Rating: Top-notch A.
Summary: Peter Parker has to figure out the art of balancing life. Meanwhile, Doc Ock is created in a science experiment gone wrong.
Mmm, Spider-Man 2. Arguably one of the greatest comic-book movies ever made even in this age and by today’s standards, Spider-Man 2 stars Tobey Maguire, Baby James Franco, Kirsten Dunst, the perfectly cast Rosemary Harris, the hilarious J.K. Simmons, and the amazing Alfred Molina. Also, Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale in early stages of their careers. Fun! I was fortunate enough to catch a showing of Spider-man 2 this past week, due to an old theater who chose it for their throwback Thursday- prior to this, I had never actually seen it in the theater. (I did, however, play that DVD several times in the comfort of my own living room though it did feel like I was watching it for the first time.) I’m really glad I did because there are movies that you can watch anywhere and there are movies that should be seen in the theater with that big screen, surround sound experience. (Shout out to an exciting score by Danny Elfman!)
I’m always so confused by people who watch Game of Thrones or, say, something like- I don’t know- Jurassic Park on their phones. It just kills me. It lacks that immersive experience a lot of films deserve, especially when the environment or world plays a large part. Spider-Man 2 is one of these movies: the agility and size of the character in contrast with the height and depth of New York City- how Spidey uses it as a playground- heightens the whole experience.
At its time of release, Spider-Man 2 had an advantage of not only being one of the first of this character but one of the first attempts of the genre in the 2000’s, allowing them lots of innovation and creativity for movements and action scenes. It was highly ambitious and not only met, but exceeded high expectations. There are a lot- I repeat, a lot- of iconic moments in this movie. Just Spidey’s swinging alone is thrilling- the first scene of this gives us a sample of his abilities and a sense of anticipation of what we are about to see. This was achieved by a nice blend of practical and CG effects (director Sam Raimi apparently refused to have any shots with 100% CG), heavy use of wirework and gymnastics against a blue screen, the decision to puppet Doc Ock’s arms instead of relying on CG, and dashes of kung fu. Spidey has more realistic movement here than in the first movie and his frolicking is all complimented by long tracking shots. It’s a gorgeous, vibrant, fluid movie and we get a real chance to feast on the visuals and admire the movement.
Overall, the movie has aged pretty well, though there are a few shots where things stuck out (faraway shots of Doc Ock walking on his mechanical arms) and the fashion is a little dated (Baby Franco’s sunglasses and oversized suit in particular). The attention to detail is outstanding and there are so many creative shots. At one point we are facing Spidey as he swings towards something and it turns out to be a reflection in Doc Ock’s sunglasses. Spidey creeps into the background of several frames instead of crashing a ceiling down or getting his own shot of swinging into the action. Doc Ock picks the doors and roof off a car before throwing the rest of the body at Peter. Impressively, Spidey’s moves and poses are never replicated throughout the movie. And the pacing! Raimi knows where to break the action with either smirks, lines of dialogue, and close-ups. Pausing the action, if even for a second, allows the audience to not have a sensory overload and refocus themselves for the next set of shots; it provides room for the tension to build and escalate.
This all leads up to one of the greatest action sequences in the History of Cinema- The Train Scene, which defines comic book movies for me. I’m not sure how they choreographed everything- it’s incredibly complex and fluid. It’s kind of like they hired a stuntman who specializes in gymnastics, showed him a subway car, and said, “So this will be moving… do think you can come up with something?” Everything is in this scene- an Indiana Jones sidewalk slide homage, fighting on the side of the train, dodging an oncoming train, a backbend under a tunnel, and (my favorite) a “Whee!” explosion after squeezing through a bridge. They also go inside the train car for more basic banging around, which is still more entertaining to me than any Transformers movie. Even Spidey grabbing a subway handle and landing on it sideways is a “Hell yes!” moment.
This is not just an exceptional action sequence, but a culmination of events from earlier in the movie. Spider-Man 2 wasn’t afraid to have a lot of heart and it pays off in spades. It doesn’t rely on its action sequences but builds them around the story, which in turn is centered around Peter’s identity and ultimate acceptance of who he is. I feel this is incredibly rare to see today. It’s more common to get the “bad guy has the codes to nukes!” or “bad guy wants to blow up the world!” Leading up to the train, Peter’s relationships change with everyone in his foundation- Harry, MJ, Aunt May- shifting his view of Spidey from a mask he enjoys wearing to a burden he carries. There are a lot of scenes that have zero action and are all dialogue- meaningful dialogue that change the relationship dynamics. Things shift instead of standing still, making Peter an emotionally accessible character, which gives the action more gravity, more intent than just watching a typical action scene. Everything is exciting to watch on its own but seeing the character development so intricately linked to his abilities and morals cause us to be more engaged in the action and invested in the results. Flashy costumes and special effects are nice, but as seen in other comic book movies or even general action movies, aesthetics don’t necessarily mean quality. Just look at Die Hard– nobody cares about the most recent one because it’s not a good or distinct, unusual story. It speaks volumes that Spider-Man 2 holds up over most comic book movies today due to its story and drive- things that should be propelling the action. To be frank, it’s disheartening that the simple elements of this movie’s foundation somehow escaped most of the muck that is made today.
Even the throwaway lines are good and have meaning. After the train sequence, one of the saved passengers says, “He’s just a kid.” It’s so simple, yet it does wonders for how admirable Peter really is- the line makes the most epic scene of the movie even more heroic. Baby McHale briefly appears as a side bit, but I felt like I knew more about his character than some of the more in-your-face names we see today.
A renowned theater actor and Tony winner for 2012’s Red, Molina brings a wonderful humanity to the character of Otto Octavius who later becomes Doc Ock. With a more subtle performance than Willem Dafoe, Molina provides a serious tone for Spider-Man 2. Don’t get me wrong- I love Dafoe as Green Goblin. Molina just brings something else to the table. And I’ve heard a fair share of criticism about Maguire’s Spidey but for the tone of this series, it’s perfect. I found Maguire’s best moments to be when he’s not talking, but reacting to someone else’s line- you can really see his internal struggle with himself. Specifically, there’s a scene with Aunt May where she talks about how the world needs Spider-Man (she definitely suspects it’s him and it’s so touching), and Peter’s eyes are just overwhelmed with emotion. It brings the movie back to his friends and family, the heart of the Peter- that small-scale stuff everyone understands.
Clearly, I can’t say enough good things about this movie from both a nostalgic point of view and as a critic today. My takeaway from this repeated viewing is that the world needs Spider-Man. More specifically, the world needs more superhero/comic book movies like Spider-Man 2 or even Logan, which dial it all back and give us what we love about the characters. Give us back that heart, Marvel!