Judge Dennis Prince is well aware of the accolades overflowing for this purported better-than-the-original sequel but he wonders if it might just be a clever web of deceit.
Our reviews of Spider-Man 2.1 (published April 9th, 2007), Spider-man 2 (Blu-ray) (published June 18th, 2012), and Spider-Man: The High Definition Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published November 1st, 2007) are also available.
A man will face his destiny. A hero will be revealed.
In 2004, another summer stood ready to play host to yet another comic-turned-feature film extravaganza. It was nothing new, really, as we had been seeing such big-screen, big-budget efforts since 1978's Superman: The Movie, and as recently as the Spring '04 release of Hellboy. In the decade and a half in between, we've been treated to—but often mistreated by—all manner of hulks, bat-men, dare-devils, X-men, crows, punishers, and a cat-woman who deserved a long and painful de-clawing. Although he had been featured in a 1967 animated Saturday morning cartoon show, resurfaced in 1974 to appear opposite Easy Reader (Morgan Freeman) in PBS's The Electric Company, and made a few embarrassing small-screen appearances vis-à-vis Nicholas Hammond, Spider-Man finally broke through the live-action ceiling with 2002's Spider-Man. The film was a financial success, yet its formulaic blockbuster recipe and unsteady direction at the hand of genre favorite Sam Raimi left some dyed-in-the-wool-jumpsuit Spidey fans squarely disappointed. But with their money in the bank, Columbia-Tristar decided to move along with the next installment in the promising franchise, offering the directorial chair once again to Raimi and luring back the slight-framed Tobey Maguire to shimmy back into the Spandex bodysuit and attempt to right the wrongs of the initial outing.
The public has responded, and many proclaim Spider-Man 2 to be the new benchmark for all subsequent super-hero adventures. But does this much-lauded sequel truly achieve such dizzying heights, or is it just a forced embrace from legions of Marvel Comics fans desperate for validation of their favorite web-slinging wonder?
Please be seated. Court is now in session.
Facts of the Case
It's been about two years since Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) was bitten by a radioactive spider, subsequently and unwillingly bestowed with superhuman abilities. Although he reached heroic status in New York after dispatching the Green Goblin, Peter hasn't yet found a reprieve from the day-to-day trials of a struggling young adult. If he's not failing as a pizza delivery boy, he's failing another of his college courses. And then there's the whole matter of Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), a girl who is desperately in love with Peter but growing intolerably impatient with his failure to proclaim his devotion to her. Best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) continues to brood and boil over the loss of his father. He's determined to expose a certain web-slinging vigilante as being responsible for the tragedy, and increasingly impatient with Peter for not revealing Spider-Man's true identity. Oh, and J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), chief editor at the Daily Bugle, continues to harangue and haggle Peter for photographs of the Spandex-clad crime fighter. No, Peter hasn't found much glamour or reward in his dual life as Spider-Man.
A class assignment—and Harry's connections—enable Peter to meet a brilliant scientist, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), whose bold new experiments in fusion energy will be the perfect material for Peter's latest college paper. Although he's developed an impressive ensemble of mechanical arms to manage his precarious procedures, Dr. Octavius falls victim to a gross miscalculation. During the ensuing havoc, the four-armed armature fuses itself to the doctor, with each appendage seeming to take on a life—and a will—of its own. Despite his desire to end his own monstrous new existence, Octavius is unable to resist the urgings of the terrifying tentacles, which drive the doctor to turn to crime in order to rebuild the fusion reactor and complete his unfinished work. Nobody will stand in the way of the now-psychotic Octavius (christened "Doc Ock" by Jameson and the Bugle)—not even Spider-Man.
No doubt about it, Spider-Man 2 swings to greater heights than its predecessor picture. No longer hampered with the extensive amount of exposition required to establish the key characters—most notably Peter/Spider-Man—director Sam Raimi (the Evil Dead films) can pursue a more palpable villain while delving into the psychological struggles certain to afflict any unlikely hero. Actually, this sequel is far more interesting than the original outing for the fact that both hero and villain are afflicted similarly: neither has chosen his physical situation, and both yearn to reverse the winds of misfortune that brought them to their new realities.
Tobey Maguire turns in a decent performance (not "stellar"—more on that during the Rebuttal Witness statements) as the put-upon Peter Parker. He's still not much more than a boy, and he generally bumbles about; on the outs with his employers, his college professors, and especially M.J. While we're made to understand that Peter's troubles stem from his growing discomfort and frustration over having become a superhero—and especially the guilt he feels about the death of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), exacerbated by his inability to confess as much to his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris)—he appears overly ineffectual despite his potent intellectual prowess. But, as unlikely heroes go, Maguire does a good job portraying the bipolar battle of two personalities vying for possession of the young man's psyche. And, to this extent, we enjoy both the humor and heartache as mild-mannered Peter attempts to squelch out the Spider-Man sensibility in an attempt to have a "normal life" where he can pursue his studies, tend to his Aunt May, and fully court M.J.
