Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Your friendly neighborhood web slinger is back in action for another big screen adventure in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 (opening throughout San Diego on June 30). Once again director Sam Raimi captures all the appeal of Stan Lees original Marvel Comic Book character and looks poised to repeat the success of his 2002 Spider-Man. The first film ended with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) accepting the responsibility of being a super hero, what he calls my gift, my curse. This means not allowing Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the girl he's loved since first grade, to know how he feels about her because he fears his enemies would hurt her to get to him. So he takes the words of his late Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), with great power comes great responsibility, to heart and dedicates himself to fighting evil in the Big Apple.
Spider-Man 2 picks up two years after the first film ended. Peter is now struggling in college, unable to hold down a job or manage his studies. His spider duties keep him up all night and have him swinging all over town. Naturally, his crime fighting duties always demand his time and attention at the most inconvenient moments in his personal life. Meanwhile, Mary Jane has found success as an actress and has reluctantly looked elsewhere for companionship. Peter keeps disappointing her by failing to show up for her play and not being able to tell her the real reason he keeps missing her show. His beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is about to be evicted from her home, yet he's powerless to help. To make matters worse, his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) thinks Spider-Man killed his father (Willem Dafoe who makes a brief appearance as the late Norman Osborn./Green Goblin), and has vowed to kill the web slinger. And as if he needed more problems, renowned scientist Dr. Otto Octavio's (Alfred Molina) has been transformed through a lab accident into the evil, multi-limbed Doc Dock whose maniacal plans put the city in grave danger. Can Spidery save New York from total annihilation? Can he ever figure out how to balance his private life and super hero duties? Will he ever be able to tell Mary Jane he loves her? And more importantly, will he ever learn to separate his whites from his colors when washing his super hero costume?
Rami's Spider-Man is much like an old Saturday morning serial with one part flowing right into the next, and each leaving a cliffhanger for what's to come. In this case, were teased with the info that Harry will soon be the Hob Goblin bent on destroying Spider-Man. The groundwork for the Spider-Man movies was laid in Rami's 1990 Dark man, which starred Liam Nelson as an emotionally conflicted super hero created by the director. But the limited budget and less than complete mythology for the main character made it just a dry run for Spider-Man. With Spider-Man, everything came together for Raimi in a big way. He had the money he needed to put his ideas on the screen; a popular, well-established character at the center of his story; and a great cast with which to work. With Spider-Man 2, Raimi doesn't disappoint. He doesn't top the original but he's created a follow up that's every bit as good. He doesn't change course, as Star Wars did with its first sequel The Empire Strikes Back. But rather he constructs his films more like Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, endowing them with a consistency of style that makes them seem like one long movie.
Raimi has always been an inventive and imaginative director. Just look at his genre gems The Evil Dead Trilogy. Like fellow low-budget-horror-geek-turned-mainstream-director Jackson, he's used his increased money wisely and pursued something that he genuinely loves. Both directors are Hollywood insiders who haven't forgotten that they came from the outside. They maintain a certain charming geekiness that allows them to mix action, effects, pop culture and heartfelt sentimentality. (Somehow its just easier to take sentiment from guys who created The Evil Dead and Dead-Alive than from people like Steven Spielberg who seems to wring it from scenes with calculated intent.)
As with the Superman movies that kicked off in the 70s, a major factor in the success of Spider-Man lies in the casting of the title role. Fortunately for Raimi and the web slinger, Tobey Maguire is a perfect choice. His performance recalls Christopher Reeves work in Superman. Both actors realize that an essential part of making these characters believable is to underplay, to keep them real despite the incredible nature of their situations. Both actors have self-effacing humor and can actually say words like swell in a manner that's genuine and winning. But unlike DC Comics Superman, Marvels Spidey has a tougher time making a go in the real world. Spidey is blasted by the press and has to live in a dump because he cant hold down both a job and a super hero gig. Maguire's performance anchors the film and gives it an emotional core. He low key approach wins audiences over and makes them buy into the outlandish plot.
Director Raimi creates an action film that takes time for emotions -- something that may make young audiences squirm a bit but which makes the film richer and more satisfying for older viewers. Raimi has obvious affection for the comic book and that comes through in the film. He captures Stan Lees particular brand of humor as well as the darker hues of the comics. More so than DC Comics, Marvel serves up seriously conflicted characters who carry on a kind of existential inner dialogue about their place in the world and the meaning of what's happening to them. That's why DCs Bruce Wayne/Batman is a millionaire with wealth and social standing, while Peter Parker/Spider-Man cant hold down a job and cant even get any respect for all his crime fighting. Even the villain in Spider-Man 2 is allowed to be conflicted. Doc Dock, like Green Goblin before him, is not purely evil but rather is a scientist whose passion for science has resulted in dangerous obsession. Raimi also deserves praise for finding a nice balance between the ordinariness of certain aspects of Peters life and the extraordinary powers he possesses. There are some very Marvel-ous moments that reflect Lees brand of humor, as when Spidey is forced to take the elevator down from the top of a building when his web-spinning powers fail, and he has a chat with a fellow passenger about the discomfort of his Spider-wear.
Aiding Raimi in making the film a success is Alvin Sargent, an Oscar-winning screenwriter with credits ranging from dramas such as Julia and Straight Time to comedies such as Paper Moon. Having someone who is not simply an action film or pop entertainment writer shows that Hollywood (or at least Raimi) is finally looking to comic book/graphic novel source material with more respect. Sure Spidey is a comic book super hero but that doesn't mean he cant have some real emotion and be part of a story that's engaging beyond just the eye candy. Sargent's script doesn't treat the story like its a comic. He treats it like a dramatic narrative filled with plenty of humor and excitement. He delivers a solid follow up to the first film, and allows the characters to develop in appealing and interesting ways.
Raimi brings in special effects only when needed and does so with flair. The fights between Spider-Man and Doc Dock, as they scuffle up and down the sides of skyscrapers, is fast and furious hand to metallic limbs combat. And Spidey's swinging down the vast chasms of New York City approaches the rush you get from a rollercoaster ride or bungee jump. Raimi is a director who knows how to have fun with a big budget. He doesn't let the effects weigh the story down or distract from the narrative. Like Jackson, I think Raimi benefits from his low budget origins. He appreciates what a bigger budget can buy and uses that money to get his vision on the screen rather than spending wildly to get whatever new technology is out at the moment.
For Raimi's longtime devotees, there are also a few treats that signal Raimi hasn't forgotten where he came from even though he's now working on Hollywood blockbusters. Raimi serves up a nifty cameo by Bruce Campbell (Ash of the Evil Dead films). His presence makes this a true Raimi film and provides a nice inside joke.
Spider-Man 2 (rated PG-13 for stylized action violence) will delight anyone who enjoyed the first film. Its a high class, highly entertaining popcorn movie that doesn't ask you to check your brain at the door, but rather just asks that you suspend your disbelief and believe that a young man can have spider powers and be a super hero. Sometimes its nice to recall what its like be a thirteen-year-old kid escaping into the fantasy of a comic book world. With Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, I will always know where I can recapture that feeling.