Thursday, 28 June 2012

I've Always Been Standing At Your Door: "Spider-Man 2"

I find that superhero franchises occasionally follow a certain patter, which is their first film is usually a solid first go-around with the character(s) but one that, on retrospect, feels like a set up for bigger and better things. This is what it's like watching Bryan Singer's first X-Men. I even find Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which I think is one the best depictions of an origin story on film and is a good standalone movie, only scratches the surface of Nolan would do in The Dark Knight. Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film is another example of a director and franchise finding their legs (in this case eight of them), doing a straight forward origin story and setting up the blocks for future stories. Spider-Man 2 is the payoff to the set up and a wonderfully relatable and energetic superhero epic. It's the best of Sam Raimi's trilogy and the one of the strongest superhero films of the last decade.

I like when we can just jump in to the action in a superhero film. I don't nescessarily mean action sequences, just that we're jumping in to the character's life as a superhero, which we do in Spider-Man 2. I like this because it feels like when we read a comic book and are shoved right in to a story with already established characters. Spider-Man 2 gives a sense of what's it like being a superhero after a while, once the awe of discovery is over, and you've settled into a rut where you're just trying to balance being a superhero while still trying to live a normal life, and despearately just wanting a normal existence, particularly so you can be with the person you love. Spider-Man 2 opens with a billboard of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) staring down at Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), and Peter tells us "She looks at me everyday." This opening image and narration personifies Peter's guilt over breaking Mary Jane's heart at the end of the first film, unable to tell her the truth about why he couldn't be with her- as well as his crushing desire to be with her. It also puts her high above Peter, where he's always metaphorically put her, like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc or Aphrodite. Yes- I just made that joke.

Peter loses his job as a Pizza Delivery man after he has to save some kids before finally getting the pizzas to their destinations. The patron (Emily Deschanel from Bones) won't pay because Peter works for one of those 30 minutes or less places. It's a nicely relatable situation that the film specializes in. If you were a superhero you would probably lose your job because you'd always have to save a kitten or something. Okay...probably something more extreme than that but you get the idea. The film, despite its giant spectacle, is all about these kind of down to earth conflicts. Peter can't get to class and his grades are slipping, he can't get to Mary Jane's play on time, she's going to marry someone else, his best friend Harry (James Franco) hates Spider-Man because he believes he killed his father Norman, who of course was also the Green Goblin. On top of all this, Peter starts to lose his powers. In one very funny scene, he has to, in his Spider-Man suit, has to ride an elevator with another passenger. Adding insult to injury, the passenger doesn't even realize it's actually Spider-Man next to him. This deflates any kind of confidence Peter has while in the suit and makes the suit an embarassment to him in this situation. It's a funny scene but also one that emphasizes how, despite Peter's remarkable powers, he's still a guy who can't catch a break.

One of the most quietly powerful scenes in the film is when Peter tells Aunt May that he was responsible for Uncle Ben's murder. It captures beautifully the pain of having to tell someone horrible secret and how Peter's guilt also extends to robbing his aunt of her husband.  It's around this time that Peter has quit being Spider-Man- essentially going back on motto of "With great power comes great responsibility." While it may seem like the film is having Peter learn this lesson again, it's a little more complicated this time around. Peter begins to feel he was never meant to be a hero- that's he just not up to it, which has a lot to do with his losing his powers. It's only when Aunt May tells him that everyone needs a hero, that he realizes it is his destiny to be Spider-Man-maybe even regardless of Uncle Ben's death.

Of course, you always have to have an atagonist in a superhero film. In this film, it's Dr. Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina), a brilliant scientist, who, after a science demonstration gone wrong, has his mechanical tentacles fused in to his body, making him Dr. Octopus. I love how J. Jonah Jameson remarks about the odds of a guy named Otto Octavious having extra arms like an octopus. Now, fans have criticized the film for making Doc Ock sympathetic rather than just an evil scientist like he is in the comics. I like how Doc Ock does get more of an arc in this film-from good to evil to redemption. I also really enjoy Molina's performance as well. He goes from the warm, mentor figure to Peter to a man out to achieve his goals at any cost.

The fight scenes between Spider-Man and Doc Ock are terrifically staged and I think an improvement on the action in the first film. The train sequence is a highlight, especially when Peter has to stop a train after Doc Ock has destroyed the control panel. Using just his webbing, Peter is able to slow the train down. It's a great moment because it shows how powerful Peter can be.  At the same time, we see how this takes a great deal out of him. The people on the train pass him down over their heads before setting him down. When he wakes up, he's maskless. Many fans don't like how often he's unmasked in the films but I think this is a beautiful moment. Peter is afraid that everyone can see his face but ultimately what the people see isn't "Peter Parker" but a hero. When a child gives him back his mask he calls him "Spider-Man." That's who he is in that moment.

Mary Jane's motivation in this film seems to be to make Peter her boyfriend. Looking back on the film, I wish she'd had more scenes to herself to breath as a seperate character. She also becomes the damsel in distress...again. I do however really like how she takes initiative at the end of the film and tells Peter she can live with the risks of him being Spider-Man. This is after she learns the truth during the final fight between Spider-Man an Doc Ock. It's a strong character moment. She brings balance to Peter's life, allowing him to be with her but still be Spider-Man. She tells him to "Go get'em tiger" to which he dons his costume and goes out the window to fight crime. The final shot of Mary Jane, looking out the window, knowing he could die, takes us by surprise, particularly after the excitement of Spider-Man swinging by helicopters. It reminds us the difficulties that lie ahead for this couple, a very relatable idea regarding being a superhero. You can have love but there will always be risks.

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