Monday, July 4, 2011

Compound Geekery Film Fest! "Spider-Man 2"

2004 saw the sequel to the summer blockbuster Spider-Man.

Let's just jump right into this one, shall we?

The Plot: Two years have passed since the events of the first movie. Peter Parker has a small, run down apartment in the city and struggles to balance his life with work, going to college and, of course, being Spider-Man.

In addition to this his relationships with his friends are also strained -- Harry Osbourne is still obsessed with the idea that Spider-Man killed his father and he accuses Peter of protecting Spider-man because the wall-crawler helps him earn his pay with the photographs he takes; and Mary Jane Watson has grown tired of waiting for Peter and is dating another guy. And if that were not bad enough, Peter's beloved Aunt May is also in financial straights and is also still mourning the loss of Peter's beloved Uncle Ben -- a death that Peter still blames himself over.

In the midst of all of this, Peter meets and befriends famed scientist Otto Octavius -- who is about to unveil a new fusion device to create abundant, cheap, and clean energy. Tragedy strikes, though, and Octavius's machine goes out of control. In the ensuing destruction Octavius's beloved wife is killed and the four computerized arms Octavius used to work the machine are now fused to his back.

Unbalanced, and with the machines whispering in his head, Octavius decides to turn to crime to get money to rebuild his experiment and try again. This brings him into conflict with Spider-Man.

As Peter's life spirals out-of-control, though, he finds his powers as Spider-Man waning. Disgusted with forever being the loser in life Peter finally gives up being Spider-Man "forever". Bad timing for Peter since Octavius has made an unholy bargain with Osbourne to capture Spider-Man for Osbourne's revenge.

With the city and Mary Jane in danger can Peter rediscover the hero within himself?

My Take: At one point in time I considered this movie the best of the Spider-Man franchise... and to a certain extent it still is but, after the passage of time a number of cracks begin to show in the film.

One of the biggest problems with this movie is that it completely fails to understand that character of Peter Parker. In the comics Peter was the perpetual "lovable loser" whose actions as Spider-Man always seemed to throw a monkey wrench into his life. This is balanced, however, by Peter's quick wit and sarcastic attitude as Spider-Man. In the films Peter comes off less as the "lovable loser" and more as an emo dork mostly by dint of the removal of Spider-Man's snappy banter. In the comics Spider-Man tends to keep up a running line of comments and insults designed to drive his enemies crazy while maintaining his own sanity. In the movie Spidey is nearly silent during all the fight scenes and when he does speak it isn't with a quick one-liner or a clever insult. On top of this pretty much ALL the humor in the movie comes AT Peter's expense. We don't laugh at the situations he finds himself in nor do we laugh WITH him... no, we laugh AT him because Peter Parker is a big ol' dork. It really doesn't endear the character to us.

There are also a lot of plot holes which tend to get noticed on repeat viewings. For example, Octavius's arms are an amazing invention in and of themselves and could revolutionize a number of dangerous jobs. He could make a mint off of marketing them but nope, they get ignored in favor of the big, dangerous, fusion reactor. Also, the artificially intelligent arms seem to convince Octavius to continue his experiments and, honestly, what do artificially intelligent arms WANT with a fusion reactor anyway? Why encourage this? Come to think of it -- what WOULD artificially intelligent arms want out of life anyway?

And then there's Mary Jane. *Sigh*. The character pretty much exists as an object in this film. She is the object of Peter's desires and later she becomes the bait in Octavius's trap for Spider-Man. She drifts along through most of the film, letting others define her and waiting on approval or approbation from those others. Despite Peter's constant waffling on their relationship and despite her repeated telling him that she's tired of not being able to depend on him she keeps going BACK to Peter and keeps giving him more chances despite saying that she won't. It is only at the end that she seems at all proactive in matters... but before that she has to play the screaming damsel in distress -- putting the final capper on her trifecta of female character tropes.

The film is also filled with rather heavy-handed, schmaltzy, moments, at least one deliberately cheesy musical montage which, all things considered, doesn't really doesn't belong in this film, and a complete lack of emotional subtlety in several scenes. Oh, and the script also beats the "Spider-Man No More" motif into the ground like a tent peg.

When it comes to some aspects of the movie, though, I admit I'm torn. On the one hand, the character of Otto Octavius -- a pretty much out-and-out villain in the comic books -- becomes much more sympathetic in the film. It is interesting to actually get to know him as a person rather than a cardboard cutout of a villain but on the other hand making him a kind of victim of his own mental unbalance caused by the robotic arms also kind of dilutes his villainy. I also love that the script writer worked in some nicely subtle themes of hubris with Doc Ock. In Greek drama and literary tradition hubris was an overweening pride which caused one to eventually try to set oneself up on the level of the gods. At which point the gods would smite said mortal for getting above their station. It's a common theme -- myths like that of Arachne and Niobe display this -- and that's what we get here with Octavius. His pride in his work and his absolute self-assurance cause him to ignore the fears and cautions of others and in the end it costs him dearly. Of course it also doesn't hurt that Alfred Molina turns in a really nice performance here at Octavius.

And that leads me to the performances... Really, Molina is the best of the bunch. Up to that point actors playing villains in comic book movies tended to take things over the top, ham it up, chew the scenery, etc. Molina resists that temptation. Oh, make no mistake, he takes it up TO the top here but he wisely doesn't step over the line. It makes for a really refreshing villain.

Toby Maguire, having come to prominence in the award winning Cider House Rules stepped into the Spider-Man role and certainly brought vulnerability and a dorky kind of charm but... it wears thin. Particularly here where he spends most of the movie alternating between two facial expressions -- a goofy grin and soulful, blue, whipped-puppy-dog eyes. The latter one gets overused waaaayyyy too much and becomes annoying rather than affecting.

Kristen Bell... well, we've already gotten into the problems with her character of Mary Jane and her performance plays up to the role but never exceeds to try to elevate the character above the script.

James Franco as Harry Osbourne is... well, kind of uneven. Franco here can't decide if he wants Harry to be quasi-slimy businessman or young man haunted by the death of his father and driven by revenge to the point of it eating up every good think in his life. In years since this film Franco has turned in some much better performances so I tend to blame a combination of the script and him being an actor who needed a little more seasoning for his problems here.

Spider-Man 2 being a movie about a guy who swings around New York on webs also stands or falls on the special effects. The good news is that seven years later a lot of the CGI still holds up pretty well. The bad news is that some of it doesn't. There are several sequences which now look like video game footage... and not in a good way. Also, there is a scene in which a powerless Peter rushes into a burning building to rescue a little girl. The green screen work with the fire is really, painfully obvious and the filmmakers might have been better off going with more practical effects and using a stuntman for the whole scene instead of part of it.

Overall.... eh, it's an entertaining enough film and it's still the best of the three under the helm of Sam Raimi as director. The franchise is due to be rebooted with a new movie already in production. We'll see if a second go-round gets more right or more wrong with the characters.

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