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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man II

This is a post as part of “Raimi-fest”, the event being organised by the always wonderful Bryce over at Things That Don’t Suck.

Aside from Nolan’s two superb Batman movies, Spider-Man II was the only other comic book superhero movie to make my top fifty films of the last decade. There’s a reason for that. Part of it is the fact that the movie helped define what the second film in a superhero franchise should really look like, but a larger part of it is that this film represents the moment at which Sam Raimi seemed most at home with his beloved central character – and I think that genuine enthusiasm on the part of the director really shines through over the course of the film.

I reckon Spider-Man polls highly among superhero fans...

Watching the movie, it’s incredibly apparent that Raimi simply gets it. I don’t mean in a sort of nerdy way – like “the one true Spider-Man” or any of that fanboy nonsense. I’m not talking about a particularly subtle characterisation or a grasp on complex continuity or any of the things that many people associate with “getting” a niche comic book character. See, Raimi gets Spider-Man before he was niche. I mean, he gets the universe and style presented back when comic books were a relatively mainstream property (in 1962, the average sales figure for a given title was over 250,000 ; only 13 individual comics published this decade sold as many).

He understands the character, and the way that he works – he understands the mainstream appeal of the character, without necessarily pandering to the hardcore nerds. Spider-Man II takes virtually everything that’s great and iconic and relatable about the character, and puts it up there on screen in a completely relatable way. One gets the sense that Raimi loves his old fashioned comic books in a totally earnest and non-ironic or jaded way. There’s a warm sense of humour here as Raimi gives the title character a gentle prodding, but there’s never any sense the director is going to subvert or deconstruct the icon.

Something's not quite white here...

Sometimes Raimi offers his version of the comic book world just a tiny bit too close to that imagined by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in the day. Lee is famous for his corny dialogue, and there’s certainly hints of that to be found here. Alfred Molina, as we’ll come to, knocks it out of the park as Otto Octavius, but he has to wrestle with lines like, “something in my head… something… talking.” Similarly, in lieu of thought balloons, Raimi has his characters wax philosophical to themselves. There’s nothing wrong with the lines per se, but it seems strange to hear Peter Parker ask to an empty room, “Am I not supposed to have what I want – what I need? What am I supposed to do?” It sums up the character’s state of mind, but it does flirt with being a little too cheesy for its own good.

That said, Raimi ramps up the saturation of the colours on the screen to make it seem like a comic book. Spider-Man prances around New York in a bright blue and red suit – Raimi understands that his world is heavily saturated with colour. He doesn’t – as tempting as it might be – turn up the contrast or the darkness. He instead plays up his stunts and CGI in broad daylight. It creates an atmosphere entirely different from any other superhero film I can think of off the top of my head (arguably the approach Bryan Singer should have used for Superman Returns), and it works beautifully.

I wonder how hard they have to train to do that...

There’s a sense that Raimi is aware of the movie’s roots as a product of pulp media, but doesn’t believe that it has to play down those roots in order to be taken seriously. He’s never ashamed that this is a comic book movie. Hell, he even opens the movie with a wonderfully effective recap of the first film featuring comic book art from Alex Ross. I love that sequence because (a.) it spares us pointless flashbacks, recaps and minimises exposition, and (b.) it’s just so wonderfully well done – it smacks of a sense of genuine affection for the character and his roots. Yes, Raimi seems to shout at the top of his lungs, this is a silly fantasy, but it’s my silly fantasy.

Perhaps Raimi’s comfort comes from the fact that it feels like this was his movie. He draws on Spider-Man’s New York as some sort of creepy, almost gothic, landscape – populated with grotesque monsters and strange architecture. There’s a heavy influence of those early Universal horrors at play here, but there’s a sense that Raimi is making that big budget monster movie he always wanted the chance to produce. There are countless close-ups on women screaming which would seem gratuitous if you didn’t recognise the homage to those classic exploitation films. Danny Elfman provides a score that creeps along while remaining distinct from his Batman score. There’s some wonderful set design and model work done to make Octavius’ docklands headout look like an eerie gothic industrial wasteland.

Raimi makes a nice stab at this superhero thing...

