A Look Back at the Previous Second Spider-Man Film
In anticipation of this weekend’s release of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, I’m taking this opportunity to represent my original review of the 2004 release of Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 2. Please enjoy this trip down memory lane, complete with all its newbie film writer hyperbole and run-on sentences.
DIRECTED BY SAM RAIMI/2004
How amazing is Spider-Man 2? It is safely perched somewhere near the very top of the list of all-time great super-hero comic book films, topping its predecessor, but falling short of the brilliance of X2. It’s probably as good as Donner’s original Superman film. A big part of the credit goes to the smart handling of the franchise. Rather than treating it as such on-screen (a mere franchise to be milked and marketed to death), and thereby creating a disconnected but toyetic series of Bondian films ala the Batman films of the 1990s, the continuing story narrative of the comic books has been adopted, creating a nearly epic unfolding feeling, complete with the same actors as before and a sincere feeling that Raimi really cares. As a longtime Spider-Man fan, I for one really appreciate this.
My own history with the character is cherished but torrid. I became a faithful reader of “The Amazing Spider-Man”, Spidey’s flagship title, as a kid in 1985. I thrilled to the mystery of the identity of the Hobgoblin, recoiled at the oppressive darkness of “Kraven’s Last Hunt”, and celebrated the marriage of Peter and Mary Jane. I gazed in awe upon Todd McFarelane’s revolutionary renderings of the hero, and hissed the vile new villain, Venom. Spider-Man was (and still is) my favorite super hero. I grew up with him and the colorful supporting cast, correctly called the best in all of comicdom. Eventually in the mid to late 1990s, the series committed creative and financial suicide with the notorious “Clone Saga”, a seemingly never-ending story arc that alienated longtime readers like yours truly, leaving us little choice but to turn our backs on our hero, broken hearted. In recent years, Marvel has done their best to mend the deep damage of the Clone Saga, (J. Michael Straczynski’s “Amazing Spider-Man” is a satisfying read for devoted fans, and Brian Michael Bendis’ “Ultimate Spider-Man” is a top-notch re-invisoning of the Spider-mythos) but I still haven’t quite gotten back on the bandwagon full time. I still love Spider-Man, but like any case of a jilted lover on the mend, these things take time.
Anyway, all that to say, I’d like to think I know my Spidey. Almost since I’ve been reading the books have I been hearing rumblings of a possible feature film. I would imagine what such a film would be like – who the villains would be, which comic stories they could adapt, etc. By the time it finally happened (FINALLY!), there was no way what ended up on screen could match my long-stewing true-believer visions. Immediately following a mild disappointment with the first film, I intellectually knew that Raimi really did do a great job, and that my issues with it were my problem, not his. My primary beefs were with the casting of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the lead roles. Both are fine actors, and as a filmmaker, I understand why Raimi chose them, but doggonit, they simply were not Peter and MJ as I knew and loved them.
In the couple of years that have passed since then, the notion of these actors as these characters has started to settle, much the same way the thought of Michael “Mr. Mom” Keaton playing Batman settled in the minds of fans between the first two films of that series. As of Spider-Man 2, I think I can safely say I’m over my beef with Tobey Maguire – he IS Peter Parker in these movies – but I still have that fanboy nag regarding Dunst. Maybe if she wouldn’t have had to spend the whole sequel moping in a relationship funk she would’ve appeared more like the fun-loving-to-a-fault MJ from the comics. Oh well, we still have the supporting cast well represented, with Rosemary Harris as a wonderful Aunt May, James Franco as Harry Osborn, and perhaps best of all, scene-stealer J.K. Simmons as the infamous Daily Bugle publisher, J. Jonah Jameson. Alfred Molina brings a rare heart and humanity to longtime nemesis Dr. Octopus, tragically mentally overtaken by his deadly mechanical arms, which apparently somehow have a mind of their own. Even Doc Conners (The Lizard), Betty Brant and Robbie Robertson (not to mention a certain “Snooty Usher”,) make appearances to satisfy us old time fans.
Plotwise, Spider-Man 2 is curiously close to that of Superman II, in which our protagonist is forced to make a decision between his responsibility as a super hero and the woman he loves. Seeing how this is a classic dilemma in comic books, Spider-Man titles in particular, it makes perfect sense to explore it on the big screen. If it sounds a little too close to the plot of the first film, remember that we don’t have the origin story this time around, and at this point, Spidey is an established (if controversial) crime-fighting figure on the NYC landscape. This time, when the weight of the world is getting Peter down, his decision to throw his alter ego away will be a loss that’s felt all around him.
Initially I had a small beef with the reason why Peter as Spider-Man suffers from blips of power loss. The purely psychological explanation given dances dangerously close to the kind of loss of metaphor that sucks the wonder out of comics and comic-related stories. During the film I kept thinking, “someone’s messing with him!”, which I’m sure is exactly what I was supposed to think. In the long run, despite these moments of pause, the film succeeds thanks to the careful balance of real world pathos and comic book wonder in Alvin Sargent’s solid screenplay. Despite the overwhelming deluge of super hero films in recent years, fundamental differences between the mediums still exist, and in this case, the filmmakers ultimately utilize the strength of both to nearly their maximum potential. Yes, Aunt May’s hero speech is too long and too forced, and yes, the “Raindrops Keep Falling My Head” montage was a little out of left field, (although it does make more sense here than its classic appearance in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid,) but the train scene alone, with all its nail-biting tension, more than makes up for the shortcomings.
It’s rare that a mainstream film such as this will explore the pain inherent in a decision about doing what one wants to do versus doing what one should do. Casablanca is the classic example of this, and the first Spider-Man film hit on it rather successfully as well. It has been argued that the resolution between Peter and MJ at the very end of this film undercuts that exploration, but considering that the logical progression in this resolution will only result in yet more difficulty and sacrifice, I don’t see it as a cop out on the level of letting we the audience have our cake and eat it too.
As a Spider-Man fan, I was very satisfied with the outcome of the film and the handling of the characters this time around. As a film buff, it’s certainly a satisfying ride (as the box office can attest), but due to my history as a fan, this is a rare case where I genuinely have a hard time separating the film from the source material. It’s almost painful to NOT do comparisons. Fortunately, Raimi and company have done an awfully good job, and have me very much looking forward to part three (May 2007). Until then, I remain a true-believer, slowly crawling my way back to Spidey comics on a regular basis…