Movie Review: Spider-Man 2

(originally published 2 July 2014)

SPOILER WARNING: I spoil pretty much the entire damn movie. Proceed with caution.

Sequels, as a rule, don’t tend to be as good as the original.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some have stated that The Godfather Part 2 is a better movie than its predecessor. Now, personally I would put them on par at best, but I can certainly see why people praise it so highly. Terminator 2 and The Empire Strikes Back are also considered superior to the original movies and I wholeheartedly agree with that. Overall, however, these are exceptions rather than the rule. There are certain genres, however, where this golden rule is broken. One of them being superhero fiction.

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Okay, not ALL superhero sequels…

This mainly seems to be that the original movie is usually so seeped in ‘originitis’ that the sequel is allowed to expand on the characters outside of their set origins and actually allowed to explore them. Movies like X2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Blade 2, Superman II, The Wolverine and The Dark Knight are considered by many to be superior to their original films. This rule seems to fall flat on its face when we get to third movie territory (the only exception to this I can think of is Iron Man 3), but it really does look like that superhero sequels seem to trump the originals a lot of the time. This definitely applies to Spider-Man 2.

I’m not gonna mince words here. I love Spider-Man 2. It is, without any shadow of a doubt, a huge improvement over the first movie. There is so much to enjoy about this movie; the direction, action, pacing, script, character development, how it builds off so well from the plot of the first movie without ever feeling too grounded to it and it manages to get more serious and introspective while still keeping that sense of fun and adventure.

Parts of that do have to do with a lot of returning elements. One is the cast. While Tobey Maguire never exactly embodies the role like he should, he does handle the arc Peter goes through with grace and sincerity. The scenes after he gives up being Spider-Man starting with the awesomely perfect ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head’ are really well performed and easily some of Maguire’s better and more subtle acting throughout the trilogy. He really does look different when MJ comments on it, it’s really well done. I’ll talk about the rest of the cast later on.

Sam Raimi’s direction is still fantastic. He gives New York such a freeing, dizzying joy as he really hits on that old school comic book aesthetic, but is still not afraid to put his own, darker stance on the franchise. Not only is the tone noticeably darker throughout with a lot more shocking visuals and scenery, the scene where Doctor Octopus wakes up is honestly the stuff of nightmares. No music, harsh cuts, incredibly unnerving and frantic pacing with sound designs that will almost chill you to your spine. It’s a bit of a pity that it does not fit with the tone of the rest of the movie, but damn is it a fine sequence!

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Props to Raimi for getting the ‘Spider-Man No More’ aesthetic down so perfectly.

Part of this improvement of visual scope is the vastly superior visual effects. One of Spider-Man’s major problems was its effects. They have either not aged well or they were slightly unfinished (the fly is still really fake looking!). I don’t know if it’s the higher budget (60 million, even in Hollywood terms, is a BIG raise!) or the fact that technology really improved in the 2 years, but everything feels so flowing and natural. Spidey’s web-swinging feels a lot more realistic and the visuals in the fight scene and the solar ball from the fusion machine look amazing. Not every effect holds up (the movie is over 10 years old now), but it’s still a great looking movie.

As does the writing. I’ve mentioned in my Spider-Man review that David Koepp, while knowing how to make an entertaining romp of a film, didn’t seem to be as adept at writing dialogue or pacing very well. Alvin Sargent was brought on board for this sequel, and will continue to script the series until Amazing Spider-Man 2. This was easily his strongest script and it pulls together so well. Its pacing is perfect; there’s always something going on and there’s always something being developed onscreen.  The dialogue has wildly improved. It’s witty, it flows and it feels a lot more natural and human. The way Harry and May talk to Peter makes them seem like genuine people instead of roles they have to play, and J. Jonah Jameson’s dialogue is freaking sparkling in this film (seriously, the majority of his dialogue will be the focus of the random observations section!).

