealings pertaining to love, and the choice can still be validated by its consequences, which is something to look for in Spider-Man 3.

Perhaps the most telling observation about Spider-Man 2 is that the set pieces and super powers are but accessories to the weapons with which the real battles are won or lost: individual choices and the determination of one’s own destiny. This is the dramatic ideal, a story pulled along by a chain of dilemmas, actions and consequences instead of web-shooters and robotic claws – just as how the best science-fiction stories are never truly about spaceships and time machines, but ethics and social responsibility in a world where anything is possible. At long last, here is something to point to as the exemplar of everything a superhero movie should aspire to be.

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