There’s a sequence here, the one which introduces us to “Doctor Octopus” in the Operating Room, that is perhaps my favourite scene directed by Raimi ever. That includes his work on The Evil Dead. It just smells of classic, old-school horror. From the use of shadows to the quick cuts, to the soundtrack of carnage underscored by the metronome beat of Otto’s vitals, the scene is a wonderful example of what the director could do – keeping the energetic aesthetic that defined his earlier work, while still producing a state-of-the-art box office blockbuster. I love that scene.

The movie is notable for featuring only one villain. Sequels have pretty much trained us to expect a massive threat escalation between films – with Peter’s origin out of the way, one might be tempted to introduced two or even three villains to give him a real challenge. Raimi refuses to indulge that sort of logic, and the movie’s stronger for it. The movie only has one villain (“guy named Otto Octavius ends up with eight limbs… what are the odds?”), and one only remotely related to Peter’s central arch. Not only does this allow Raimi to develop Otto, but it also gives him more of an opportunity to explore Peter’s life.

Nobody's safe...

After all, we’re here to see a movie called “Spider-Man”, not “Doctor Octopus”, aren’t we? Shouldn’t the hero be at least as fascinating as the villain? And, in Raimi’s hands, Parker is a fascinating protagonist. He has needs and wants that he won’t allow himself to indulge, because of his sense of responsibility (stemming from guilt). It’s clever of Raimi to represent these difficulties through a sort of “superheroic impotence” – something which becomes a little more cheeky when you consider how Alan Moore linked superheroes’ sexuality to their costumes in Watchmen. Who says these movies are for kids?

Raimi is clearly having fun with Peter, though. He gets that Peter isn’t inherently a “dark” character like Batman, despite his uncle’s death. His life is tough to the point of parody, but it’s not the result of some sinister conspiracy – it’s just the way that life works itself out. It’s bad luck – like his constant unsuccessful rush for food at a posh reception, or his plans with MJ being scuttled by a few random thugs and a snooty usher. That’s Peter’s life, right there. It’s not that he’s constantly under attack from his enemies, it’s simply the fact that he never catches a break.

What a web we weave...

In fairness, there’s a wonderful energy that carries the film. I love the sheer glee of Peter Parker hurling himself into the air, trying to get his powers back, while shouting, “I’m back! I’m back!” (with a hilariously cruel punchline as he makes a crash landing). We’re aware throughout the film that many of the fight sequences are CGI (filming them during daylight makes it hard to hide), but the movie is engaging enough that we never really mind. That scene with Otto and Spidey wrestling outside the bank, or the sequence with the train, are among the best superhero action sequences that cinema has ever produced.

I like that the film has time for small moments like the most cringeworthy tribute to Spider-Man from a street violinist, or Spider-Man riding in a lift. Although, I should not that I prefer the original version of the scene (about the costume) rather than the one that the “Spider-Man 2.1” edition inserts (with an ad executive, but I love the idea of a Spider-Man children’s book “like Charlotte’s Web without the pig” and the awkward “slow elevator” moment). I also like the image of J. Jonah Jameson prancing around his office in the discarded Spider-Man outfit making “pwoh!” sounds.

The man beneath the mask...

Some might argue that the scene undermines Jameson’s antagonism towards Spider-Man, but I think it fits this iteration of the character quite well. There have been various reasons presented over the years for why the editor hates Spider-Man, some poetic and some crass – I don’t mind Raimi’s suggestion that Jameson’s attitude toward the hero is something akin to bitterness and personal jealousy. This version of the character sees in the wall-crawling superhero more humanity and heroism that Jonah will ever be capable of, and that has to generate some misplaced aggression.

Also fascinating is how frequently Raimi hints that Spider-Man’s identity is the worst-kept secret ever. “I heard Spider-Man was there,” Robbie rather pointedly remarks at the Bugle, while making sure to look at Peter. Aunt May spends an entire conversation cryptically hinting about it, saying things like “kids like Henry need a hero”, “everybody loves a hero”, “I believe there’s a hero in all of us” or even “sometimes we have to be steady and give up the things we want the most” – all of which only really make sense in the context of the conversation with Peter as Spider-Man. Given how often Peter seems to use his powers without his costume on (or how he doesn’t mind showing off to strangers – like when delivering pizza through the janitor’s closet), it’s a wonder more people don’t know.

Not one for the bargain bin...

