Movie Talk: The Sam Raimi Spider-Man Films Re-Visited [Part 2]

spiderman2posterRelease Year: 2004
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy

When I re-visited the first of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, I was somewhat apprehensive, expecting the movie to have aged poorly. I didn’t have such doubts about the first of the two sequels though. Spider-Man 2 was always regarded as the best of the three movies for multiple reasons, and I certainly remember agreeing with this sentiment back in the day following the release of the divisive Spider-Man 3. I do have a small confession to make before I get into Spider-Man 2 though: I’m writing this review having also already re-watched Spider-Man 3. I’m not going to talk about the final Sam Raimi Spider-Man film in this review, but I will say that – having watched the whole trilogy – Spider-Man 2 is still by far the strongest of the three.

For starters, only two years separate this movie from its direct predecessor, yet the CG felt vastly improved with far fewer of those small, unconvincing moments from the original that served as reminders of the film’s age.

Secondly, the origin story was out of the way, leaving Spider-Man 2 to do its own thing.

The best thing about this film though, in my opinion, is that it nails the character of Peter Parker and depicts the consequences of his double life authentically in a way that fans of the comic will be immediately familiar with. He may have crazy super-powers but the man behind the mask is still just a normal dude with normal problems. In fact, Peter is besieged by personal problems, all of them caused by his need to be Spider-Man and spend so much time swinging around New York, pulling people from burning buildings, stopping thieves or saving kids from being hit by cars.

He lives in a slum of an apartment and is always behind on rent. He can’t hold down his pizza delivery job. His college grades are slipping. He can’t tell Mary Jane how he feels about her because of his need to keep her safe from his enemies. He can’t help letting people down all the time because his activities as Spider-Man cause him to consistently run late or not be where he says he will be.

Peter is torn between staying true to the memory of Uncle Ben – and the iconic power-and-responsibility philosophy – and having a life of his own. The first portion of the movie sees Peter getting beaten down by all of this heavy life shit until he decides that enough really is enough. Taking direct inspiration from the classic Stan Lee/John Romita “Spider-Man No More” arc, he bins the costume (literally) and turns his back on Spider-Man.

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Unfortunately, a new villain is on the scene: Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina. “Doc Ock” is one of Spidey’s oldest and most popular adverseries but I’ve never really been a big fan, purely because of his look in the comics where he was always drawn as a tubby bloke with a bad basin haircut and terrible costume. Not so here in Spider-Man 2. Doctor Octopus was drastically reinvented and looks utterly badass, more in line with the version from the ‘Ultimate’ universe. His extra appendages in particular look much more threatening than in the comics and are animated believably, thanks to the primary use of physical tentacles and practical effects which were then “topped up” with CGI.

While I loved Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in the first Spider-Man, there can be no doubt that Doctor Octopus is the better villain overall, largely because there is so much you can do with him and his tentacles. This is shown in the fight sequences which are much more dynamic in Spider-Man 2 and an absolute blast to watch, especially when Spider-Man and Doc Ock are fighting in freefall.

Doctor Octopus is also a tragedy of sorts. While he is the villain who will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, he is also the victim of the science-experiment-gone-wrong. His wife is killed in the disaster and the inhibitor chip on his harness destroyed, allowing the tentacles to fuse with his nervous system and “speak” to him, poisoning his mind. After a titanic battle with Spider-Man at the movie’s climax, Ock does manage to regain control and redeem himself by sacrificing his life to destroy another dangerous fusion experiment that could have consumed New York. Some might bemoan this conclusion – considering Ock’s ruthless nature in the comics – but I think it was a fitting way to conclude the villain’s story given the fact that he was a good man and husband at the beginning of the movie.

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There’s also welcome closure to the will-they-won’t-they story of Peter and Mary-Jane as she finally discovers the truth about Peter. He still attempts to push her away but MJ decides that enough is enough and ditches her wedding to J. Jonah Jameson’s son, John, to be with Peter. So, Peter gets the girl at last but a vengeful Harry Osborn – armed with Peter’s secret and Daddy’s sanity-stealing serum – is waiting in the wings…

It sets the stage perfectly for Spider-Man 3 which is why it’s such a shame that the third film turned out the way it did.

