From the archives: July 2004

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Role over, Beethoven

Thursday, 22 July 2004 — 9:21pm | Video games

The province-wide hunt for an available retail copy of Tales of Symphonia came to an end yesterday, thanks to a Best Buy somewhere en route from Edmonton to Calgary, or so I’m told – which had just that one copy remaining, and not even on the shelf. I spent some time with the two-disc Japanese role-playing game for the Nintendo GameCube, and will undoubtedly be investing countless hours to come fighting monsters and making sandwiches in the world of Sylvarant.

Tales of Symphonia is best described as refreshing. For the most part it follows the familiar RPG conventions: you have a party of characters with finite hit points and technique points and equip them with weapons and armor, there is some kind of epic save-the-world quest to accomplish, you see the occasional save point lying around, and you fight monsters that crawl up and down the area you are exploring. The combat, however, is real-time button-mashing, where you can move your lead character towards and away from a given enemy in Street Fighter fashion. Although I quite like the patient strategizing that comes along with the turn-based menu systems that characterize the vast majority of the genre, this is a design that provides the experience with a brisk tempo that puts the player’s reflexes and sandwich-making skills to the test.

The art style is anime to the core, with a cel-shading engine that produces a look and feel closer to Viewtiful Joe than The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It’s imperfect, especially on a large-screen television, but the artwork is still a sight to behold. I have a lot of respect for the cel-shading technique; the two-dimensional sprites of the Super Nintendo era have aged a lot better than the rudimentary polygons of the PlayStation generation, and the illusion of cartoon textures in a three-dimensional environment is a natural extension of the former. The in-engine graphics are nowhere near the quality of the full-motion, pre-recorded animation, and the disparity is noticeable – but the technology will get there someday. Wind Waker shows that with sophisticated light and shadow, engine-driven cel-shading can already approximate full-motion animated video of moderate quality.

So far, the story has proved to be pretty involving – that is, ever since I got used to the funny fantasy names and sorted out who was whom. By the way, a note to the translators, because I have spotted this error at least once and it bugged me to no end: who is a subject. Whom is an object. Wrong: “Whom has bases that are belong to us?” Right (sort of): “All your base are belong to whom?” You don’t replace “who” with “whom” just to sound all formal and fancy, because all you end up looking is stupid.

I also wasn’t kidding about the sandwiches.

While on the subject of GameCube RPGs, be sure to check out this IGN article on the import version of Paper Mario 2, which has already been released in Japan. If you are of the traditional text-based persuasion when it comes to adventure games, a word of advice: don’t pick up the phone booth.

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The First Law be damned

Wednesday, 21 July 2004 — 9:44pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

Acknowledgements in literary adaptations on film are getting funnier all the time. I thought I had seen it all when the credits rolled in Troy and it proclaimed itself “Inspired by Homer’s Iliad.” Then I, Robot comes along, and get this: it’s “Suggested by Isaac Asimov.” This is not to say it is wholly uninspired, as the movie has its fair share of qualities, but the adaptation is certainly as loose as it, er, suggests.

A little bit of background: Asimov’s I, Robot is not a single cohesive novel, but rather a collection of nine short stories that take place in the same universe governed by the same laws and sometimes feature the same recurring characters. Together, these stories span the author’s envisioned history of robotics from infancy to near-human natural sophistication. On the other hand, the Alex Proyas film I, Robot can be traced back to a story by screenwriter Jeff Vintar that never came to be, entitled Hardwired. It was later in the stages leading up to the production of the film that the story was integrated into Asimov’s world with all of the conventions that come with it – Alfred Lanning (here played by James Cromwell), Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), the Nestor models, and of course, the Three Laws of Robotics. Curiously, instead of maintaining the name of the IBM-esque industrial behemoth U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, it was changed to “U.S. Robotics”. The real-life U.S. Robotics, which ruled the age of 14.4kbps modems, was a good sport about this and took it with pride – which is more than you can say for the Cyrix lawsuit when Eraser had Arnold Schwarzenegger take on the evil Cyrex Corporation.

