Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: "Spider-Man 2"

You know, for as dated as this movie is, it did manage to beat Captain America: The Winter Soldier to a world-building Doctor Strange reference by nearly a decade. Pretty ahead of its time, if you think about it. And yet, it’s a product of its time in many other ways.

Certainly, we expect more “realistic” interpretations of these characters instead of more comic-accurate ones. But is that a good thing or a bad thing? Or neither? Or both?

Well, first and foremost, it’s Superman II.

Established character allies with new villain, hero loses powers for their loved one (intentionally for Superman, but a result of keeping emotions bottled up for Peter), hero gets powers back, love interest discovers the hero’s identity. Apparently, this was kind of intentional.

Remember how I said that the first film was pure, unadulterated Spider-Man? The same goes for this one.  But where the first film was a distillation of the essence of Spider-Man, the second film is a distillation of pretty much every early Doctor Octopus plot with a sprinkling of the "Spider-Man No More!" story arc on top.

Doc Ock's origin has him get in a radiation accident that fuses his tentacles to his body, which was adapted into this film and combined with many Dr. Octopus plots. While the Green Goblin was all about screwing with Spider-Man on purpose, Dr. Octopus was all about stealing cash and components for his evil science devices... which would indirectly screw with Spider-Man and affect his personal life. And this film perfectly encapsulates Peter's ongoing struggles to balance his heroics and personal life into his college years.

But the Silver Age feel comes with a price; we’re expected to believe that Doc Ock is a nuclear physicist who managed to cobble up some cybernetic arms that integrate perfectly with the human body… and he glosses over this breakthrough. I mean, can you imagine if Doc Ock had a friend who was missing an arm and could use a replacement?

Oh wait.
Time has not been kind to Spider-Man 2, which might sound odd given the praise I gave to Superman, which is a few decades older than this film. But the goal of Superman was verisimilitude; to give every aspect of the film the illusion of being real. The world of Superman looks like it conceivably be in the real world. The world of Spider-Man 2, on the other hand, took a different tactic. Instead of taking the world of Spider-Man and making it seem like it could exist in the real world, it's basically a live-action reenactment of the comics.

This is a double-edged sword. While this technique puts many things the fans want to see on the big screen, it also puts a lot of silliness up there, too. Meaning that your enjoyment of this movie hinges on your ability to accept a little silliness.


Like the first film, this delves into the classic Spider-Man theme of responsibility. But this film takes the time to examine what exactly that means, and what has to be sacrificed in order to live up to the great responsibility that comes with great power. But what’s also examined is the choice that Spider-Man has to make between responsibility to those he cares about and his responsibility to the rest of the city. The classic dilemma of spending time with Mary Jane or fighting the villain.

Everything in this movie comes down to love.

Peter's love for Mary Jane, Mary Jane trying to figure out her own feelings, May's love for Ben, Harry's quest to earn his father's love, et cetera, et cetera.  The focus on love is both a good and bad thing. When love informs a character's actions, they become interesting. When a character dwells on love... the plot kind of stops. And that's a bad thing. Nothing kills a movie faster than a love story that goes nowhere for 90% of the movie, festering like a half-dead goat in the hot sun.

Peter and Mary Jane waffling for over an hour on whether or not they love each other is not interesting. The only obstacles they have to overcome are the ones they make for themselves in their indecision, not because of any character flaws they have to overcome. I mean, what's more interesting? A one-handed man climbing a mountain? Or a two-handed man choosing a climbing rope? Watching Tony Stark and Pepper Potts try to work through their issues and personal flaws is the former. Watching Peter Parker and Mary Jane go back and forth on their feelings until the movie decides that the matter is resolved is the latter.

But like I said, the movie is good when love informs that characters' actions. Because they're actually acting on that love.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire)

I hate to say it, but Tobey's performance as the doofy, geeky Peter Parker has not aged well.  I mean, what kind of human being behaves like he did at the planetarium? Mary Jane was obviously mad at Peter, so he thinks random poetry will solve his problem? Does he not understand the concept of decorum at all?

Peter has quite a few major drama scenes in this movie... which Tobey decides to whip out his blankest expression and most monotone voice for. Like I said earlier in the Recap, Tobey's a passable actor, but he doesn't have the ability to elevate the material like many other actors can. And the material in question is a bit too serious for my liking; the main problem with the Sam Raimi series is the lack of proper Spider-Man humor in his dialogue.

Still, Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker is acceptable as a whole, since he does convey the social awkwardness adequately. It's the other parts of the character that are the problem.

Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)
Okay, maybe I was a bit harsh on Peter there. To make it up to him, I'll be using him in a little demonstration.

