A critic will face a classic
A critic will face a classic
Here I am back in the web for round two with the Spider-Man franchise. Last time, I revisited the original, which, despite being occasionally flawed, held up as a superhero movie that balanced wild action with strong character development. Certain aspects that I did not pick up on when I was younger, such as the journey of discovery, quick and efficient storytelling, and the stylish direction, helped to make this viewing feel fresh and new. Now, I must tackle a more challenging beast…it’s first sequel. This is not because the movie is so good (which it is) that it would be hard to find some flaws with it (there are), but because this was my favorite superhero movie before The Dark Knight…and I couldn’t really explain why for a long time. It was just that: my favorite. Thankfully, this recent viewing has allowed me to reevaluate the “why” behind my old opinion and find what it was that captivated me. It turned out that it wasn’t too hard to find.
Plot Synopsis: Two years have passed since Peter Parker first took the responsibility of becoming New York’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He is now in college, has a job, and lives on his own. But things are not so easy as they would seem. His duties as Spider-Man have caused him to miss classes and slip in his grades, his employment is on the fringes of being no more, and he can’t find much time to see his friends. Most of all is Mary Jane Watson, now a rising stage actress who is frustrated by the fact that Peter continually misses her shows. His best friend Harry Osborn has also grown weary of him over the years because of his connection to Spider-Man, who Harry believes killed his father. But when Harry gives Peter the chance to meet the scientist Otto Octavius, Peter is greatly enthused. Being something of a science whiz himself, he is fascinated by Octavius’ new project based on fusion that promises to create a new energy source. Using four mechanical arms to contain the energy, he will essentially have a miniature “sun” that can be nurtured and controlled for a greater good. But during the presentation, an energy beam escapes causing havoc that kills Octavius’ wife and permanently grafts the mind controlling arms to his body. Now, as the newly named Doc Ock goes on a rampage in order to achieve his goals and recreate the experiment, Peter must choose whether to remain as Spider-Man or attempt to remedy the strains in his everyday life.
Before I delve into the specifics of the “why”, I’ll talk about the performances, which aren’t that hard to explain. Maguire is just as exceptional playing Peter Parker/Spider-Man as he was before. Aside from contrasting Peter’s confidence in the suit to his awkwardness out of it, which I mentioned in my previous review, his new adventure brings forth the frustration of juggling the two lives at the same time, which I’ll go into detail later on. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane plays a more active role in the plot for this go around. She wants to be with Peter, but his erratic tendencies put a damper on their relationship and Dunst brings forth the frustration and sadness that MJ is experiencing. Likewise, Franco too has a larger role this time out as Harry. His father’s death has left Harry an emotional wreck, driven by his quest to kill Spider-Man. Franco plays anger fine, but it’s his faux confidence and ego that makes Harry a more compelling character. Replacing Willem Dafoe as the colorful baddie here is Alfred Molina. But unlike Dafoe, Molina isn’t saddled with an unfortunate Doc Ock costume like the Green Goblin was. His tentacles, using a combination of practical models and CGI, seamlessly blend into the action and you can’t tell the difference between when they are fake and real. Like Norman Osborn though, Octavius didn’t choose to be a villain, and he is doomed to be at the mercy of the tentacles and the guilt over his wife’s death. We may be rooting for Spider-Man, but Molina allows us to feel sympathy for the man because of his true nature.
Also back is director Sam Raimi, who has learned a few things since he last brought the web-crawler to life. For one thing, the special effects have gotten a needed boost in quality. While not exactly top-of-the-line, the effects don’t have the lightweight feel that plagued those in the original. Raimi’s trademark camerawork, although slightly toned down, still has that zany, whirlwind feel that greatly enhances Spider-Man’s already speedy acrobatics. The train battle represents the pinnacle of that, with swiftly nimble choreography complimented by Raimi’s graceful tracking shots that follow every jump, punch, dodge, and swing in all their glory. He also isn’t afraid to allow the movie’s lightly comedic tone to take over from the action. One particularly memorable montage uses the song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” to great effect, another moment in an elevator is sublime, and every scene with J. Jonah Jameson is a howler. And while there are long bouts of them, the gags never threaten to take center stage over the plot and spectacle.
Spider-Man 2’s real strength though, rests not in the great action or successful humor, but in the way that the characters interact in the world and with themselves, especially Peter. In a truly rare instance of storytelling excellence, we actually get a clear examination of what it is like for a superhero to try and adapt his newfound powers to his everyday life. For Peter Parker, the attempts are not very successful. His good-hearted instincts tell him to protect the city at every opportunity, but to the detriment of his friendship with MJ and his college grades. The responsibility is too great for him to handle, which then causes him give up on being Spider-Man and focus solely on being Peter. And while everything seems to be going fine for a while, he soon realizes that since that fateful spider bit him, his life was forever changed and he cannot go back to the old days forever. Another lingering trouble is Peter’s strained relationship with Harry, which gets greater attention this time around. Peter’s “friendship” with Spider-Man makes Harry frustrated, angered, and callous, showing that even Spider-Man’s most heroic acts have repercussions on his life. Despite having almost no screen time, the shadow of Norman Osborn resides throughout the film.
Are there any flaws to be had in this exemplar comic book tale? Well, in order to focus so much on Peter’s plight as he becomes conflicted with his responsibilities in life and the power as Spider-Man, Doc Ock loses some screen presence around the middle act. It’s nowhere near as bad as the villain screen time in the next entry, but there could have been maybe a couple more scenes of him just to balance things out. Still, Spider-Man 2 represents an example of how to get a movie like this right. The action is death defying, but not overblown or overabundant. The characters are strong and have weight and depth to them. And the story looks for new routes in order to expand and deepen the themes and characters present. One would assume the next one would be even better…