If I may say so myself, I am normally lenient when it comes to liberal adaptations from book to film, as long as the film is philosophically consistent as a self-contained entity. For example, the “Scouring of the Shire” chapter in The Lord of the Rings is critical to what J.R.R. Tolkien is trying to say and the cyclical hero’s journey for which he was aiming, but its omission from the final third of the Peter Jackson epic is excusable, since the movie adheres to the guidelines it carved for itself regarding what ideas it wanted to emphasize. The intentions of the source material’s creator are important, but secondary to self-contained consistency. So I don’t mind so much that Proyas’ film plays with the possibility of robots inevitably breaking free of the constraints with which they were created and turning on humanity, when one of the reasons Asimov wrote robot stories at all was to counteract the then-ubiquitous Frankenstein’s Monster stereotype of technology conquering technologist. I don’t even take issue with characters successfully solving problems with gratuitous explosions and gunfire instead of cool-headed logic because it’s not Asimov; I just take issue with them because they are gratuitous.

But if you are going out of your way to quote the Three Laws onscreen at the beginning of your movie, I expect you to follow them. You cannot quote Asimov willy-nilly and lay him down as the source of the behavioural rules that govern robots, only to let those robots violate the rules.

This is where I, Robot runs into a bit of trouble. The movie opens with the apparent suicide of Dr. Lanning, which our hero Spooner (Will Smith) begins to investigate. He rejects the suicide theory and instantly convinces himself that a robot in Lanning’s office of murder, because the extent of his character throughout the entire movie is, “I hate robots.” The robot escapes, and Spooner follows in hot pursuit – only to discover it hidden in the midst of a thousand other robots of the same model. One of the nine stories in Asimov’s anthology, “Little Lost Robot”, presents the same scenario: out of a thousand and one robots, one is a rogue unit not bound by the Three Laws; how might one ferret it out? As with Asimov’s logic puzzles in all of the I, Robot stories, the solution is to subject the robots to a controlled equilibrium where the conflicting Laws each exert a certain gravitation, then identify the one with the anomalous response.

In the movie, Susan Calvin cites the process she used in “Little Lost Robot”, explaining that it was a three-week solution. Spooner, who finds his investigation to be just a tad more deadline-sensitive, pulls out his gun and starts shooting robots – because after all, he hates robots. Somewhere in the mix, a robot peeks to see what is going on, and he identifies it as the culprit. Imagine if they made a movie about Oedipus where he draws a dagger and kills the Sphinx without answering the riddle. Not quite the same, is it? At best, I think they were going for a Gordian Knot of a lateral solution here; and in that case, why frame everything in the Three Laws to begin with? On the surface, I, Robot is an engaging piece, but the Asimov connections never come off as anything more than a superficial bid to capitalize on an established brand identity – and one that was not thought through sufficiently.

I, Robot is essentially a murder mystery that unfolds into something far more sinister, as good murder mysteries should. In literary theory, an entry in the mystery genre is described not as one story, but two: the surface story, which takes the audience through a voyage of deduction and discovery; and the hidden story, which is the sequence of events comprising an underlying truth waiting to be revealed. Here, the hidden story is by far the stronger of the two. The trickling trail of evidence that guides Spooner along a thread from Lanning’s death to the bigger picture is intriguing once revealed in full. The promotional materials like to make this flick look like an action movie, but it most excels as an antecedent action movie. A lot of care went into the construction of a twisting, turning thinker-thriller underneath what the audience sees.

The surface story is worse off, because in several cases it lacks the logical deduction required to draw a line between one major turning point and the next, and instead feels like checking off a to-do list of clues and explanations. Most of the time it consists of Spooner making a wild robot-hating assumption, which either turns out to be either a) right or b) wrong. Not much of a detective, if you ask me. Mysteries are like higher-level mathematics exams: the elegance of the solution lies not in its correctness, but in the process through which a correct solution is found. My advice to I, Robot: for full marks, show your work.

In the current reigning champion of sci-fi whodunits, Minority Report, John Anderton has an unswerving faith in the Precrime system, but knows something is fishy because when he is himself a suspect, he knows the system could not possibly be correct. In I, Robot, Spooner knows something is fishy about the Lanning case because he hates robots. Well, that’s not entirely fair – in that scene, there is a revealing clue that rules out an unassisted suicide – but next thing you know, he’s pointing fingers at USR boss Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) because his company makes robots, and we all know about Spooner’s attitude towards the dratted things. One of the two is a better movie.