"Glad to be here.'
Okay. Peter. Tell me about Mary Jane.

"That's it? That's your whole 'demonstration'?"

"Well, she's the most beautiful girl I've ever seen."
No, don't tell me how you feel about her; tell me about her.

"Well, she's an aspiring actress."
Okay. How would you describe her personality?

"Um... she's nice...?"

"She... gets mad? When I do things that make her mad?"
Uh huh. You see what I'm trying to get at here?

"Well... why are you picking on me? You've never asked this of anyone else before."
You want to play that game? Fine. Tony! Superman! Describe four aspects of your respective girlfriends.

"Professional, highly-capable, loyal, snarky."
"Feisty, determined, intelligent, brave."
"Don't forget 'illiterate' and 'chain-smoking.'"
Hey! None of that!

My point is that the film version of Mary Jane pretty much only exists to be pined over and kidnapped.

"...Just like the comics?"
Wrong. The comic version of Mary Jane had deep emotional troubles that she masked with a happy-go-lucky exterior. And the main conflict came from the fact that being Spider-Man kept Peter away from her; she was rarely kidnapped.

I know I'm basically repeating by opinion about her from when I reviewed the first film, but her lack of a personality is really grating when the movie's about her relationship with Peter.

Harry Osborn (James Franco)
James Franco is probably the best out of all the regular actors, since he gets to play a Harry Osborn who attempts to put on an uncaring facade in the face of his vendetta against Spider-Man; and he progressively grows more and more obsessed with him until the revelation of Spider-Man's identity pushes him over the brink altogether.

At the very least, Harry is the character who made people want to see a Spider-Man 3, not Spider-Man himself.

Aunt May (Rosemary Harris)
I do like the fact that not only does Aunt May have a brief falling-out with Peter, but she proves able to take care of herself, even if she can’t provide for herself. She doesn’t need Peter to find her a new apartment when she can’t pay off the mortgage, she just needs a bit of help with the heavy lifting. And being taken hostage by Dr. Octopus gives her a chance to get in on an action scene (apparently, Rosemary Harris enjoyed doing her stunts) while also giving her a reason to do 180 regarding her opinion on Spider-Man, just when Peter needs it most.

J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons)
Funny as ever. Great performance, written well. ‘Nuff said!

John Jameson (Daniel Gillies)
John, on the other hand, is just some eye candy added to build another love triangle. A shame, because the actor has gone on to things that they let him actually act in.

Handsome, though.
Joe “Robbie” Robertson (Bill Nunn)
I really wish they did more with Robbie. I mean, the guy spends much of his time hinting that he knows Peter’s secret… but nothing ever comes of it. Sure, it’s nice to see him and Betty Branty onscreen, but why not actually do something with them?

Rosie Octavius (Donna Murphy)
I have nothing to say about her. Rosie Octavius isn't so much a character in her own right as she is a way to make Otto Octavius a more humanized, tragic figure. The actress is capable of much more, judging by her later performance in films such as Tangled. So wasting her here is kind of a major shame.

This scream is, like, half her role.
"Women in refrigerators," named after the unfortunate fate of Kyle Rayner's girlfriend, is thrown around quite a bit these days, but Rosie Octavius fits the original definition of a woman who meets an unfortunate fate to further the story of a male character. And if they had given her a few more minutes of screen time, say, during Peter's first meeting with Doc Ock, then maybe she could have actually been a character. Then maybe I could have actually made a successful Star Trek or Tangled reference. I'm sure it's possible to do, but the movie certainly wasn't making it easy.

Otto "Dr. Octopus" Octavius (Alfred Molina)
Here's where the magic happens. This is the best version of Otto Octavius ever.


He starts out as a genuinely nice guy who believably becomes a sadistic, obsessive villain through massive trauma, and Alfred Molina nails both pre and post-accident Octavius. Even if his accent slips for most of the movie. He looks perfect, he acts perfect, and he’s written to be probably the most human character in the entire trilogy. Even more than the fan-beloved Sandman from the next movie. Because while the Sandman doesn’t really go through any changes apart from his mutation, Doctor Octopus has a tragic fall and redemption arc that proves to be more interesting than anything Peter Parker does in this movie. Apparently, Molina had a wonderful time working on the film and enjoyed portraying Doc Ock’s twisted sense of humor.

Mr. Ditkovitch (Elya Baskin)
A nice little nod to Steve Ditko, even if he doesn’t do much.

Ursula Ditkovitch (Mageina Tovah)
Peter and Mary Jane barely know each other. But Peter and Ursula have more in common with each other than Peter has with MJ. Not to mention their personalities are more similar. And Ursula really seems to like Peter for Peter, rather than Mary Jane wishing Peter was a more responsible person.

