Monday, July 5, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Spider-Man 2 - A Review

I started writing these words at 2:42 AM, CST on June the 30th. I’ve just arrived home from a midnight showing of Spider-Man 2. I need to be at work before 9 AM tomorrow and part of me thinks it wise to go to bed now, be refreshed for work and worry about writing down my thoughts on this movie later. The other part of me can’t sleep. And it thinks that I should get these thoughts down while they are fresh on my mind, and while I am too excited by the amazing, spectacular and astonishing sights that have filled my eyes for the past two hours to contemplate sleep or indeed, anything else but writing.

So please forgive me, Gentle Reader, if my description of the movie should miss certain details that you wish to see discussed. I have seen this film but once so far and plan to see it many, many more times so that I can see everything that I missed the first time. Maybe then I’ll write more. But for now, here are my thoughts, such as they are, upon my first viewing of Spider-Man 2.

I enjoyed this film as both a comic geek and a film geek. Sam Raimi’s direction has never been better and the script was everything you could hope for, offering a fine balance of action, drama, romance and comedy. Raimi’s love of the characters is obvious and every frame of this film screams of his desire to take his favorite comic book as a kid and translate it to the silver screen.

A dedicated fan of the original Stan Lee books could have a field day picking apart the various references hidden in this film. Among the ones I can remember spotting with little trouble are…

1. Harry’s alcoholism in the wake of his father’s death (although he was something of a drinker and druggie beforehand in the comics)

2. Numerous references to Amazing Spider-Man #50 (aka “Spider-Man, No More!), up to and including the infamous scene in the alley with the trashcan and J. Jonah Jameson being given the Spider-Man costume later.

3. Peter trapped under a collapsing wall, struggling to move it to save a loved one resembles Amazing Spider-Man #31.

4. Peter loosing his powers temporarily in the wake of some illness or crisis of faith refers to numerous stories, including one of his earliest battles with Doctor Octopus. (Amazing Spider-Man #12)

Raimi also sneaks in some literary allusions amidst all the comic references, using “The Importance of Being Earnest” as a counterpoint to Peter’s situation with Mary Jane. To quote the play, and the lines of MJ’s character, I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.”

The first Spider-Man movie housed a number of cinematic references to the first film adaptation of DC Comics’s greatest hero; Superman. Spider-Man 2 continues that trend and is full of echoes to another famous superhero sequel: Superman 2.

1. Both sequels opened with a credits sequence that showed the events of the first movie. This time, rather than seeing selected scenes from the movie played to the music of John Williams, we get to see painter Alex Ross’ renditions of selected scenes from the first movie to the music of Danny Elfman.

2. Both movies also centered around the plot of a hero giving up his identity and loosing his powers in the wake of trying to win the love of his life and having to reclaim his identity in the wake of a new super-powered threat to the world.

3. Both movies feature the hero having a conversation with a dead parent in arguing with themselves over whether or not they should quite their life as a hero.

The performances are top-notch, all-around. Tobey Maguire continues to be the perfect Peter Parker and is now a Spider-Man worthy of the name. I heard some complaints about the first movie and how clumsy Maguire seemed when doing the scenes as Spider-Man. This was, I believed, an intentional choice, showing him slowly easing into the role of a hero. It is also worth noting that Peter didn’t crack wise much in his first year as Spider-Man in the original books, you know? But crack wise he does here. And he does well, proving a worthy Parker and Spider-Man.

I doubt anything I can stay about Kirsten Dunst will change the minds of those hell-bent on deriding her casting as Mary Jane. In my opinion, she did the part total justice in the first film and does so again here, making MJ out for the spitfire she is in the comics. This was limited to one scene in the original movie, where she fought off the mob trying to pin her before being overpowered. This was still proof of her fiery spirit. It is less subtle this time around, with MJ making it clear that she is not going to sit around and wait for Peter to figure out what he wants. She also, in true Spider-Man fashion, struggles, insults the bad guy and tries actually fighting back when she is taken hostage.

The rest of the supporting cast succeeds in maintaining the high level of quality. James Franco brilliantly portrays Harry Osborn’s descent into an alcohol-fueled downward spiral. Rosemary Harris is given a chance to give much more depth to Aunt May than in the first film and conveys the kindly wisdom of Peter’s foster mother perfectly. And J.K. Simmons plays the boss we all love to hate, once again offering the biggest laughs in the whole movie as Jolly J. Jonah Jameson.

This brings us to my favorite bad guy, and doubtlessly the character that has everyone the most worried: Doctor Octopus. Without giving too much away, I will say that any worries I had going in about too much being changed and the arms looking cheesy were groundless.

Yes, the origin of Octavius here does play fast and loose with the original Stan Lee one. Yes, he is a married man and his “evil” is caused by the independent AI controlling the arms and not a brain injury or any predisposition towards being an evil guy. Various elements from the Ultimate Universe version of Octavius seem to have been used here and I can already hear the Spider-Man purists… the same ones who held the idea of organic webbing as proof of the absence of a just and loving god-like being watching over us… whining about how Sam Raimi just doesn’t get it.

Bullocks! Doc Ock is here in all his glory and the origin isn’t important. The character is there and once more, his purpose as a dark mirror to Peter is made all the stronger in this incarnation (See last week’s Looking To The Stars for the full Dark Mirror theory). Whereas Peter gives up what he wants in order to save the woman he loves, Octavius is so blinded by his goals that he does not even notice his wife is in danger because of him until it is too late. Alfred Molina does the part perfectly and things are left open enough that Doc Ock returning is unlikely, but not impossible. (C’mon Sinister Six Movie!)

Speaking of Doc Ock, I should mention that the arms look amazing. The special effects are greatly improved since the first film; no surprise considering the leaps and bounds that have been made in computer animation even in just two years. Whereas the last time the CGI was obvious at times, it flows much more smoothly here so that while there are still scenes that are obviously computer-made, it is only because of the sheer physics involved that you know this. There are just as many which could have been done as stunts but it is hard to say one way or the other.

Overall, this is not only one of the rare sequels that is better the original. This is quite easily the greatest comic book adaptation ever, in any medium, and the new standard for any comic book movie after to follow. 10 Out Of 10, Five Stars Out Of Five.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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