Will Smith is a problem. Spooner is not really a character so much as he is a two-hour walk-on part for Will Smith, only he hates robots. The cheeky Fresh Prince attitude issues really have no place in this movie and serve only as a distraction, and almost everything he says is written to pander to those who might show up at the cinema “to see Will Smith,” an entrenchment of an already bad trend in suiting a film to an actor rather than fitting the actor to the film. As it turns out, Akiva Goldsman, one of the true volatile enigmas of screenwriting whose CV ranges from Batman and Robin to A Beautiful Mind, was hired to do exactly that to the script; the results come out negative. Why pay an A-list actor millions if you are not going to challenge him and make him work? Oh, right – marketing.

One thing for which I, Robot cannot be faulted, though, is its visual look and feel. Alex Proyas knows how to stage an atmospheric genre flick, and the art department deserves a hand for creating a near-future Chicago that, while nothing revolutionary in the face of Spielberg’s recent pseudo-contemporary future aesthetic in both A.I. and Minority Report, at least does us the service of stomping on the bland vision of Asimov’s world we saw in the wholly mediocre Bicentennial Man. The world of I, Robot is full of life and movement, and is filmed with a matching breathless dynamism. Vast images like that of a drained Lake Michigan converted into a robot scrapyard linger in the audience’s memory long after the credits have rolled.

The movie is most faithful to Isaac Asimov in a way you would not expect. Like the author’s works, it stars a cast of uninteresting humans who are closer to being story props than characters, and upstages their humanity with a truly interesting personality in the form of the robot on which the story is focused. In this case it is Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), who is the most flavourful personage among our players. I applaud the nuance of expression in the way he is animated and the artificial, yet inquisitive demeanour he displays when speaking his lines, often some of the better dialogue in the script.

I, Robot tries earnestly and hard to be a thinkpiece above the common crop of summer blockbusters, but give it the intellectual respect it so desires, and its cracks begin to show. It is nonetheless fairly painless to sit through, and mostly entertaining; Will Smith aside, the annoyances come upon reflection. It may have been a far more fruitful endeavour on the part of the producers to stick with Vintar’s Hardwired and never explicitly bring Asimov into it at all, but as with technological progress for good or ill, what’s done is done.

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A mishmash of mentionables

Tuesday, 20 July 2004 — 10:32pm | Debate

The most recent hiatus in writing for this site, something that is fast becoming a monthly occurrence, can be attributed to a number of real-world impediments. One of them was the fact that Calgary was in the midst of Stampede season, which had less of an impact on my schedule than usual, considering I attended neither a pancake breakfast nor the “Interpretations of Western Heritage” speak-off. The latter is an invitational speech competition that entered its third year this Stampede, to which the Stampede’s speech and debate wing – in part spearheaded by my tenth-grade science teacher, Cathy Kalynchuk – invites medalists from the Calgary and Southern Alberta high school circuits to deliver a prepared oratory on Western Canadian history and culture for a thousand-dollar prize. The first year the competition was held, there was also a category for readings of prose, mostly featuring selections by the likes of W.O. Mitchell; for some reason, that arm of the competition has since been abolished.

According to certain attendees like this guy and that guy, one of the finalists this year was Nick Krause, a William Aberhart alumnus who showed up at Pacific Cup back in March and is set to debate for UBC in the fall. No word on who won, however. There were also reports of what at least a few people seem to try every year, which is suck up to the Stampede judges by talking about how wonderful it is to celebrate the Wild West identity at a festival that embraces the glorious heritage of Alberta, Land of the Free and Home of the Beef – only to discover that the judging panels are usually composed of unaffiliated local celebrities. In the year I competed, the first time the event was held, I spoke in front of the likes of a few Members of Parliament and A-Channel weatherman Darr Maqbool.

That’s a funny story by itself, getting paid a grand to ramble twice about the pivotal cultural significance of cow-tipping only to discover the hard way that the massive cardboard rodeo cheque they issued me could, in fact, not be cashed. The signed Stampede poster and gaudy silver belt buckle, awarded to all of the finalists, were a bonus. Interesting notes for debate trivia buffs: also competing that year were Brent Kettles, who showed up for Hugill and McGoun last year on behalf of the University of Calgary; Dana Hayward, who won High School Provincials last March with Amy Robichaud (who, in turn, advanced to Stampede finals this year); and Georgina Beaty, a U of A student who showed up at Grant Davy’s ’02, only to disappear from the debate scene due to Drama commitments.