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And thus, internet history was made…

Since I brought them up, both Harry and May have my favourite arcs of the movie. They’re not largely focused on and they are mostly used to flesh out Peter’s story, but they each have wonderfully structured stories behind them that build off the previous movie perfectly and get great pay-off. May Parker feels the full blunt of losing her husband and the financial strain that puts on her life. Her reaction after Peter tells her about his involvement with his death is heart-breaking and Rosemary Harris owns every scene she is in. Every sad tear and melancholy look is played with such pathos. Her speech is one of the best in any superhero movie, bar none.

Harry Osborn? Easily the best he is throughout any of the movies. James Franco owns every scene he’s in and really turns Harry into a fully, 3-dimensional character. He’s a man who’s crippled by an emotionally neglectful father and a huge inferiority complex. He struggles in vain to make a company to match his father’s, even go ahead of it, only to see it all crash down. His confrontations with Peter are venomous and well played and, when he find out that Peter is Spider-Man, it’s one of the best cut shots in the entire movie. Everything dies down and he’s utterly stunned by what he finds behind the mask. There is also, of course, his final scene. The movie takes him from tortured best friend to damaged anti-villain to full-fledged villain, all fueled by the ghost of his father (Willem Dafoe is easily more menacing here than he was in any of the previous movie). It’s one of the best parts of the movie, and it makes what happens to his character in the next movie so dispiriting in hindsight.

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I cannot wait to hugely disappoint you, father!

The actual villain of the movie, Doctor Octopus? The best portrayals of a villain in these movies yet! While he’s not completely accurate to his comic book counterpart (I never really cared about his wife, either), Alfred Molina is suitably intimidating and menacing. He really does get across a man being controlled and warped by a machine so well. The arms are amazing in terms of their effects and still hold up well. I love that they almost have separate personalities of their own and the operators got them doing individual tasks. Its little traits like that that really make the character come to life, like one arm giving Ock a cigar and lighting it for him.

This brings us to one of the most celebrated scenes in the entire franchise: the train fight. In short; everything about this scene works. The build-up from when Peter takes his costume back from the Bugle until he runs into Ock is so well paced. The set designs and interactions with the environment around them is really well timed. The action is well staged and it’s one of the few times in the Raimi trilogy where Spidey actually thinks his way out of a situation. Him webbing up the sides of buildings and using his body to slow down the train is so perfectly heroic that I fail to think of anything he’s done in the other movies that comes close to it. The way the citizens react to him, the way they respond to him and the way they defend him is touching and really well earned.

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The way Ock casually pushes them away when they try to defend Spidey is also pretty funny.

What’s even better is that he loses! The injuries sustained from the train means that he’s easy pickings for Ock to take back to Harry. Even at his best, even when he pushes his all, sometimes he fails. But that’s okay, because all the good he did far outweighs the fact that life can rain down on him at times. It’s a perfect sequence and it embodies so much of the character that it’s probably a good jumping off point to discuss what I don’t like about the movie!

Honestly? Not a lot. There is a point where the action just kind of dies. It’s shortly after the hospital scene with Ock and it only really picks up for me again when Spidey gives up the costume. It’s nothing huge, it’s just a second act lull that a lot of movies go through and, compared to its predecessor, it doesn’t exactly kill the pacing stone dead. I also felt the bank scene was a bit too goofy, even for Raimi’s Spider-Man standards. Though, while I’m here, hi, bank teller Joel McHale! Guess those community college fees need to be paid some way…

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God, look at this kid! He’s like if somebody crushed Abed and gave him pocket protectors!

Also, some of the comedy doesn’t really come off right. Not so much the dialogue, most of it is snappy and funny without coming across as too acerbic or try-hard. It’s more in the physical or set-up humour. Peter falls a grand total of three times in this movie! It borders on the point where you question whether his spider strength would even keep him alive at this point (though, the scene where he goes ‘I’m back! I’m back!’ falls and painfully says ‘My back, my back’ is absolutely hilarious!). Scenes like the landlord’s daughter burning something on the cooker (actually, every scene with her is odd) and with Spidey and that guy in the elevator just feels too contrived. I think the movie works better comedic wise when it doesn’t try to force it: when it comes out in the dialogue and character interaction.

I do, however, have a major complaint about the movie: Mary-Jane Watson. Despite Kirsten Dunst’s best effort to bring life out of the character, she really isn’t interesting and, what’s worse, she comes off as kind of unlikeable in this movie. She’s really passive-aggressive and seems to use her boring-as-all-hell boyfriend/fiancé to jab at Peter. I’m not trying to put Peter on a pedestal or anything. There’s a lot of anger Harry’s way for how he acts and I completely understand why he’s so annoyed at him. Mary Jane just seems to be making too big a deal out of little things and it’s mostly because we never get her side. They made her too perfectly boring in the last movie and do so little to justify how her character acts in this one that it’s impossible to see why she’s so angry at Peter. Also, their scenes are still tedious and the actors have no chemistry whatsoever. It really drags the movies down because she’s such an important part of them, it’s a shame that they don’t seem to work as a couple at all.

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They even close the goddamn movie on her! Though I like that she’s frowning: probably realised running out on your fiancé like thta on your wedding day was kind of a dick move.

With that said, I’ll end this review on a positive note, and the best thing about this movie: its message. At the movie’s core, Spider-Man 2 is about the inspiration taken to better ourselves. Where this comes from and how hard it can be to hold onto it. The movie doesn’t make it easy for Peter; he hurts and neglects everybody in his life, sullies his work and his education in order to be this hero. When he finally gives it up, he’s briefly content. He slowly realises, however, that Spider-Man does not just enrich his life: it enriches everybody around him. Sometimes it can crush them (Harry), sometimes it can inspire them at the very last second (Doc Ock). Sometimes it will inspire a train full of people to defend an injured man against impossible odds. What’s even better is that he gets a happy ending! He doesn’t have to live in misery and self-sacrifice like the last movie: Spider-Man enriches his life, as well. Through the trials and tribulations of being a hero, Spidey does give him something good.

I love this movie for its characters, its plot, its pacing, its perfect balance of fun and darkness, its wonderful cast, its score, its direction, its effects; I essentially love it because it’s a very well-constructed movie. But I love it for more than that. It takes a character I love and plays him to show what exactly he can mean to people: to inspire, not just Peter, his loved ones, or the people of New York, but for everyone to find the hero within them. That, in my opinion, is what a great Spider-Man story should do, and it’s what this one does in stride.

“I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

Final Rating: 9/10

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Random Observations:

-Man, that lady playing the 60’s Spider-Man theme is so goddamn cheesy! It’s like if they had Peter have the song as the ringtone of his pho-wait…(there’s also a hilarious callback to this later on in the movie).

-I didn’t mention the score in the review (it’s long enough as it is), but it’s Danny Elfman at his best. I have nothing to add or subtract to it; it’s just a great score.

-I loved the way they reintroduced Spidey. Slick, epic and to the point (“Woah! He stole a guy’s pizza!”)

-Cliff Robertson’s brief reprisal of Uncle Ben is a really sweet moment, but it didn’t feel really needed.

-Despite my complaining about the Peter/MJ romance, there are a lot of scenes I do find really sweet between the two. Peter ‘confessing’ that he’s Spider-Man on the pay phone comes to mind, as well as them hanging off the web at the end of the movie.

-Seriously, what was up with that scene where the landlord’s daughter gives Peter cake?

-I’ve praised Rosemary Harris enough in this review, but that scene where Peter wakes Aunt May up and she says ‘Ben’ in her sleep is so great. Very subtle and real moment and Harris plays it so well.

-I guess I should mention that Dr. Curt Connors is in this movie! I mean, he never got the chance to be the Lizard, so…there you go.

