Monday, July 2, 2012

In An Octupus' Clutches


SPIDER-MAN 2

From my experiences with the fans, Spider-Man 2 is a remarkably divisive film.   Some think it is equal to if not better than Spider-Man.  Some think it's an unmitigated disaster.   I took an informal poll of all my Spidey fans, and I found that while they are of basically uniform decision with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3, it is Spider-Man 2 that is the demarcation line.  One said it was the best of the series, while another called it one of if not the worst of all Marvel films (let alone Spider-Man film).  My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) detested Spider-Man 2, and we were in sharp disagreement over it when we first saw it.  I don't know of any other comic-book based film that so splits fans. 

As for myself, when I first saw it I thought it was good but not in the same league as Spider-Man.  Seeing it again, I don't think it's a disaster but I see one too many flaws, flaws that sadly would be expanded in the next film.  However, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Picking up from Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is having a hard time balancing life as a crimefighter with that of a college student and his love for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).  He's been trying to have that balance but he cannot do it.  Fighting crime has caused him to lose several jobs and miss Mary Jane's performance in The Importance of Being Earnest.  Even worse, he is occassionally losing his powers: he can't keep it up (his ability to release...spider-webs), his poor eyesight comes and goes, and even his crawling abilities fail him. 

Pete does have one bright spot.  Thanks to his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), who still blames Spider-Man for his father's death, has been bankrolling one of Peter's heroes: Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina).  The kindly doctor has taken a shining to Peter, as has Mrs. Octavius, Rosalie (Donna Murphy).  Dr. Octavius has come up with a way to work fusion, which will provide limitless energy (and limitless profits for Oscorp).  As is always the case, things go horribly wrong: the experiment goes out of control, the mechanical arms Octavius has created to help him are now fused to his body, and his beloved Rosalie is pretty much gutted in the ensuing chaos.

Now Spidey has a new villain: one Doctor Octopus, or Doc Ock. 

Spider-Man/Peter Parker, however, now wants a normal life: one where he has a steady job, can concentrate on his studies, help his widowed Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), and more importantly, be with Mary Jane.  Too bad she got herself engaged to John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), astronaut, American hero, and more importantly, son of Parker's editor boss J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons).  With all these pressures, Peter hangs up the Spidey outfit.

Alas, New York needs him now more than ever.  Doc Ock and Harry make a bargain: Harry will give the bad doctor all the tritium he can get his hands on in return for Doctor Octopus getting his hands on Spider-Man.  Spider-Man is captured, but Harry makes the shocking discovery and just cannot bring himself to kill his best friend.  Still, we have more important matters to take care of: Doc Ock's experiments again go wildly wrong, but this time on a more massive scale.  It's up to Spider-Man to stop him.

As I reflect on Spider-Man 2, I get a strange sense of having to praise this film, on having to call it The Godfather Part II of superhero movies (in Aragonesque, that means the second film being better than the original).   I might have called it that the first time I saw it in the theaters.  I certainly remember having a powerful and overwhelming emotional reaction to having Harry remove Spider-Man's mask.  HOWEVER...

...when I watched it again, I felt rather cold about it, as if something in my warm memory about Spider-Man 2 was no longer there.  I kept thinking that Spider-Man 2, rather than being The Godfather Part II of comic book films, was starting instead to be the Superman II of comic book films (something which I enjoyed, found good things within, but was slowly sinking into kitsch and heading towards a disaster of unimaginable proportions. 

I think it starts with Alvin Sargent's screenplay (from a story by Michael Chabon, Miles Millar, and Alfred Gough).  I should mention that even though one person got credit for the screenplay, there were a total of four people working on the story, and this is a violation of one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: There Should Be A Maximum of Three Screenwriters.  With so many hands, things start losing focus.  There were a few scenes in Spider-Man 2 that could have easily been cut without affecting the overall flow and which add nothing to the story.

Case in point is when Spidey starts losing his powers.  As a result of not being able to swing his way across town, he is forced to take the elevator.  Who happens to be waiting for the elevator but Hal Sparks!  Hal WHO? you might ask.  Well, Mr. Sparks is best known for being in the cast of the American version of Queer As Folk (which was running at the time of Spider-Man 2) and who has been in more video games than in films since then.  Back then, it might have played funny to see Spidey be so, shall we say, domestic, discussing how uncomfortable his costume was.

Now, it comes off as slowing the film down and thinking the whole thing cut, no, should be removed.  In a second viewing, it isn't funny (then again, I think the same about Sparks himself, but I digress). 

Another problem with Spider-Man 2 is that there is a deliberate effort to quote from Spider-Man, which might have been Raimi et. al.'s effort for balance but that now, on a second viewing, just is groan-inducing.  In Spider-Man, the Green Goblin fights Spidey inside a burning building where our webslinger has rescued a child.  Spider-Man 2...you guessed it, has ANOTHER child rescued from a burning building.  Granted, there was no epic battle between the villain and the hero, but that was about the only difference. 

Certain scenes are even all but ripped off from our first story.  As in Spider-Man, we have yet another reluctant villain in our Doc Ock.  I confess I don't know enough of the Spider-Man mythos to say whether Doctor Octopus was really evil or just misunderstood, but we are now facing off against someone who really doesn't want to be bad.

At this point I notice that I keep going back to Spider-Man when discussing Spider-Man 2, something that I am loath to do.  I am a firm believer that a sequel should stand up on its own apart from what came before or after, but Spider-Man 2 is apparently goading me to make the comparisons.   Yet I digress.