But that should take nothing away from Spider-Man 2. The movie is perfectly-paced, authentic to the source material and packed with action. There are also some really fun supporting roles that help break up the bleakness of Peter’s life, such as the ever-brilliant J.K. Simmons as the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson. I love the scenes at the Bugle as they are just so entertaining, thanks to Jameson’s ranting, Robbie Robertson’s (Bill Nunn) despair and the sharp Betty Brant (Elizabeth Banks). Comedy relief also comes from Peter’s landlord, Mr Ditkovitch (Elya Baskin) and his awkward-but-cute daughter, Ursula (Mageina Tovah). There are also the usual Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell cameos too.

Oh and there’s another wet t-shirt contest tribute for Kirsten Dunst’s character, making me wonder if these were being intentionally written in at this point. No complaints here, mind!

Spider-Man 2 is what I class as a perfect sequel. It picks up the dangling plot points of the original while upping the ante with the action and effects. More importantly, I feel like I am sharing the journey of the main characters and it’s the near-seamless transition between the two movies that I really appreciate. It really is the kind of movie that is best enjoyed as a double-bill with its predecessor.

Movie Talk: The Sam Raimi Spider-Man Films Re-Visited [Part 1]

spiderman-1Release Year: 2002
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

I’ll be honest: I was expecting the first of the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies to have aged terribly before I re-watched it yesterday. After all, this film is eighteen years-old at this point. EIGHTEEN. Where has all of THAT time gone? Since then, we have had many Spider-Man films, with the webhead played by different actors to much critical acclaim. So what was I expecting? Ropey CG? Dodgy acting? I don’t think it was unreasonable to have gone back into Spider-Man with low expectations. It had been a long time since I last watched it, for starters. Also, the movie has since gone on to inspire countless memes and inevitable criticism from a younger generation along the lines of, “Oh my God! Look how bad this looks compared to the new ones!”

Well, guess what? The film is still awesome. The end credits rolled and I was just as satisfied as when I first watched it back in 2002, as a twelve year-old. You can keep your newer Spider-Mans. I never fully bought into the whole crossover or ‘event’ thing, even in the comic books. I preferred Spider-Man to have his own self-contained adventures with his own supporting cast, as it used to be in the pre-millennium comics (guest appearances from other characters aside). That’s probably one reason why I still enjoy first Spider-Man.

Another is the casting, which was spot-on. I’ll admit that Tobey Maguire’s version of Peter Parker isn’t 100% satisfying (he occasionally comes off as just weird/creepy as opposed to nerdy and shy) but for the most part, I have no issues. Willem Dafoe is great as the billionaire industrialist, Norman Osborn, who becomes the iconic Green Goblin. I have to say that I really enjoy the look of the Goblin in this movie, especially that grinning, gargoyle-like helmet with the slide-up eye covers. Back in ’02, I was dubious but now? I’d say that I like it more than the Goblin’s classic costume from the comics. The glider is bad-ass too.

spiderman-2
Admit it: this was better than the rubber mask and messenger boy satchel from the comics.

Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson are perfect as Aunt May and Uncle Ben while J.K. Simmons couldn’t have done a better job portraying the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson. Seriously, it’s a pleasure whenever he’s on-screen, shouting and puffing away on a cigar. I couldn’t help but smile.

