Thursday, July 08, 2004

Review: Spider-Man 2

Movie reviews are a funny thing. Reviewers are required to do a few things:

1) not give away too much of the story so, no matter how bad, people will still not feel they've been robbed of any surprises which the movie might hold
2) provide very little context for the review unless pointing out references to other movies (this doesn't relate to documentaries as often)

I plan to do neither.

The reviews so far on Spider-Man 2 movie have been very good, with some exceptions.

I was Spider-Man for Halloween when I was 5. I don't remember knowing much about him aside from that he'd occasionally show up on The Electric Company, and that I'd seen the cartoon show from the 60's with the catchy theme song. I also had a Spider-Man belt that I used to try to hook over the door to climb up the wall. It never worked.

Then Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends took off, and I remember watching that very closely.

When I got into comics, I read Spider-Man comics for a while back in the 80's, but I was always more of an X-Men and Batman guy. I liked Spider-Man well enough, but if it came down to scrounging up money for three comics at the Piggly Wiggly, I was getting X-Men, Detective Comics and Batman. My main exposure to Spider-Man came from the newspaper strip, and a huge collection of the strips I had bought at a discount bookstore in Florida while on vacation. I will say I was there for the Todd MacFarlane kick-off of the short-lived Spider-Man series, and I have the super-sized annual where Petey and MJ tie the knot (Sorry to blow any surprises, but this happened in 1985, kids. If you don't know this by now, it's your own fault. You snooze, you lose.). And I remember losing my mind waiting for each issue of the classic Spidey tale, Kraven's Last Hunt , to hit the stands.

Then, in high school, I sunk into my "Vertigo only" phase, and Spider-Man was off my list.

But you can't read comics and not know a bit about Spider-Man. I watched the whole Clone Saga thing go down from afar. Some folks love it (ahem, you know who you are...). Others point to it as almost bankrupting Marvel Comics. I've not read it, and know it only by it's less than sterling reputation.

And then when I was getting out of college, Marvel decided to shake the dust off the Clone Saga era and revitalize the Spider-Man books. I started picking the comics up, and lo... They were good. And while I liked Amazing and Spectacular, they didn't inspire the same mania with which Justice League and Superman were filling my mind.

In a fit of curiosity, I started picking up the "Essential Spider-Man" books. All in black and white, printed on cheap newsprint, but costing only $15 and collecting 20+ issues at a time. I love these books. Pure Stan Lee, Ditko, Romita. Classic Spider-Man, pure Spider-man before writers and editors with no good ideas started adding clones, etc... And right about then, I was aware they were making a movie. But big deal... Have you ever seen the 1991 Captain America adaptation? Ay carumba.

But I LOVED that first Spider-Man movie. Loved it. Someone had finally brought the elements of a comic to the screen in a faithful and respectable fashion. Sure, Batman had been good back in '88, but that wasn't the same Batman I read in Detective and Batman comics. This was some weird guy with a weird car who dressed in a rubber batsuit. He was not a master of martial arts and the World's Greatest Detective. And while I love Superman... Let's face it, the movie gets pretty silly for stretches once they hit Metropolis.

But short of Empire Strikes Back, and maybe Godfather 2 (the Wrath of Corleone), have I really gotten much out of a sequel. So I was expecting something out of Spider-Man 2, but not the same visceral thrill I got out of the first film.

And I was wrong.

Spider-Man and Doc Ock freak me out

I loved Spider-Man 2. I honestly believe it's the best super-hero movie to date. The movie is not unflawed, and will no doubt receive the usual scorn and derision of those who know better... But it's going to be one of the movies I buy immediately on DVD (hopefully in some sort of deluxe packaging, the way I managed to pick up Spider-Man 1).

I'm at a bit of a loss to speak about the movie without gushing. Suffice it to say, I felt that the film doubled the efforts of the first movie to capture the essence of the Spider-Man comics, and delivered the feel of the comics while ditching some of the dead weight which 40 years of straight Spider-Man stories have accumulated.

You have to understand a few things. For some of us, we have more invested in Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson's relationship than the relationships of our friends. Seeing Petey and MJ on the big screen fulfilling in two hours what it took the comics more than a decade to accomplish is no small feat. And if they do it this well in the film, I can ignore the fact that Gwen Stacy simply doesn't exist in the movies. For those of you who don't know who Gwen Stacy is... Well, something bad happens to her. Something that makes comic fans not like the combination of bridges, damsels in distress and the Green Goblin.

