Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)

As the web still turns

Sam Raimi's latest comic book movie is as the title suggests more of the same only better--more digital effects more web-slinging more angst.

I'd said that the original picture worked largely because it hewed to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's original formula: that of a soap kicked up a notch by a judicious sprinkling of super-powers. I'd said Raimi was the perfect director to do this kind of franchise, mainly because his earlier pictures (the Evil Dead movies, Darkman) were exuberant examples of comic-book filmmaking--Evil Dead 2 a horror comedy from which chaos emerged a kind of hero (less a hand but the chainsaw makes up for the lack); the cheesy and gothic Darkman about a dark knight bent on revenge and the perfect skin formula for his severely burnt face.

It's too bad Raimi relegated the Darkman sequels to lesser directors who trashed it; the original had a disreputability a taste for R-rated violence that gave the bright comic-book colors a lurid charge. This big budgeter is wholesome as malted milk balls and about as sweet though Raimi does manage to give it some crispness, no small thanks to the dialogue (by The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay's Michael Chabon) which veteran Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People) whipped into a serviceable script. The jokes come fast and light and some of the New York touches are hilariously right--when Peter Parker tries to save a runaway train and fails a smartaleck asks: "any more bright ideas?"

(For the record and just to get this off my chest some details seem hilariously wrong too--I mean an elevated subway in Manhattan (and in fact weren't parts of that sequence shot in Chicago?)? A girl walking across the street snags a cab just like that?* But I'm nitpicking)

*(This article was written before Uber of course)

And if Raimi as director is near perfect the franchise is unthinkable without Toby Maguire as Parker (Jake Gyllenhaal--at one point poised to take over--would have fitted albeit in a different key; he didn't though so it's Maguire's to run with make his own). Perhaps the movie's best passages are of New York City bearing down hard and heavy on the poor youth who reacts with his wide-eyed hurt newborn chick look. It isn't as if he's sexless--women respond to him from J. Jonah Jameson's secretary down to the landlord's daughter; they want to pick him up and cuddle him he looks so helpless and bewildered. Maybe the funniest moment in the picture is when Parker is forced to take the elevator to the ground floor, and an admiring yuppie asks were he got his costume. "I made it" our protagonist replies then adds confidentially: "actually it's kinda itchy." Fearsome superhero with soft-spoken voice kvetching to a man in the street: I doubt if you're ever going to get this kind of understated wit in any other big-budget summer blockbuster (other than the latest Harry Potter or Hellboy).

Actually Maguire's presence cues my chief gripe--whenever Parker puts on his mask a little life leaks out of the picture; you need that little-boy-lost look to emotionally anchor all the superpowered shenanigans and big special effects and Raimi still hasn't quite solved this problem. The battle scenes are the best that money can buy I'm sure and a big improvement on the first picture's but there's just not enough well personality to them. Raimi's special effects in the Evil Dead movies were done out of poverty; they had a gritty hand-cranked quality as if made in someone's basement and had a special charm. Raimi tries his best: he makes more use of web-slinging--our hero's unique weapon and mode of transport, a nicely sublimated metaphor for nocturnal emissions (too bad we don't get any masturbation jokes in this sequel unless you count the times when he can't seem to uh do it)--and repeatedly rips up mask and costume as if trying to keep them off. What works best though is keeping the superbattles to a minimum and making the most of the Parker scenes, even ringing variations on the problems he encounters when faced with a crisis without his costume. 

It helps to have a much more impressive opponent in Dr. Otto Octavius (a glowering Alfred Molina)--"Doc Ock" as Jameson nicknames him. Doc doesn't quite achieve the grandeur promised by Molina's glower--for one thing the arms (operating under an artificial intelligence) partly controls the doctor not he them (he's not fully voluntarily evil)--but those same arms are his best assets imagewise, serpentine monsters that snap and clack malevolently as if with a mind of their own (which in fact they do). Also helps that the supporting cast has more to do--J.K. Simmons as the irascible J. Jonah Jameson has more time onscreen (always a good thing); Rosemary Harris as the indestructible Aunt May enjoys a few astringent lines; Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson is delectable as ever. I've a problem with James Franco, overqualified to play Harry Osborn; can't quite believe in his hatred for the webslinger (which is borne of a misunderstanding anyway) and suspect Harry doesn't either--his "down with Spider-Man" mantra has acquired a rote quality. His character does go through a few final twists however; hopefully the young man enjoys a more central--and crucial--role in the next sequel.

Also have a problem with Danny Elfman's music. Thought his scores for Tim Burton's Batman movies were perfect--gloomy and grand but with a bouncy comic-book undercurrent that gives the melody bite--but he's applied the concept to every superhero movie since and I don't think gloomy and grand is appropriate to this one; the corny animated series theme fits better. Batman and Batman Returns--still for my money the best of the comic-book adaptations--were pop opera; Spider-Man is soap. Elfman should know the difference.

 (First appeared in Businessworld 7/2/04)

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