Alfred Molina is the true star here, and is arguably responsible for the superior nature of this sequel. As Otto Octavius, he's clearly a man driven not only by his desire to harness fusion for the good of mankind, but also by his desire and love for his wife and scientific partner, Rosalie (Donna Murphy). While initially too busy to bother himself with the collegiate needs of Peter Parker, he takes a fast liking to the boy—practically in proud parental fashion—when he realized Peter's potential for genius. Octavius's genuinely warm smile fades following the fusion accident, morphing from a mood of abject despair into a disposition of absolute diabolical determination. Molina masterfully delivers each of these stages of Doc Ock's evolution, giving us a characterization that more closely resembles the villain of the comics, one well beyond that of Willem Dafoe's good-but-not-good-enough Green Goblin. Molina's able to coerce viewers to hiss at Doc Ock while simultaneously pitying his situation.
Kirsten Dunst is still a bit flat and pre-fabricated in her role of Mary Jane (M.J.) Watson. She's pretty, she's plucky, and she's persistent, but to me it all came off as more than a bit bratty. Clearly Peter is struggling with an almost emotionally crippling angst—made worse by the fact that he can't divulge his secret identity. But M.J. is seemingly unable to perceive the young man's obvious pain, and is more concerned about her own ability to land a boyfriend, we suppose. But, in this sort of "formula film," somewhere it's written that all superheroes must have a jilted female in tow to complicate matters. Too bad.
James Franco (Daniel Desario from TV's Freaks and Geeks) is certainly capable, but seems a bit out of place as the new head of Oscorp. Although it's believable he would inherit the corporation upon the death of his father, Norman Osborn (a.k.a. the Green Goblin), Franco still seems too young to convincingly rub elbows and twist arms in the high-stakes corporate world. More on that later, though. Rosemary Harris as Aunt May is thoroughly charming and challenging. I hope she will be able to emerge as a benefactor to Peter-as-Spider-Man, much as butler Alfred is to Bruce Wayne/Batman. Lastly, J.K. Simmons has further refined his role as the cigar-chomping, insult-spewing J. Jonah Jameson. Truly that is a role to tear into, and Simmons does just that and more. Director Sam Raimi's favorite "fake Shemp," Bruce Campbell ("Ash" of the Evil Dead series) is on hand for a smarmy cameo, just as we'd expect. Oh, and watch for more of Ted Raimi, Sam's brother, as Jameson's assistant Hoffman. Just a couple more nepotistic castings and Ted will effectively become the Clint Howard of the new millennium.
And this brings us to Sam Raimi, an unrivaled hero to hordes of genre fans who have raucously reveled in the self-made filmmaker's achievements in the once-underground realm of "grueling horror." From The Evil Dead to Darkman to The Quick and the Dead, Raimi has consistently delivered a carnival of dark thrills and edgy excitement through some of the most inventive techniques of the day. Beginning with the simple "SamCam," a 16mm camera attached to a two-by-four held by two sprinting grips, which delivers excellent POV shots of whatever malevolent force is in hot pursuit of an on-screen hero or victim, Raimi has shown us new ways to experience cinematic thrills. And while his predilection to work with the same group of friends had resulted in films that gained the young upstart a vast counter-culture following, it also raised the eyebrows of the big studios, who wanted to cash in on his popularity. The question now being bandied about is whether, with the migration to the land of big-money blockbusters, Raimi has cashed in himself—and sold out his vicious verite roots. Many will contend that it's still the same old Sam at work here, yet it's clear he has deferred to more than one "executive directive" (it's obvious from the content, style, and pacing of these Spider-Man epics). He still delivers decent entertainment, but it's clear—to my perception, anyway—that he's moved away from his friends in the old neighborhood to truly make it big. (I'm hearing strains of the opening theme song from The Jeffersons as I ponder this.) Although he seems to maintain his dedication to good, gritty, and emotive filmmaking, he also seems a bit uncomfortable in his enhanced role—almost as if the suits he now wears while filming seem to be riding a bit high in the inseam, but he's unable to sneak a way to make a much needed adjustment. The future will tell whether our favorite Sam will be able to withstand the formulas and folly of the gaggle of big-studio bean counters.
Still, Spider-Man 2 is an enjoyable picture and is delivered beautifully on this two-disc special edition from Columbia Pictures. This release is one of six different flavors offered simultaneously. There's a pumped-up SuperBit edition (without extras but with the preferable DTS audio track), a widescreen gift set that includes bonus collectible goodies, both widescreen and full screen "special edition" versions, and widescreen and full screen two-packs that offer the sequel plus 2002's original picture. As for this particular release, the image quality is absolutely superb, presented in an anamorphically-enhanced 2.40:1 widescreen transfer. The image sparkles, as the source material is virtually flawless. Detail levels are incredibly high, black levels are velvety smooth, and contrast is superbly controlled throughout. Thankfully, artifacting is almost non-existent, despite the danger of shimmering when repeatedly depicting the endless vertical and horizontal lines of the New York cityscape. As I mentioned, the SuperBit edition has the DTS track, leaving me disappointed to only have the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. It sounds great—it really does—with plenty of directional effects, frequent rumbling of the low-end channel, and clear dialogue throughout. Unfortunately, this great-sounding track kept me wondering how much more punched-up the DTS track would be.
