Retro-View: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
In keeping with last year’s inaugural comic book spirit, I thought it’d be fun to take on a more recent, less cultish film such as SPIDER-MAN 2, an average title for an above average superhero comic book movie — it should have been called THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (as in Michael Chabon’s unused early draft). After the ka-ching global success of the first film, director Sam Raimi found his rhythm and bearings in the second film. I thought Raimi nailed the heart and soul of Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN, while the comic book spectacle felt lacking (except for the Green Goblin’s macabre death). While I was unsure of Tobey Maguire at first (I had wanted Wes Bentley from AMERICAN BEAUTY, who has a darker edge), he fit well with the character, giving him a real empathy and his transition from geek to super-hero is one of the best in the genre. Sony made a wise decision when they hired Raimi, a lifelong fan of the web-slinger, to helm the films. His DARKMAN (1990) proved he could pull off a live action comic book, and his kinetic style is perfectly suited to the graphic and cinematic medium. I could think of no better director for SPIDER-MAN.
Sam Raimi has an appreciation for the geeks and also knows how to pile on them, the better to engender sympathy. His mid-Western innate sincerity, like David Lynch, allows him to sell the “gee whiz” quality of Peter Parker’s humble home life with Aunt May. How often do you see superheroes worry about getting 50 dollars to pay rent? Strangely, the subtext of SP2 is how our economy is hardwired into our daily lives, such as the sad scene of Aunt May being turned down for a loan. Although I wonder why magnate and haunted pal Harry Osborn doesn’t give him a few bucks (even though Spider-Man killed his villainous father). Screenwriter Alvin Sargeant finds the desperate soul of the character, highlighting Peter Parker’s unlucky attempts at life and especially love with Mary Jane Watson. While Kirsten Dunst isn’t at all the medusa siren of the comics (her first appearance and line, “Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot” is one of the great Marvel moments), she captures the confused longing of her character. Likewise James Franco makes a good transition into his father’s green boots, particularly his look of genuine shock when he discovers Spider-Man’s real identity. J. K. Simmons again nails J. Jonah Jameson, one of the coups of the first film as his portrayal is the only one that need be, another rare example of perfect comic book casting. Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson make a welcome return as well. And Bruce Campbell’s funny cameo is possibly his best ever.
To that end, while I thought William Dafoe was a terrific Green Goblin (despite the immobile mask), Alfred Molina brings even more power and charisma as Doctor Otto Octavius to his admittedly slim role. He maximizes his every line, and I don’t think anybody could have gotten away with smirking, “Butter fingers” and making it work in a classic manic Raimi moment. He’s one of the best cinema super-villains and a worthy opponent to Spider-Man. And whatever reservations I had about Tobey Maguire were dissipated by SPIDER-MAN 2. I fully accepted him as the longing, beleaguered Peter Parker, and Maguire not only pulls off his character’s sense of regretful heavy burden, I believe he is Spider-Man, even during the more CG moments, which work wonderful here since they seem alive with colorful, almost stop-motion, apropos dynamics. I think his quips are great (especially in his confrontation with Doc Ock at the bank) and synch up with the Stan Lee version; I just wish they had given Spidey a few more battle lines. But maybe this was just enough to keep the tension during the action. And these are easily the best action scenes in the history of American comic-book movies. Only SUPERMAN 2’s city fight can compare to the bank robbery and train battle sequences — though I’d also throw in Irvin Kershner’s spectacular fight at the climax of ROBOCOP 2 (a comic-book movie if ever). Raimi is at the peak of his directorial skills along with Bill Pope’s crisp cinematography as every composed shot is logically choreographed like a brutal ballet. Here are the super-hero set-pieces writ cinematic that fans have been waiting to see for decades. Major kudos to John Dykstra and his team for these thrilling effects shots.
I think Raimi found his superhero groove with this film, throwing in two moments that illustrate his extremes, the wild horrifying scene with Doctor Octavius taking out a team of doctors in a tribute to his EVIL DEAD days; and the inspired montage set to “Raindrops Keep Falin’ On My Head” (placed there on a whim by editor Bob Murasawki) after Peter Parker decides to become Spider-Man No More — and Raimi does what comic book directors should do more often, which is recreate an actual John Romita frame from the comic as in the iconic shot of the web-slinger’s costume hanging out of a garbage can, the silhouette of Parker in the background. He also understands the tragic adolescent poetry of the character as in the lovely, haunting image of Spider-Man swinging forlorn through the city after Mary Jane’s wedding announcement. It’s also hard not to be moved by the subtle 9/11 tribute to New York when our hero’s unmasked, unconscious body is carried aloft by the brave train passengers. There’s a lot of sadness in this film, especially in the painful moment where Parker tells Aunt May that he failed to stop Uncle Ben’s killer. Whenever people accuse comic book movies of escapism, I know they don’t read that many.
While Danny Elfman’s score for SPIDER-MAN lacked his usual melodic weight, I responded to his controversial soundtrack for the sequel. The Spider-Man theme seems more grand, operatic and I especially like the music cues over the clever Alex Roth drawn credits retelling the origin story. The final scene plays beautifully, with Mary Jane telling Peter Parker to “Go get ’em, tiger” and for one glorious moment, he assumes his great power and responsibility as Spider-Man with a triumphal swing into the concrete jungle of New York set to Elfman’s stirring orchestral theme. SPIDER-MAN 2 is the distillation of Sam Raimi’s cinematic skill and an American pop movie masterpiece.