Monday, December 31, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #1: Spider-Man 2

Spider-Man 2 is by far the best movie on this list and maybe one of the best comic book movies of all time.  Spider-Man 2's #1 ranking is predicated upon its ability to do what few other movies on this list have managed to do with much success, completely and accurate replicate the experience of reading a comic book on film.  Spider-man 2 feels like a classic issue of Amazing Spider-Man.  Well, considered how Doc Ock heavy this movie is, maybe an issue of Spectacular Spider-Man, but let's not split weblines...

Because it so perfectly captures the essence of what made classic Spidey comics so great it hits all the right notes at all of the right times.  With the origin story behind us, this sequel is able to put Peter Parker and his alter-ego through there paces without having to clog the lines with lots of exposition.  What exposition we do get is done very smartly through the illustrations in the opening credits (much like was done in the Incredible Hulk). There is a lot of great storytelling that can be done in 128 minutes when the burden of exposition and Spider-Man 2 takes full advantage.  The other smart thing that this movie does is keep it simple.  The first Spider-Man movie tries to cram the origin story and the Green Goblin greatest hits all into one film.  The third Spider-Man movie is a complete disaster because it tries to cram about 10 years of comics into one film.  Spider-Man 2 crams nothing.  It tells a straightforward story with a likeable, relate-able hero and a villain that is complex and compelling.

As a matter of fact, let's start right there with Doctor Otto Octavius.  A constant thorn in Spidey's side in every possible way in the comic books, Doc Ock is really Spider-Man's greatest foe, not the Green Goblin or Venom.  Doc Ock handed the web-head his first defeat, tried to marry his aunt, formed an all-star team out of Spidey's rogues' gallery, and has most recently switched bodies with him in an attempt to kill him.  Doc Ock really is Spider-Man's greatest foe.
Because he has such a long and storied history, capturing the essence of that in a movie can be really tricky. It took 3 movies for X-men to fully develop the complex character of Magneto.  Somehow, though, SM2 nails Octavius on the first try.
When we are introduced to pre-Doc Ock, Otto he is charming and intelligent, if a bit arrogant.  That arrogance will be his downfall, and its counter, his humility, will actually make Otto both the hero and the villain of this tale!  Otto has an upbeat attitude and does not come across like a man who would plot to take over the world.  He is a genius and a mentor to Peter Parker.  In so many ways you find yourself actually rooting for him not to become Doc Ock.
But he does.  And when he does it is tragic because he is clearly a man at odds with himself.  The chip that is implanted to control the arms and keep the arms' AI from influencing his brain wages a powerful war to assert its dominance over Otto's personality.  Eventually it wins and Otto takes a back seat to the cold, murderous arms.  Sure we can nitpick about the nature of the arms' AI or whatever, but as with most of these movies you have to give some allowance for Thunder Gods, frozen soldiers who don't die, and vampires.  The main thing here is that Otto Octavius and Doc Ock are clearly two different characters.  This kind of characterization is very smartly done, very well handled and brilliantly portrayed by Alfred Molina.

I give Otto a few bonus points for having a smoking hot wife as well!
But I thought she was hot back in Star Trek: Insurrection also, so I may be biased...

Sticking with the characters for a moment, our hero and his supporting cast also shine in Spider-Man 2.  Tobey seems to have settled into the role of Peter Parker well and, while not quite the bookworm that comic book PP is, seems much more comfortable.  We get to see a bit more of Peter as a successful student and we also get the ol' Parker luck rearing its ugly head.  This is an excruciating point in the film and one all too familiar to fans of the comic.  Nit-pickers will point out that all Peter had to tell MJ was that he was hit by a car while riding his scooter to the play.  A valid excuse, but I suppose PP was so rattled and so used to making excuses that the truth eluded him.  Regardless, the PP character is better here than it has been or will be.
MJ is still a bit weepy and whiny, but I think that is where Kirsten Dunst was taking the character anyway, less vivacious and saucy and more thoughtful and introspective.  That's ok, it works as it goes, but she can come across as a bit of a mess at times.  Even so, I would rescue her from Doc Ock's nuclear reactor, or whatever.
JJJ is always the star of any Spider-man movie, honestly.  J.K. Simmons really understands the character and nails it once again.  I could seriously watch a whole movie of just Spidey vs. JJJ.  The rest of the supporting cast is great also.  Aunt May is a nice juxtaposition of strength and frailty.  And Harry Osborn walks a fine line balancing his friendship with Peter, his hatred for Spider-Man, his grief over his father's death, and the dangerous cocktail of emotional conflict that creates.  Franco's Harry is better here than it was in Spider-Man where it felt a little unfocused.  The scene with him and the mirror is incredible and sets up an incredible story that the third film fails to realize.

When you have great characters and actors that are comfortable in their roles, a great story almost flows naturally.  At its core, Spider-Man 2 is the story of Doc Ock.  His rise and his fall.  Our hero, Spider-Man is along for the ride, but he's more of an agent in the story and less of the focus and that's just fine.  Spider-man comics have historically been the tale of Peter Parker who gets away from his troubles as Spider-Man.  Not making the web-head the sum focus of this film reveals an understanding of what makes Spider-Man stories great.  We should be watching Peter and Otto as their stories develop, the battle of their alter-egos is just the icing on the cake (and visual manifestation of their inner and external struggles if you want to get deep.

And oh what icing that is.  Spider-Man 2 features some of the absolute best action sequences in a super-hero film ever.  (The Avengers would later match the level of awesomeness of these sequences)  This is one of the first movies to pull the camera back and fully show the action between characters.  The battles on the side of the building and on the train are visually amazing and depict the action just as it might have been, panel-for-panel from the pages of a comic book.  The tendency in films like this is to keep the camera tight on the action.  This is supposed to make the action more intense and also help hide flawed special effects and awkwardly scripted fight scenes (go see Daredevil).  Spider-Man 2 is bold enough to show the entire scene and keep both combatants in the frame.  A risky gamble that pays off here and is very welcome.  Those fights are epic.

Great characters, simple yet moving story, incredible super-hero action sequences, a complex villain and a familiar champion, all of the elements to create an incredible comic book movie, that is the recipe for Spider-Man 2.  It may not tell a sprawling epic tale; it doesn't need to.  Great stories are sometimes the smallest ones.  It is the heart and soul of the story that makes it great.  Spider-Man 2 has a lot of heart and thanks to the brilliant portrayal of Doctor Octopus a richness of soul.  But for me, the bit that pushes Spider-Man 2 to the top of a list of pretty great movies, is that it manages to capture the experience of reading an issue of a Spider-Man comic book (at least from when I was a kid, the modern comics are rubbish).  No other film on this list does that and that means that Spider-Man 2 is something special.  I can watch it any time and be transported back to my childhood, reading the exploits of Spider-Man and Doc Ock again for the first time.  That is why Spider-Man 2 is the #1 movie of the Modern Marvel era.

1 comment:

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