From what I see Spider-Man 2 doesn't so much build on Spider-Man so much as it crips from it, then takes those pieces and throws in more bits that don't have a follow-through.  For example, Mary Jane's relationship with John doesn't have any real build-up (I think the first time we see them together is at their engagement, which is also the first time we ever see John), and then he pops in one or two more times and then, is no more. 

As I've mentioned the comedy in Spider-Man 2 with Hal Sparks' cameo on second glance isn't funny, and neither is the entire first five to ten minutes where poor Pete has to deliver pizzas.  I can appreciate why it was thought to have some moments of levity (and oddly, the almost obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo works, though it did make me wonder if he was the same guy...odds are the snooty usher was not the grandiose M.C. from Spider-Man), yet I think a sharper focus on the story would have benefitted the film tremendously.

In another curious trail for Spider-Man 2, the entire twarted romance between Mary Jane and Peter didn't quite come together (no pun intended).  From what I gather, M.J.'s biggest complaint (and the fact that she won't bother with Petey now as opposed to when she declared her love in the first one) is because he has never seen her perform in The Importance of Being Earnest.  Why, even Aunt May has come to the show, she pouts.  I love Oscar Wilde as much as the next guy (and yes, I know that sounds odd, but go with me on this), but I imagine the show had been running for some time.  She could have left a ticket at the box office for him, and I'm pretty sure he could have caught a matinee.  Therefore, I fail to see why his inability to make her show would be a deal breaker.

Yes, I know it goes to the underlying theme of "Peter can't be trusted" in her mind, but somehow it all seems rather convoluted to pass muster.

I'd argue that Spider-Man 2 in retrospect is a little convoluted.  In its sprawling running time we shift from Pete vs. Doc Ock to Pete wooing Mary Jane that our villain disappears for what seems hours on end.  There is a long stretch from the time we see Doctor Octopus abducting Aunt May (and it HAD to be Aunt May, didn't it) to when we see him again, going to Harry for their unholy bargain.  What was he doing all that time?  Was he keeping up with his plans to rob banks so as to bankroll (no pun intended) his lab experiments?  It isn't as if a guy with six arms (four of them mechanical) wasn't going to stand out in a crowd.

Other story threads didn't quite work second time round.  His performance anxiety issues (the things that were affecting his superpowers) came and went as the story required them to, and once he focused on saving Mary Jane, he was the old Spidey again.  I don't know if I buy that now.

The constant unmasking of Spider-Man was beginning to wear on my nerves.  He was unmasked when he had to stop a train from going over.  He was unmasked by Harry.  He even removed his mask as to appeal to Doctor Octavius' good side (and thus reveal himself to Mary Jane, who was being held hostage by Doc Ock).  The cynic in me thinks this was done to accomodate Maguire's need to show it really was him in the Spidey suit, not some stuntman or animated figure (and to show off how built up he was).  My problem with this is that it almost looked like Spider-Man didn't want a secret identity. 

I digress to say that the biggest thing that irritated Fidel was the idea of Doctor Octopus turning good at the end.  He was livid at seeing how Doc Ock sacrificed himself to save New York.  Truth be told, that didn't bother me all that much then, but now it does seem a rather easy way for the villain to be defeated: he defeats himself.  Thus, Spider-Man doesn't really have to do anything, he doesn't have to confront this evil (who really isn't all that evil), he just has to appeal to the better angels of his nature. 

Finally, I was displeased to see Peter Parker in a musical montage.  Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head was playing when he first felt the freedom of NOT being Spider-Man.  Why it bothers me now and didn't bother me then I can't explain, except to say that there is almost a sillyness attached to using this rather cute song as a way to show how much fun he's having not saving lives.  There's almost a perverse sense of glee that I now find odd rather than delightful.

Now, there are good things in Spider-Man 2.  It is always nice to see Joel McHale pre-The Soup (and pre-all those crappy movies he feels he has to be in), and there are good performances (in particular a scene between Maguire and Harris is especially touching, more due to her than to him but he manages to hold his own).  Molina also had some good moments (although I don't think now that the script allowed him to make Doc Ock as evil as he could have been, more the "I really don't want to but I have to be bad" style of villain). 

However, besides a story that seemed to be spinning in two different directions and rarely if ever met, other factors in Spider-Man 2 worked against it now.  The constant unmasking of Spidey, the bits of comedy that aren't as funny the second time round, Danny Elfman's music which now just seemed to be trying too hard to cue the emotions rather than support whatever emotions I did end up feeling.

As I stated, Spider-Man 2 is thought of highly by critics, but I find that the fans I know are split.  I heard the following, "Awesome," "I thought it was the best of the Spider-Man movies," "Great action and fun but not my favorite portrayal of Peter Parker," and "One of, if not the worst Marvel movie to date". 

And this is the SAME MOVIE we're talking about. 

As for myself, on initial viewing I loved it.  On the second viewing I started feeling, "when will this end?".  I lost some of my enthusiasm for Spider-Man 2 watching it again that I didn't with Spider-Man.  In the latter, I loved it the first time, I loved it the second time.  In Spider-Man 2, I loved it the first time, I didn't love it the second.  I didn't hate it by any means, but I didn't think it was as good as the first, let alone better.  Allowing Doc Ock to be so good (especially at the end) was an easy way out for both the characters and the audience.  We don't have to be asked to side against Doc Ock because he isn't all that bad, and Spidey doesn't have to actually fight him, just wait for him to listen to reason.

I struggled long and hard about what to rank it.  When I first saw it, it was in the B range.  Watching it again, I knew we were headed to a C, but would it be a passable C+ or a weak C-.  After giving it much more thought, I knew it was not as good as Spider-Man, and it just had one too many negatives to trump the positives.  This web is a little too thin to hold together.            

DECISION: C+

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