I always liked Doc Ock in the comics, but I loved Alfred Molina's interpretation even better. The comic's Doc Ock is a raving megalomaniac. In 1963, all you needed in order to be a super-villain was to be a bit funny looking and believe yourself to be an unsurpassed genius, and sooner or later, you were tussling with Spidey. Since then, they've developed Doc Ock. But the script Molina was given, and what he managed to do with it wiped away any misgivings I had on the issue. This villain made sense to me.

Ultimate Spider-Man scribe Brian Michael Bendis has stated that his entire MO for approaching comics, but especially Spider-Man is: make the situation bad. Then make it worse. Then make the situation unwinnable. Then find a way for our hero to triumph.

And that's what this movie gives us for Peter Parker. He's got to deal with his guilt over Uncle Ben's death and admitting his failure to Aunt May. He's got to accept that his two lives will never intersect. He's got to deal with a lot of issues that are basically character issues, that, super-hero or no, are interesting to watch. And all while dealing with the core of what would have been a fine movie unto itself, he's got to deal with the insane menace of a mechanical armed mad scientist (who has his own bag of problems).

Tobey Maguire remembers where he wrote the answers to his exam

These are problems I can watch on screen for two hours. And Tobey Maguire is actor enough to handle it all. I can believe in his Peter Parker and not feel embarrassed for the poor actor having to trudge through the role.

The effects in this movie easily surpass those of the first movie. The choreography of the fight scenes is insane. In a post-Matrix world, I was amazed to see fight scenes where people were able to perform superhuman feats, and still look as if they were hitting each other in something resembling an actual fight and not The Ice Capades.

What tweaked me? The movie does do two things which, for some reason, a lot of comic book movies do. But it did them better than most.

1) The villain discovers the hero's identity at some point. In the comics, Doc Ock and Spidey only really know each other in their super-human identities. But they made this work fairly well in this movie, and not only from a narrative standpoint did this work, but from a logical standpoint, it fit. It's just been done before (see the odd ending of Batman Returns sometime...).

As far as Peter's other unmaskings, these will surely irritate some Marvel Zombies and fanboys, but from a narrative standpoint, these were seamlessly interwoven, and advanced not just the plot but the character.

2) The hero loses his mojo. Superman II saw this. Hell, even Judge Dredd did this routine. It worked in Superman II, and it works here. In fact, it works amazingly well here. Superman II posed a hypothetical question which really made no sense. You must quit being Superman to have sex with Lois Lane. Will you do it?

What? Why? Lara (Superman's mum) never says. She just insists Superman must lose his mojo, and he goes along with it. I suppose you could infer the "well, Lois is a target" thing, but that isn't really what Lara seems to be hinting at. What my 20+ year old mind makes out of the idea is fairly grisly, and I'd rather not get into it here.

Spider-Man 2 sees the loss of mojo as something of an outward manifestation of internal problems. It grants Peter what he wants, but highlights what he's leaving behind. And I think it works pretty well.

The show-stopper for me of Spider-Man 2?

Aunt May.

Rosemary Harris lights up the screen as Aunt May

Rosemary Harris gives us an Aunt May we all should want. Twice in the movie, Rosemary Harris absolutely broke my heart. And maybe it's all these years of reading Spider-Man, but I hope you guys liked those scenes as much as I did.

The first scene was after Peter's birthday party (and I'll let you guys see this one yourselves if you haven't).

The second scene included the monologue Aunt May delivers to Peter as he seems past his cross-roads, and appears content with returning to a normal life. The monologue sums up everything those of us in the superhero-reading community have always loved about the idea of a superhero, and why we pick up these damn comic books each and every month.

Harris's commitment to the monologue, the writer's execution and Raimi's direction leap out as what can happen if you treat the subject material properly, and understand why Spider-Man and superheroes need to exist, even if just as fictional characters.

And that's it. A rave review from The League.

There's probably more to write about from a critical standpoint, but this wasn't meant to be a critique, it's a review, and there's a difference. I haven't mentioned some key performances, or interesting visual imagery, or a lot of other things worth talking about. Maybe later. I think this review is long enough.

Kirsten Dunst is hot

My final, gushing note is that I loved MJ's last scene with Peter. "Go get 'em, tiger."


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