Sunday, July 11, 2004

"Spider-man 2" musings

It's been a rainy Sunday. I decided to go and see "Spider-man 2" over at the Seoul Cinema.


First, a list of borrowed elements:

1. Spidey loses his powers due to an identity crisis. Power-loss, and subsequent comeback, are all very "Superman 2."

2. Spidey gets unmasked-- not once, but a couple times. MJ discovers who Spidey is. Again, it's all very "Superman 2"... as well as just about every damn Batman movie out there.

3. Doc Ock's mechanical tentacles are indeed stupendously realized, but in a post-Matrix era, metal tentacles remind me of, well, "The Matrix."

4. This isn't exactly a borrowed element, but the high-quality CGI rendering of the tentacles (watch the light glint off them; watch how they articulate and betray personalities) is in stark contrast to Spidey's still-awkward CGI. This calls to mind "Blade 2" more than anything else, because that was also a film with wildly inconsistent special effects (if you haven't seen "Blade 2," you need to rent it for two reasons: the amazingly athletic performance by Wesley Snipes and the CGI "jaws" of the new and improved supervampires, which open sideways like the mandibles of the Predator). Personally, I wasn't disappointed by the CGI in the first "Spider-man"; I assumed from the start that director Sam Raimi was going for an unabashedly comic-bookish look and feel.

5. Another Matrix-like element was Peter Parker's rescue of the runaway elevated train; after he collapses from exhaustion, the train's riders pass him along as if he were a stage diver, his body in cruciform shape like Neo's. The Korean audience I was with thought this was hilarious, and that moment got the loudest laugh in the film. Otherwise, as usual, I and a few other foreigners were the only ones in the theater laughing at all the right moments. Either the visual humor doesn't translate for cultural reasons, or the subtitle writers need to do a better job of conveying the humor.

A complaint: when Octavius is performing the first fusion experiment with all those witnesses standing behind him, why is he the only one wearing safety glasses? This I don't get.

I agree with other reviewers who remarked that "Spider-man 2" is more of a Sam Raimi film than the previous one. The classic Raimi horror movie touches are there: plenty of "jump" moments thanks to those amazing metal tentacles, silly closeups of women screaming comically (and a hilarious one of J. Jonah Jameson screaming in fury), and A CHAINSAW! Why the hell would surgeons keep a chainsaw in an operating theater? Because it's a Sam Raimi film, dumbass! You never know when you're going to have to amputate a wicked limb stat! We've also got four interesting cameos: Cliff Robertson (godlike fantasy flashback), Willem Dafoe (evil visitation implying that insanity is hereditary), Stan Lee (watch him rescue a lady from falling concrete), and the man known as The Chin: Bruce Campbell as an obnoxious usher who messes with Peter Parker's love life. The movie also features the hypnotically lovely Donna Murphy as Dr. Octavius's wife (I was drooling for her in "Star Trek: Insurrection"; she was the only good thing about that film).

"Spider-man 2" lives up to the hype: it's easily as fun as the previous movie, even though the novelty's worn off. The way to compensate for lack of novelty is to make variations on previous themes. In that spirit, Spidey now has a new "special attack move," à la video game characters: he can fire off "web balls" that act as long-range punches. That is, when his powers work.

I couldn't quite figure out what was happening to Spidey, physiologically, when his powers began to fluctuate. His vision went back to normal; he was, at times, unable to shoot webs or even crawl on walls. This couldn't have meant he was reverting to being fully human, could it? The change in his system was at the genetic level-- I thought the first movie established that. In that case, I suppose the power-loss is purely psychosomatic, but this doesn't quite hold up under scrutiny: in one scene, Parker/Spidey plummets into an alley, smashes into two cars, and limps away with a bad back. If his physiology was fundamentally unaltered, he should still have been able to take a royal pummeling.

The movie's strong points are the same as last film: the complicated love story between Peter and MJ, the hilarious work by JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, the performance by the villain (Alfred Molina in this film, with a few moments of Willem Dafoe at the end), and Danny Elfman's score, which may be too close to his work on the first two Batman movies, but still stands on its own. Elfman seems to have kept his touch where John Williams, in recent years, seems to have lost it.

(Williams's scores over the past decade, with the possible exception of the Harry Potter films, have been muddled and meandering. Listen to the Star Wars prequel soundtracks or his 2002 Olympics CD and you'll hear what I mean. Where are the strong, memorable themes? From the Star Wars prequel, there's only "Duel of the Fates" and "Anakin's Theme.")

Alfred Molina is best remembered as the dude in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" who doesn't give Indiana Jones his whip at the beginning of the film ("Adios, Señor!"), and who dies moments after wronging Indy. The American public of the early 80s (myself included; I was just a kid) had no clue what an accomplished stage actor Molina was: he's got the Shakespearean pedigree. Here's a write-up on him. He brings a crucial dose of humanity to the role of Doctor Octopus in "Spider-man 2," and, lucky bastard, he gets a cool final moment-- a damn sight better than the quick-and-bizarre death scene Willem Dafoe had to act out in "Spider-man."

"Spider-man 2" succeeds mainly because it retains its sense of fun. It has plenty of serious elements, lots of tears and maybe a bit too much talk, but it all gels nicely and the film has a heart, which is something I hold against the Matrix sequels and the Star Wars prequels: none of them lived up to their predecessors in terms of heart or fun. If you haven't seen "Spider-man 2" yet, I recommend it as a fun way to spend a rainy evening.


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