Thursday 8 April 2010

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Director: Sam Raimi
Stars: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Alfred Molina

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

No less a critic than Roger Ebert called it 'the best superhero movie since the modern genre was launched with Superman,' and that's a pretty important recommendation to live up to, even though I'm so not a fan of Superman. I'm not a particular fan of Spider-Man either, come to think of it, but I enjoyed Sam Raimi's first big screen attempt at his story enough to come back for the sequel. In fact, I'm not really a comic book geek at all, though I've read a lot of graphic novels, as I much prefer the old pulp stories and I'm hoping that the current fad in superhero movies sourced from comics will eventually die out so that we can go back to the old pulp heroes again. There have been a few lately but not enough to spark a true resurgence in Hollywood and thus spur the pulp filmmakers following behind them to make the real pulp hero films. I can still dream.

The States is full of comic book geeks though, however many of them came to the characters through children's television instead of print, so they flocked to see Spider-Man 2 in 2004, a big year for sequels as it lost out at the box office only to Shrek 2 in the US and to that and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban worldwide. Box office receipts rarely reflect the quality of a movie though (just look at Avatar for proof of that), the success of this film merely enhancing the inevitability of a third, which turned out to be notably weaker than the first two. The real challenge here was to deliver what the first Spider-Man movie raised as a genuine possibility, that someone might just make a superhero movie that transcended its genre and became simply a great classic film. Whether Raimi succeeded or not is up for discussion, as many would have it that nobody succeeded until The Dark Knight, but I think it's safe to say he made the best attempt thus far.

Just as the first Spider-Man was a battle between the hero and the Green Goblin, this first sequel was a battle between the hero and Doc Ock, another iconic villain, this one without a flying disc and Willem Dafoe's grin but with a host of sentient mechanical arms infused into his body. This all works fine for the little kids who don't need to worry about depth, but the main reason that the Spider-Man films succeed so well is that they go beyond that too. Sam Raimi made the first picture about Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, and he built in a surprising depth to that reasonably basic origin story. Here he explored how Parker came to terms with who he's become, fighting himself as much as Doc Ock to discover both the positive and negative sides of his newly acquired talents and how those translate into his everyday life. In other words he had to really learn about the much quoted concept that 'with great power comes great responsibility.' Just bitching about it is reserved for the X-Men.

Unlike most of his competitors, Tobey Maguire is a superb mix of a clumsy and vulnerable young man and a powerfully confident, and dare I say it, believable superhero. 'Awkward' is the best word to describe him most of the time and it's entirely heartening to see someone as incredible as Spider-Man screw up on so many small levels. He can't deliver pizza within the guaranteed 29 minutes and his superhero costume discolours his whites in the washing machine. That his costume rides up in the crotch a little really ties him into the human factor that most superhero films don't even attempt, always to their discredit. Unlike Christopher Reeve as Superman or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine or whoever else you want to mention, Tobey Maguire gives us that believability as both Spider-Man and his nerdy alter-ego Peter Parker and it isn't an outrageous leap for them to be the same person.

Playing his sort of girlfriend is Kirsten Dunst, who really is the ultimate girl next door. It's amazing to discover that she wasn't even the first choice for the role of Mary Jane, Alicia Witt being the original choice. I honestly can't think of another actress who could appear so beautiful yet somehow remain so believable as a real person. Most star actresses, just like most supermodels, look plastic to me and the inevitable process of adolescent fantasy is like having a crush on Barbie. Kirsten Dunst looks real, and she's about the only Hollywood actress who could inspire happily married men to look her up in IMDb to see if she has a boyfriend without even thinking about what they're doing. Here she's the cause of most of Peter Parker's despair because he doesn't want to put her at risk by letting her become his girlfriend and of course that's misinterpreted throughout.

While he waits and agonises over waiting, she finds herself on billboards, at major events and on a Broadway stage because she's become a successful stage actress, appearing in The Importance of Being Earnest in front of Parker's perennially empty seat. Parker instead progresses only as far up as the surely unsustainable job of taking action photos of Spider-Man and selling them to The Daily Bugle. When the pair find themselves on the screen at the same time, the scenes between them are full of tension of every description. The one in particular when Peter Parker tells Mary Jane that he doesn't love her contains the most stunning example of disappointment I think I've ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood film. That a scene of this emotional depth could be found in a superhero movie is perhaps the most unbelievable thing about the film as a whole.

Spider-Man succeeded for a number of reasons, not least because of the director Sam Raimi who happily returned for the sequel. Now I've been a huge fan of Sam Raimi from the early days, from The Evil Dead films to the Hercules and Xena television shows all the way to the first Spider-Man. I found his work in the mid eighties, around the time of Evil Dead II, Maniac Cop and especially his little known live action cartoon, Crimewave. By the time he guested in Scott Spiegel's Intruder, I was avidly watching everything he did and his death scene as an actor in that film proved that even when he's not in charge of the shoot he can still make an impression. These films all share a Three Stooges approach to eighties horror and the maturation of that sense of humour is a major reason why the first two Spider-Man films were so successful, well, that and the Bruce Campbell cameos. Those are always my favourite parts.

