Sunday, July 01, 2012

Spidey on Screen: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

When Spider-Man made almost $115 million during its opening weekend in May of 2002, the proposed sequel immediately went from hypothetical to inevitable, with director Sam Raimi shifting gears immediately following the first film's release to begin prepping the follow-up, which came to theaters a very brief two years later in summer of 2004. And he didn't miss a step. Spider-Man 2 displays the kind of poise and confidence that can only happen when you're following on from a critical smash that also became one of the most successful movies of all time.

Right from the opening credits, with Danny Elfman's suddenly-iconic theme music playing over a series of paintings by famed artist Alex Ross recapping key moments from last time, it becomes apparent that the marching orders here were, "Keep doing what you're doing." Luckily, the foundation they'd built with the first Spider-Man was sturdy enough that they had enormous flexibility to play that thread out. The one thing Spider-Man 2 goes to great pains to make crystal clear is that while the notion of swinging through the sky as Spider-Man may have its appeal, it's no fun being Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire).

He lives in a dive of an apartment, he's makes ends meet by selling pictures of himself in action to the Daily Bugle  -- which uses them to paint him as a menace, and despite the best efforts of his game professor Curtis Connors (Dylan Baker), he's falling further and further behind in school. It's not a glamorous life, for sure. And the source of those travails can directly be traced to Peter's spidery alter ego. Remember? Great power, great responsibility? That's a pretty heavy load to bear when you're barely out of your teens. Think of it as the superhero version of Catholic guilt.

In addition to professional problems, he's also still dealing with simmering feelings for Mary Jane Watson (the returning Kirsten Dunst), as well as the growing distance from best friend Harry Osborn (ditto James Franco), who blames Spider-Man for the death of his father and resents photographer Peter for keeping his identity secret. Toss into the mix brilliant physicist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), whose unfortunate encounter with a nuclear reaction leaves four mechanical arms affixed to his sides, turning him into the villainous Doctor Octopus, and you've got one of the most effective embodiments of the comic book ethos ever committed to celluloid.

With episodic series such as this, the questions surrounding any sequel are less about what our hero will be up to than which bad guy he'll face off against (just look at the frantic questions surrounding this month's The Dark Knight Rises early in its development life). And while some consideration was given to tossing multiple villains, including the Lizard and Black Cat, at Spider-Man a la most of the Batman flicks, Raimi and co. ultimately settled on Doc Ock, one of the most prominent and preeminent rogues in the not-inconsiderable gallery of Spider-baddies, as the sole antagonist for this go-round.

For the director, these films were about Peter Parker first, and the villains needed to tie in with the guy behind the mask. To this end, he worked with screenwriter Alvin Sargent (who'd done uncredited rewrites on the first movie) to fashion an entirely new backstory for the wayward Doc, making him a longtime idol of Peter's whose journey to the dark side isn't intentional, and from which he must be redeemed ("Intelligence is not a privilege, it's a gift, to be used for the good of mankind," he tells Peter at one point). This is actually a pretty sharp detour from the comic book version of Octavius, portrayed as arrogant and hateful even before his accident.

Nonetheless, Molina (a brilliant actor who was an absolutely inspired choice) nicely grounds his performance in early scenes with Maguire, making the character sympathetic enough that his fall from grace arc is as tragic as it is horrific (it probably helps as well that he's not stuck behind a plastic mask like poor Willem Dafoe was last time). The scene in the hospital following his accident, as the metal tentacles come alive and dispatch the doctors trying to detach them from the unconscious Octavius is a masterpiece of frenzied, frenzied filmmaking that evokes Raimi's low budget roots as the man behind the hyper-violent, cult favorite Evil Dead trilogy (whose star, Raimi buddy Bruce Campbell, makes his second Spider-Man cameo appearance here).

The weak link for me, again, is the romantic stuff. Conceptually, we get it. Mary Jane is the "admired from afar" object of Peter's unrequited lust, but where it stumbles is in the execution. My previous issues with Dunst notwithstanding (though she sure doesn't help), there's just no compelling reason presented to us for why Peter is in love with MJ. A tossed-in subplot about MJ getting engaged (to J. Jonah Jameson's astronaut son -- seriously, what are the odds?) feels like a too-obvious mechanism generated by plot necessity to keep our young lovers forever apart. It's the kind of thing you roll your eyes at when it turns up in a bad Kate Hudson rom-com, and it doesn't go down any easier here.

Still, you really do have to give it up (again) for Maguire. Although the actor was suffering from back problems (or, for the more cynical readers out there, "back problems") that nearly kiboshed his participation in the sequel, when it came down to it, he came loaded for bear (and I'm sure the $17 mil he pocketed helped a little). Peter's journey of self-doubt and recrimination, culminating in a second act dream sequence where he tearfully tells his Uncle Ben he can be "Spider-Man no more" (paying homage to a famous comic story of the same name) effectively conveys the toll his life of isolation has taken on him.

What ultimately makes Spider-Man 2 work is that the creatives do right by the audience by not keeping the characters in static equilibrium. They advance the ball enough that by story's end it feels like we've gotten somewhere. Like the first film, this entry was greeted with near-unanimous critical hosannahs upon its Independence Day '04 release, with the emerging consensus that it improved on its predecessor by striking the right balance between small, human moments and big blockbuster stuff. While no records fell, and it earned slightly less than the last one, Spider-Man 2 still made $373 million domestically, and almost $800 million worldwide. Team Raimi had done it again.

I mentioned earlier how well Spider-Man 2 represents the comic book ethos, we see that reflected in how certain plot threads are wrapped up, others are left hanging, and still others are put into place to be picked up on next time (did Harry Osborn just find his deceased dad's secret stash of Goblin goodies? Uh oh...). There's a soap operatic quality (and that's not necessarily a pejorative) that's allowed these stories and characters to continue in print for decade after decade. With their second successful entry, it seemed the brain trust behind the Spider-Man movie series had figured out the magic formula and were strapping in for a very long, relaxing ride. I wonder how that turned out?

To Be Continued...

No comments: