Spider-Man 2, 07-18-04
If one were to judge by Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2, one might conclude that Hollywood may just have figured out how to make sequel films. That is, of course, a small sample, but there are hopeful signs, starting with X-Men United as the possible beginning of the trend. I don’t think it unlikely that two of these three movies are based on long-running comic series. Both “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” have decades of backstory to draw upon for character development, challenges and complexity, with lots of vociferous fan feedback and market data over the years to indicate what works and what doesn’t, favorite villains, and effective themes. The difference between these and earlier, less-successful comic book movies may be that someone has finally started to pay attention.
In each of these successful films, the plot builds upon what has gone before, with clear memory of what has happened to the characters before, their history and unresolved problems. As Spider-Man 2 opens, Peter Parker is having a very bad time balancing crime-fighting as Spider-Man, school, work and money or the lack thereof, and his longing for Mary Jane. In fact, balancing is not the word, as it’s all on the verge of collapse. One thing, in fact, that may be a bit overdone in the movie is how unrelentingly bad Peter’s luck is. On top of everything else, his Spider powers start to fail him (one might guess through exhaustion). Eventually, he decides to give up being Spider-Man. Things look up! He gets a grip on school, and has time to pursue Mary Jane, who has, however, decided to marry handsome astronaut John Jameson (son of curmudgeonly publisher J. Jonah). It’s never made clear what happens to his dire financial straits, although that does seem to ease, and there’s even a minor flirtation with his odious landlord’s endearingly geeky daughter.
All this, of course, changes with the intervention of villain du jour Otto Octavius, A.K.A. “Doctor Octopus,” played with great depth by Alfred Molina. I must say that the characterization of “Doc Ock” is actually improved in the film from the early comics. Octavius was indeed a physicist who developed the powerful manipulator arms to aid in his research, but chose to exploit their potential for crime due to professional disappointments. His character was very one-dimensional, acting out largely motiveless malevolence. The movie origin condenses events from “Ock’s” later story—the arms taking on a life of their own, the arms becoming fused to his body—into a single cataclysm. It isn’t made explicit, but one gathers that the arms’ programming to complete Octavius’s failed experiment causes the ruthless personality changes in the fugitive scientist. Harry Osborne bargains with Octavius to bring him Spider-Man, so that Osborne can take revenge for his father’s death. The adrenalin rush of being attacked seems to reactivate Peter’s Spider abilities bringing about the film’s climactic battles.
Much more time is actually spent on Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry’s personal crises than on fighting Doc Ock, which is one of the film’s strengths, although the battle scenes are indeed spectacular and very well done. In particular, I though the episodes of Spider-Man and Octavius grappling, rolling down a building’s side or atop an elevated train were superb, and, in fact, better than anything involving these two characters that has been visualized by some of comicdom’s greatest artists.
After seeing these two movies, it’s now hard to visualize anyone else than McGuire, Dunst, and Franco in the roles of Parker, Watson, and Osborne, ably supported by Rosemary Harris, who IS May Parker, and J.K. Simmons, who is wonderfully rotten as J. Jonah Jameson. McGuire has truly made the role his own, as has Kirsten Dunst, who is luminous as Mary Jane, even though it’s kind of a stretch to imagine her as a makeup model. Her wonderful girl-next-door looks, freckles, unaugmented figure, and just slightly uneven front teeth don’t match the current fashion in super models, but hey, it’s a comic-book world, right? On the other hand, James Franco is a lot more handsome than the comic-book Harry ever was, but plays spoiled, angry, and alcoholic really well.
More complexities seem in the offing for an eventual Spider-Man 3. Both Peter’s professor, Dr. Curt Connors (A.K.A. “The Lizard”) and John Jameson had episodes of being Spider-Man opponents in the comics, and it remains to be seen if the appearance of these characters is prefiguring, teasing, or just taking advantage of the many characters available in Spider-Man’s saga. And, of course, the Green Goblin will be reincarnated--. Whenever the nest one comes out (and I believe it is in the works--) it should be worth watching.