-Also, while I’m on this, the ending with Peter pushing the building up being inspired by his love for MJ is a reference to the iconic moment in ‘The Master Planner Saga’. Just felt I need to keep my geek cred up!

-More praise of Raimi’s direction: that scene where Spidey catches the cop car in mid-air is so, so cool. I love the perspective and the reveal of it.

-As well as Joel McHale, Daniel Dae Kim (Jin from Lost) is in this movie. He’s one of Ock’s lab assistants.

-Bruce Campbell cameo #2: snooty usher that refused let Peter in to see MJ’s play because he was too late. Campbell has since quipped that he was the only person to ever defeat Spider-Man.

-STAN LEE CAMEO!!!!!! During the bank scene, everybody’s favourite comic book creator pushes a young woman to safety from falling debris! What a hero (I forgot to mention his cameo in Spider-Man: he’s at the Time’s Square battle where he saves a young girl. Dude has a habit of saving people in these movies!)

-Second movie, second burning building. Just thought it was interesting.

-Why is Ock trying to steal  money for his equipment? Why not just steal the parts? Who the hell is gonna go against the guy when he has those tentacles?!

-How to make me utterly geek out: put a chainsaw in a Raimi movie. Groovy.

“Courtesy, your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” 🙂

-“T.S. Elliot is more complicated than advance science.”
Having read The Waste Land, I can’t say I disagree…

-“Intelligence is not a privilege, it’s a gift. You use it for the benefit of mankind.”
Wise words not followed by many people.

-*after Peter backflips over a car*
Kid: “How did you do that?!”
Peter: ‘Uh…work out. Plenty of rest. you know; eat your green vegetables.”
Kid: “That what my mom is always saying! I just never actually believed her!”
This kid is a better actor than most of the extras in this movie.

-Spidey quip counter:
–“You forgot your change!”
–Ock: “You’re getting on my nerves!
Spidey: “I have a knack for that.”
–Total in movie:
Overall total: 5

-And, to round this all off, quotes from J. Jonah Jameson!
–Betty: “Boss, your wife is on the line! She said she lost the cheque book.
Jonah: “Thanks for the good news!”
–Peter: “Please, Mr. Jameson, is there any of these shots you can use? I could really use the money.”
Jonah: “Aww. Ms. Brant?”
Betty: “Yes?”
Jonah: “Get me a violin!”
–Jonah: “I’ll give you 150.”
Peter: “300.”
Jonah: “300?! That’s outrageous! Done.”
–“It’s all over town, Robbie. Gossip. Rumours. Panic on the street. We’re lucky! Crazy scientist turns     himself into a monster. Four mechanical arms welded onto his body. Heh, guy named Otto Octavious winds up with 8 limbs. What are the odds?
–Jameson: “What are we gonna call this guy?”
Hoffman: Uh, uh…Doctor Octopus!
Jameson: “That’s crap.”
Hoffman: “Science Squid?”
Jameson: “Crap.”
Hoffman: “Doctor Strange?”
Jameson: “I like it! But it’s taken. I got it! Doctor Octopus!”
Hoffman: “But…uh…I like it.”
Jameson: “Of course you do. Doctor Octopus. New villain in town. Doc Ock!”
Hoffman: “That’s genius.”
Jameson: “What, are you looking for a raise? Get out!”
–Jameson (to Peter): “Where were you, photographing squirrels?! You’re fired!”
Betty: “Chief! The planetarium party!”
Jameson: Oh, right. You’re unfired.
–“Caviar?! What, are we inviting the Czar?! Get some cheese and crackers, some of those little cocktail weenies!”
–“What? Flowers? You spend more on this wedding, you can pick the daisies off my grave! Go plastic.”
–Jonah: “Call Deborah.”
Jonah’s wife: “The caterer?”
Jonah: “Tell her not to open the caviar.”

Next time: what many consider to be the worst Spider-Man movie. Oh, joys.

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