Kirsten Dunst does a pretty solid job as Mary-Jane Watson, Peter’s high-school love interest, though I wish her character had been a little more fiery and bubbly as in the comics where she was first introduced as a party girl. Here, she is softer and an unlikely sympathiser towards Peter given their respective places in the high school social hierarchy. That aside, I’ve never been able to forget that alley scene in the pouring rain where MJ’s sodden top leaves nothing to the imagination. As I said earlier, I first watched this film as a twelve year-old and I can’t count the number of times I reversed and replayed those few seconds of the DVD. If it had been the VHS version then the tape would surely have worn out! It was gold for a sheltered adolescent, and – while I didn’t indulge in any reverse/replay shenanigans this time – I still appreciated the scene as an adult. I couldn’t see it getting through the censors in today’s uber-critical, Woke world without some photoshop-like post-production magic though. Nor would I be so confident about her super low-cut top from the movie’s start making the cut.

It’s another reminder that more time has passed than I realised since Spider-Man hit cinemas, and that the world has changed a lot in those eighteen years. This DVD I have is a further reminder. It’s my original copy – the same one that I stressed so much with all that reversing/replaying – from 2002 and it was the first DVD that I ever owned. It’s a ‘Special’ 2-Disc Widescreen Edition (remember those?) that I seem to recall costing about £20! The double-discs, thick booklet and solid plastic for the casing are a stark contrast to today’s DVD’s which usually have no special features and the flimsiest of cases.

spiderman-3
Would this make it into a 12-Rated superhero movie today? Somehow, I doubt it.

Back to the movie, I was able to appreciate the origin story and scripting far more this time around. When I first watched Spider-Man (and the few times after that), I questioned why they had skipped over Gwen Stacy and gone straight to Mary-Jane; why the Goblin and not one of the other villains that Spider-Man faced off against in the comics before Osborn? Obviously, I was just being a pedantic nerd but this stuff seemed to matter to me back then. Now, well…I’m still a nerd, but a more informed nerd at least. Everything about Spider-Man seems to be more closely aligned with the ‘Ultimate’ universe which hadn’t long kicked off back then and was a modern re-telling of the Spider-Man origin story with Peter a teenager in the new Millennium. It’s a great alternate universe to the ‘normal’ Marvel one because it brought Peter Parker bang up-to-date without getting too dark or edgy. That’s what the Spider-Man movie feels like and, while some may consider the tone to now be outdated, I think it remains a perfect halfway house between the 60’s original and the more current stuff.

I really enjoyed the final showdown with the Green Goblin too. The finale apes the comics when Norman discovered Spider-Man’s identity and made things personal by killing Gwen Stacey. Here, in the movie, Osborn attacks Aunt May before kidnapping MJ and making Spider-Man/Peter choose between saving the girl he loves or a cable car full of kids. It remains an exciting climax and the final, final battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin is fucking awesome. The two really go at it, punching one another through walls and all that cool stuff.

While I don’t think Spider-Man has aged as badly as some may have you believe, there are a few things that aren’t quite so hot. The CG for instance, is largely still convincing but there are those odd moments when Spidey’s web-swinging sequences look a bit rigid and unnatural. Then there are the few scenes with the Green Goblin on his glider that don’t look quite right, especially when there is other shit going on in the background. There are also a couple of really corny “imagination” sequences where Peter is thinking about something (buying a car to impress MJ, for example) and various images are floating about, overlapping and fading out. These bits look like they belong in a TV comedy from the 90’s – at least in my mind.

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Shit gets real at the very end.

These are pretty minor criticisms however and, honestly, I’d expect any CG to look dated almost twenty years later. Movies use so much of it now that the age of the tech is going to be a lot harder to disguise further down the line.

One final shout-out has to go to Danny Elfman’s superb score. There are several rousing pieces of music in Spider-Man that unmistakably belong to this movie and give it its own sound – a sound that I would recognise anywhere and immediately link it back to Spider-Man.

Overall, I still got a good kick out of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man effort. Natural aging aside, the movie still does a damn good job of capturing the source material’s magic and telling an origin story. I also can’t help but like Spider-Man that little bit more for the fact that it is a film from a more innocent time and is entirely self-contained without all the MCU bullshit and associated expectation. As an added bonus, it features the best Green Goblin and the best Jonah Jameson (in my opinion of course).