That humour is also made evident very quickly in Spider-Man 2 and it pervades the film. There aren't many directors who could have handled the sequence here with Spidey in the elevator but Raimi is a long way up my list of those who could and luckily he did. It scenes like this that really ground the effects. Unlike the third film in the series, Raimi happily dazzles us with CGI, which used up over a quarter of the huge $200m budget, while never letting the plot become subservient. That's refreshing nowadays, especially as Raimi himself lost the plot with the next film. I remember a much younger Sam Raimi talking to Jonathan Ross about money and effects. When you have no budget and you need to lift something you're forced to innovate, to come up with something that works, he said. When you have a lot of budget and you have to do the same thing, you just ask how much an anti-gravity disc would set you back.

In this film he's still on the right side of that boundary, while for the third film he crossed over and then some. Here the CGI is right up there on the screen where we can see it and at least when I watched Spider-Man 2 on the IMAX screen during initial release and a couple of years later on DVD at home, it looked great. To identify just one favourite effect, I've never seen anyone throw cars the way Raimi's animators can and they get that opportunity when Raimi gives the villain of the piece the chance to strut his stuff. He's Doc Ock or Dr Octopus, formerly Dr Otto Octavius, Peter's idol, who's brought in to work for his friend Harry Osborn, son of the Green Goblin and now head of Oscorp's research division. Octavius has designed a set of mechanical arms with dedicated AI, but of course things go horribly wrong and one sustained fusion experiment later his wife is dead, his inhibitor chip destroyed and the sentient arms fused to his body.

At the hospital the tentacles take over, their artificial intelligence corrupting his mind and turning him into an egotistical comic book villain who just happens to look frickin' awesome. Having him played by Alfred Molina helps no end, because he becomes a highly sympathetic villain, someone caught up in something he can't control and someone far more believable and deep than the Green Goblin in the first film. He's a scientist, thankfully neither a mad nor a greedy one, who merely suffers an accident and has to fight those self-aware elongated waldoes from dominating his thinking. Rather than be restricted by the standard polarised cartoon mentality, Raimi preserves the good versus evil angle that superhero stories must have but also shows us the negative in his heroes and the positive in his villains. He even grants the everyday people that populate the background with human characteristics. In short he makes them all real.

Once they're real, he can put them through the paces and he proves that he didn't use up all the cool angles in the book when he made Crimewave: in particular, the long swinging shots that take Spidey through what seems to be the entire city without cuts are almost the definition of spectacular. At times the wire-based camera system unimaginatively dubbed the Spydercam dropped 50 stories at a time. No wonder those shots take up so much of the trailers and no wonder the Spydercam has been used for so many films since outside the Spider-Man franchise. Raimi also shows that he still understands that more isn't always better though, again unlike the third film. I remember a comment I read about Zhang Yimou's Hero that pointed out that any old fool could make a thousand strong army look cool, but it takes a master to make a drop of water emotionally touching. Raimi does it here with a single piece of glass. Twice.

In doing so, he again attempts to take this sort of material above its traditional boundaries and treat it as a film rather than a superhero film, and it really does all come back to Raimi. Sure, Maguire and Dunst are both excellent and live up to the increased challenges of the roles. Molina is excellent as possibly the most sympathetic villain I've yet seen in a superhero movie, though of course I'll always have a soft spot for Michelle Pfeiffer in her black PVC Catwoman suit. After Bruce Campbell's traditional cameo, here as a sanctimonious usher who won't admit Peter Parker to Mary Jane's play, my favourite character in the Spider-Man films is always Parker's boss at The Daily Bugle, J K Simmons as J Jonah Jameson. He's the epitome of every Clark Gable newspaperman role there ever was and that moustache really isn't there accidentally. We can also always watch out for Sam Raimi's younger brother Ted and Stan Lee's now traditional cameo, but at the end it comes back to what Raimi wanted to do with the film.

He realises, as both a fan and a filmmaker, that the old superhero movies just plain sucked and the people who made them only understood the concept at a basic television level. Batman the Dark Knight is so much more than Adam West's Caped Crusader, even before Christopher Nolan, and Spider-Man is equally so much more than the sixties TV series and the cartoons. Unfortunately that's exactly what Hollywood has continued to churn out for years and years, while all the most fun heroes appeared on Hong Kong screens. Tim Burton's Batman was decent and it's sequel better but as the series went on it became nothing less than embarrassing. The X-Men films were cool but by necessity unfocused and they quickly deteriorated. Daredevil was fun but horrendously clich├ęd. Superman was always an unbelievable joke. I haven't even bothered with most of the rest because they just don't appeal to me at all.

By this point, only Sam Raimi had really put in the depth needed to make something more than a superhero film. There's sympathy here, not just for Doc Ock but for Aunt May whose house is threatened with foreclosure, for Harry Osborn who discovers the truth about his father, even for Peter and Mary Jane themselves as they struggle through their relationship. Parker even retires his Spidey suit here, at least for a while, because he becomes tormented enough that his Spidey powers start to fail him and he decides to call it quits. So did Raimi succeed in transcending his genre? I don't know. I think he got very close, at least, close enough that the CGI and the superpowers don't really matter. Perhaps this really is the first superhero movie to be a film, pure and simple, with real people doing real things, whether they have masks or four arms or flying discs or anything else. Perhaps it didn't do quite enough. But regardless, it was the best superhero film thus far, so Roger Ebert's right, as usual.

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