But back on the subject of the extent of my compliance with my civic duty to attend the Stampede: I did see the second-last night of the Rangeland Derby, where the disastrous two-minute late outrider penalty awarded to my longtime favourite Buddy Bensmiller knocked him out of contention. As it turns out, the following night, penalties again played a decisive role, as an eleventh Rangeland title evaded King Kelly and the big prize went to Hugh Sinclair. The Grandstand Show was much as it has been in the past, but on a brand-new TransAlta stage and with a giant Calgary Flames flag thrown into the mix. Sometime during my absence from the city, Jebb Fink went from breakfast show host to stand-up comedian.

Word on the street is that at tonight’s Students’ Council meeting, Kyle posed a question concerning where the Executive was sitting with respect to The Independent‘s cry for help. The jist of it is that they will wait for the paper to show a little relevance (and, well, independence) before dirtying their own hands and budgets, which is an acceptable response.

Can someone please explain why the Alberta Debate and Speech Association – which, I should point out, is the provincial high school circuit – lists university-circuit results taken verbatim from the UADS results page? Not that I mind the extra search engine hit.

In sadder news, fearless leader and sometime rapper Randal Horobik of Dickinson State University has announced that speech and debate has ceased to exist at DSU. Without school funding, it is quite impossible for their contingent to continue fulfilling its role as CUSID West’s honourary Canadians from North Dakota. It is a shocking loss to the debating community in this region, especially considering some of the good times the Western Canadian schools have shared with these fine folks.

Interestingly, in Round 1 of the University of Saskatchewan’s Diefenbaker Cup tournament back in January 2003, Bryce Pinto and I faced DSU’s Stuart Savelkoul and Riley Parker in a debate about institutional financial support for speech and debate activities. With one team from a debate society that lacked school funding, and another from a club that had no choice but to rely on it exclusively (with tragic consequences), it got a little messy.

They took the round.

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The Mystic Kettle of Nackledirk

Tuesday, 20 July 2004 — 9:33am | Harry Potter, Literature

I’m about a week or two late on reporting this one, but for the Harry Potter conspiracy theorists out there: I was right about Mark Evans, so there. According to J.K. Rowling’s latest FAQ update:

Mark Evans is… nobody. He’s nobody in the sense that Mr. Prentice, Madam Marsh and Gordon-Dudley’s-gang-member are nobodies, just background people who need names, but who have no role other than the walk-on parts assigned to them.

The fact is that once you drew my attention to it, I realised that Mark Evans did indeed look like one of those ‘here he is, just a casual passer-by, nothing to worry about, bet you barely noticed him’ characters who would suddenly become, half way through book seven, ‘Ha ha! Yes, Mark Evans is back, suckers, and he’s the key to everything! He’s the Half Blood Prince, he’s Harry’s Great-Aunt, he’s the Heir of Gryffindor, he lives up the Pillar of Storgé and he owns the Mystic Kettle of Nackledirk!’ (Possible title of book seven there, must make a note of it).

Then why – WHY – (I hear you cry) – did I give him the surname “Evans”? Well, believe me, you can’t regret it more than I do right now. “Evans” is a common name; I didn’t give it much thought; I wasn’t even trying to set up another red herring. I could just as easily have called him ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’ (or ‘Black’ or ‘Thomas’ or ‘Brown’, all of which would have got me into trouble too).

I don’t know about you, but I would lay down a hundred Galleons for a Harry Potter walk-on part by Smith or Jones.

A refresher on recent happenings: Tales of Symphonia has indeed been released, though it is sold out at every video game retailer in the city. That’s okay, since I am on the verge of finishing another RPG, the delightful Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. It features the return of the seven Koopa Kids from Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, among other appreciated touches that make it feel like the great SNES game that was never made. It does not have quite the depth or length of the classic Squaresoft titles, but is no slouch when it comes to charm.

Someone, somewhere heard me and released De-Lovely in Alberta; it plays at the Sunridge Spectrum in Calgary and North Edmonton in, well, Edmonton, neither of which are in the most convenient locales. I caught I, Robot on Friday and may write about it at some point, though I make no promises; it is proving more difficult to subject to relentless mockery than I had originally expected, because chunks of it are really quite good.

No indication yet as to whether or not I will have broadband on hand in New Orleans, but if I do, Scrabble coverage will follow accordingly, potentially even on a game-by-game basis.

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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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