It's labeled a "special edition," and it lives up to the billing—and beyond. Disc One of this release begins with a genuinely engaging audio commentary with Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, producer Avi Arad and co-producer Grant Curtis gathering to talk about the filmmaking and story development aspects of the film. Their comments lapse into silence a bit more often than I'd prefer, but it's an enjoyable and informative listen nonetheless. There's also a "technical commentary" in which the heavies responsible for animatronics, visual effects, and animations team up to give you the blow-by-blow low down on how the illusion was achieved. "Spidey Sense 2" is another of the sort of pop-up video trivia subtitle track that allows you to gain some insight during the run of the picture. This first disc also includes an amusing blooper reel and some rather interesting "Web-i-sode" featurettes that are short but fun. A music video from Train is on board, as well as an web-load of trailers from other Columbia releases.
Now, get settled in that comfy chair of yours because Disc Two proceeds to deliver numerous in-depth featurettes that, in total, actually run longer than the feature film itself. "Making the Amazing" is a 12-part documentary that can be viewed part-by-part or as a continuum. In it, you'll learn just about everything you wanted to know about the production; it's chock full of interesting and engaging material, but, quite frankly, it seemed to go on and on and it outlasted me. You will, however, be introduced to the new genesis of the erstwhile SamCam—it's called SpyderCam. Following this behind-the-scenes extravaganza are four more featurettes that will challenge your ability to retain all the technical tidbits and plot devices beyond those you've already ingested. It all wraps up with an extensive "Art Gallery" and a peek into the making of the Spider-Man 2 video game. After all this, your spidey senses will be more than tingling—they'll be tuckered out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, seldom was heard a discouraging word concerning this film, as the critics and fans raved about this better-than-the-original sequel (á la The Empire Strikes Back or Terminator 2: Judgment Day), but I say there's a fly in this spider's ointment. As I said earlier, Tobey Maguire just doesn't do it for me. Just as many of us were scratching our heads and frowning our disapproval over Tim Burton's choice of Michael Keaton to portray the Dark Knight back in 1989, the slight-framed Maguire just doesn't convince me he can be a Spider-Man. Sure, he has the perpetually pre-pubescent Peter Parker gig down cold, but I have trouble believing his ability to don his Lycra oversuit and suddenly be graced with a muscular tonality that clearly wasn't lurking beneath his limply-hanging T-shirt in the previous scene. (Hey, at least Burton 'fessed up by stating Keaton's Bruce Wayne was wearing sculpted body armor.) Of course, without the muscular sub-structure, Maguire would merely resemble the aforementioned Nicholas Hammond, appearing embarrassingly lanky beneath a less-than-flattering clingy suit. Spider-Man clearly needs to have reasonable physical prowess, but not challenge our belief that he could be simultaneously graceful and agile among the skyscrapers.
Here's where James Franco comes in. Looking back at Stan Lee's original Spider-Man comics of the 1960s, Peter Parker, timid though he was, still maintains a physicality that would lend believability to his transformation to the web-headed hero; I believe Franco has that physicality. He also has a squarer jaw reminiscent of the pulp-Parker character, one that isn't present the china doll noggin of Maguire. However, at the time of filming, Tobey Maguire was a more recognizable name than James Franco. And while I don't believe Maguire's portrayal of this newest big-screen hero phenom ruins the experience, I just believe Franco would have been the better choice.
Now, as to the proclamations that Spider-Man 2 is the best super hero action film to date, I may beg to differ. I'm still partial to Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns. While neither film was flawless, neither succumbed to the "Summer Blockbuster" recipe that has grown so bland as of late. Burton's visions incorporated an amount of agreeable instability that, while they appeared to studio heads to be following the prescribed formula, were just a bit twisted and downright dark. (Remember the parents' groups protesting McDonald's restaurants during the Batman Returns Happy Meal promotions of 1992?) Conversely, Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, in my opinion, follow the recipe precisely; the sequel thrusting us into a near-immediate Spidey sequence with the silly motivation to deliver pizzas. Sorry, but I expect a bit more here, and I believe the bean counters and investment jockeys should have taken the reins off Raimi and let him do his stuff. As it stands, Spider-Man 2 is a good summer picture and one of the better entries in the superhero genre—but it's not the best; that honor lies somewhere between the first two Batman pictures and X2: X-Men United, with perhaps a bit of 1978's Superman: The Movie thrown in for nostalgic goodness. The good news is that the Spidey franchise is on the grow, and perhaps a third picture will be the charm.
Spider-Man 2 is thematically entertaining and visually delightful, yet it still hasn't cracked the nut of what makes Spider-Man so unfailingly popular across multiple generations. This sequel is surely better than its predecessor, thanks to a far more interesting villain, yet it still bears the mark of a film that hasn't tapped the fullest potential of a superhero series truly ready to explode. Call it an evolution in progress—an entertaining one—and hope for yet another triumph when Spider-Man 3 comes swinging our way in 2007.
While this court senses a potential as yet unrealized, it also admits that no crime has been committed here, either by the filmmakers or by the capable team behind this excellent (if overstuffed) special edition DVD. Case dismissed.
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