However, while Raimi toys with the idea of Peter Parker’s secret identity, he remains ultimately optimistic about it and the nature of people. While in the first film Osborn used Peter’s secret identity to screw with him, here the public give Peter back his mask (“we won’t tell no one,” some kids promise) and everyone seems genuinely supportive. This is in stark contrast to the way that, for example, Brian Bendis would toy with the notion of a not-really-secret identity during his run on Daredevil and Christopher Nolan would play Bruce Wayne’s secret in The Dark Knight. However, I suppose that’s in keeping with Spider-Man’s worldview, as opposed to the darker perspectives of those other characters – the notion that people (especially people who know) are basically decent and will keep the secret.

Raimi has put together a fantastic cast. Tobey Maguire is great as Peter, and turns in easily his best performance of the trilogy. Alfred Molina might seem like a strange choice for Octavius, but he plays the role with gusto. I love Bruce Campbell’s cameos in these films and J.K. Simmons is – as ever – a riot in his scenes. There are also small roles for Donna Murphy and a nice cameo from Willem Dafoe. I know I’m fonder of his Norman Osborn than others, but he is deadly.

The king of the swingers...

Speaking of the Green Goblin, it’s nice how Raimi sets up the final part of the trilogy – even if the follow-up in the sequel is less than superb. It makes the film feel like the middle act of a trilogy. However, Raimi also introduces Bernard. I’ll talk about him a bit more when I tackle the next film – but, for those unaware, Bernard is possibly the most obnoxious butler in the history of cinema. “I’m leaving,” he bluntly tells his employer late at night, before laying some life-advice on him, “Your father only obsessed over his work.” Apparently this happens so often that all Harry can bring himself to respond with is a tired “Goodnight Bernard.”

Seriously, if I had hired help and they gave me lip like that… let’s just say that somebody would be volunteering as a test subject for the targeting system on my death glider. Bernard isn’t even witty or pithy. He’s just plain rude. It doesn’t help that (in this movie and the next) it seems like Harry has to do all his own crap anyway. You know what might have been a better reply than an exhausted and defeated “goodnight Bernard”? How about “I’ll take advice from you on handling the death of my father when you stop withholding vital information about my personal vendetta”? They aren’t exactly Alfred and Batman, are they?

Armed and dangerous...

Still, minor complaints aside about things like Octavius’ somewhat over zealous approach to getting Peter Parker’s attention (he was somewhat screwed if Parker didn’t manage to dodge that car, isn’t he?), it’s a wonderfully entertaining and charming film which bristles with a cheeky and engaging energy. Superhero films don’t come much better than this.

6 Responses

  1. Great article! It reminded me of why I loved the Spider-Man films so much.. And yes, that Octopus-in-ER scene has to be one of the best ever made! It’s truly classic! And it gave more depth to Dr. Octopus’ character, especially in light of the character’s goodness before the transformation.. Where is your write-up for SPIDER-MAN 3?

    Best regards,
    Sean

    • Thanks Sean – my review of the third film will be up on Saturday to close out the event (symmetry!), but check back on Wednesday (I’ll have a Sam Raimi Spider-Man post going up).

  2. Good to see you’ll be participating in Raimifest. I always love getting your two-cents. I couldn’t agree more with your beaming appraisal of this one.

    As I feel the need to include at least one review where I move beyond simply kissing Sam’s backside for a handful of sentences, I’ll be offering a short rant on “Spider 3” before the week is out.

  3. @ Darren: You make an excellent point about Raimi’s refusal to play Spiderman as a niche character gives him much of his strength. And yet he retains so much of the flavor of that comic’s era.

    There are some fun Darkman parallels as well. Right down to John Landis as an asshole doctor.

    @Stud: I look forward to reading it.

  4. I totally agree with you on this film. I actually think it is better than the two Batman films.

    Great minds think alike as I posted my own spiderman 2 post for Raimi fest.

  5. Fantastic piece! I agree completely about the Doc Oc introduction scene – it’s classic Raimi at its finest.

    I love the bank and train action sequences, and how Otto isn’t a completely evil villain.

    One thing about this piece…unless I missed it, you didn’t mention Mary-Jane even once. And that’s not a criticism…personally I think she’s the worst thing about this trilogy, and one of the most useless/superfluous female characters in film history.

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