She's pretty cute, too. That helps.
Random Extras
By a longshot, the nameless extra characters are by far the worst actors… no, the worst thing in Spider-Man 2.

Look, I tried the whole acting thing. Acting is a lot like karaoke. If you don’t try to do a good job, you’ll just look awkward and weird. And if you try your hardest, you might fall flat on your face. I have a great respect for people who have actually succeeded in the field of acting…but I still have to critique this movie. And I’m sorry, Spider-Man 2 extras, but… y’all weren’t really that good.

However, I put the blame on Sam Raimi. Sam Raimi’s the guy who gave you all direction, he’s the guy who pushed you all toward the performance he wanted, and in the end, he’s the one who approved the dailies. And what’s more likely, that Spider-Man 2 is filled with inherently bad actors, or that Sam Raimi wanted these weird, awkward performances out of otherwise fairly good actors? The weird, understated scene with the train passengers defending Spider-Man, the lady who yells “Go, Spidey, go!” like she found the last Golden Ticket, the cartoonishly smarmy bank teller… I don’t know what Raimi told these people to get such odd performances out of them.

Danny Elfman came back to do the score, but had a falling out with Sam Raimi during the course of the movie. They wouldn’t reunite on a project until Oz: The Great and Powerful.

The first film had some terrible CGI, there's no getting around that. The digital Spider-Man (especially in his first costume) looks like a video game cutscene. So I'm really glad that they upped their game for the second film.

In terms of innovation, the main accomplishment of the movie is the revamped "Spydercam" setup. Basically, they developed a camera on an elaborate rigging system that would trace Spider-Man's path through the city as he swung on his webs, which made it truly feel as though you were right next to him, seeing the city from his point of view.

The feeling is definitely helped by the fact that this is a freaking wide load of a movie.  I had to crop the majority of my images to make them large enough to make out. The 2.35:1 ratio was chosen in order to fit both Doc Ock, his tentacles, and Spider-Man into the same shot, and even though it means that there are few screens that can fit the movie properly, the nigh-panoramic action scenes are spectacular.

The Sony Spider-Man films will always have one thing going for them visually: The villains.  But before Electro, before Sandman, before those brief glimpses of Venom, there was Doctor Octopus. And before that, there was a Green Elgar with some iffy CGI, but I already discussed that last year.

The thing that makes Doc Ock look so good is that Alfred Molina was there nine times out of ten. They had a whole rig set up that would carry him through scenes, and the tentacles would be CGI'd in later. That is, when they weren't actually using animatronic tentacles. That's right, animatronics.

See, they actually used CGI properly in this film. When they could use practical effects for the tentacles, they did, with a few CGI tweaks to hide any evidence of the puppeteers. And when they couldn't use practical effects, then they CGI'd in the tentacles. And the effects are actually so convincing that it's very difficult to tell the difference between the real and CG tentacles unless you know what to look for.

Hey, speaking of telling the difference between what's real and what's CGI, take a look at this.

Doc Ock's drowned body was CGI. Did you know that? Because I didn't.
And that train fight! Just… beautiful.

Best Character: Dr. Octopus
No question, the best version of a classic Spider-Man villain.

Best Actor: Alfred Molina
The man poured his all into the role and managed to balance the melodrama with the comedy.

Best Line
Dr. Octavius:
"...Has anybody lost a large roll of twenty-dollar bills in a large rubber band? Because we found the rubber band."

Not so much because of the line itself, but because that's the moment that Doc Ock fully cements himself as a rounded, humanized character.

Final Thoughts
In the ever-evolving landscape of the superhero film, Spider-Man 2 is one of the most accurate to the spirit of its source material. From the melodrama to the goofiness, it's like a Stan Lee comic put up on the big screen.

The greatest superhero film of all time? You could make that argument... in 2004.

As I said before going in, Iron Man and The Dark Knight changed what we expect from a superhero movie. Looking back on it, Spider-Man 2 is filled with hokey acting, bad dialogue, and leaps in logic that don't really hold up. But even so, Spider-Man 2 is the greatest Spider-Man movie as-of-yet made. The respect to the source material is clearly there, and a combination of still-great effects and one of my favorite film supervillains make Spider-Man 2 an unmistakable classic in the genre alongside Superman: The Movie, Batman, Iron Man, and The Incredibles.

But... you know what the problem with Spider-Man 2 being the greatest Spider-Man movie is?

The movies after it. The slow descent that led to the union of Spider-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Step One in Spider-Man's journey to the MCU begins next year, when I'll be taking a look at the first series of missteps known as Spider-Man 3. See you then!

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