Spider-Man 2 Review
A flash of red and blue. A rush of kinetic energy. A figure rises above the rooftops, happy in the notion that his movie has grossed more than most economies could muster. Superman has plenty to be envious about, when Peter Parker’s alter ego takes to the skies. But then again, the Man of Steel has few of the problems encountered by our “Friendly Neighbourhood” web-head. Two years after he was bitten by a radioactive arachnid, Peter’s life is in tatters. Attempting to juggle work, school and his Spider-duties is not going well. To help confound matters, Peter (Tobey Maguire) is even losing his friendship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the girl he loves, but must protect from his secret. But that isn’t the only relationship slowly slipping from his grasp, as Harry Osborn (James Franco) continues to seek out the true identity of the masked vigilante; revenge still on his mind.
Such problems would send most people on vacation, but Peter doesn’t have that luxury. The crime rate in New York is hardly declining, especially when Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) enters the fray. After a lab accident fuses metallic limbs to his body, the tentacled menace is going to make Spider-Man’s life a living misery. Still, it was hardly hunky-dory to begin with. With a city to save, his personal life to fix, and a bout of self-doubt to conquer, the Big Apple’s saviour is on the verge of ruin. Never before has a superhero’s primary struggle been so relentless. Masked or unmasked, Spider-Man needs a miracle to survive.
Director Sam Raimi has pretty much pulled off the impossible too; an effort of Herculean strength. It must have took a great deal of time and a truckload of patience, but after the last web is spun, no one in the house will deny that Spider-Man 2 is leagues ahead of its predecessor. Richer, deeper, faster and in most respects, cooler, rarely has a summer blockbuster included all of the ingredients we demand. All things considered, his 2002 original was comic lore at its finest. A few cheesy moments aside, Raimi had delivered a vision of the superhero that die-hard fans could appreciate. With a conclusion that was gutsily downbeat, it promised a worthy franchise. The promise has been kept. When the dust settles at the end of 2004, this could very well be the years most satisfying motion picture...
The success can be traced all the way back to Spider-Man’s electric debut in comic form. Created especially for Amazing Fantasy by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the character was a runaway success. Naturally, he couldn’t be bound by a guest appearance alone. He needed his own title, and fast. The Amazing Spider-Man really is a connoisseurs comic book - it provides the basis for Raimi’s motion pictures, and gave a shot in the arm to the comic community. No longer would a hero be invulnerable (a la Superman), or fleetingly patriotic (Captain America). Instead, Lee had another vision in mind - a superhero who possessed all of the baggage encountered by 60’s teenagers. It’s a major cliché now, but Peter Parker is the typical Average Joe thrown into atypical situations. This simple formula is what gives Spider-Man 2 its edge.
It’s common knowledge know, but the screenplay was based on Issue #50 of Amazing..., dramatically dubbed “Spider-Man No More”. Forced to question the life he has chosen, Parker throws his iconic costume into the trash (a panel of the book brought to life in the film), and decides to face life as a normal man. Naturally, an evil threat in the form of Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk draws him out of retirement. The credited screenwriters have taken this story - originally written by Lee and drawn by John Romita Sr. - and threaded it through an emotional journey, after which, Peter’s life will never be the same again. Raimi and scribe Alvin Sargent have made alterations, but they probably won’t annoy the purists. The Kingpin character takes a back-seat (rather fitting, after his poor appearance in Daredevil), to make way for the ultimate fan favourite. Doc Ock would have been too costly for Raimi to pursue in the previous film, but with the recent advancements in CGI technology, he finally gets to flex his muscles in a way that only the 90’s cartoon could imagine.
Still, the villain is only as good as your story, and thankfully, it’s more emotionally involving than Spidey’s tussle with The Green Goblin. Raimi’s film is dripping with pathos. It’s two hours of watching Peter Parker suffer, as he comes to grips with the importance of being a hero, and making the difficult choices that will lead to his death, or his salvation. Naturally, it all begins on a light note; following a breathtaking credits sequence drawn by graphic artist Alex Ross. Seeing Parker flounder in the “real world” is hilarious, but also painful to watch. He can’t maintain a crappy pizza delivery job (in or out of costume), and has to return to a scum-ridden apartment where rent is always an issue. To top it all off, he’s reminded of Mary Jane everyday; a success on Broadway, her face is spread across billboards everywhere. Raimi seems to take great relish in showing these internal struggles, with Peter so consumed by his work and stagnant private life, that he even forgets his own birthday. Can it get any worse?
Naturally, it does. After making many promises to Mary Jane to catch her show, his work once again intrudes, only to damage their relationship even further; leading her to the attention of astronaut John Jameson (Daniel Gillies). Still, it wouldn’t be Peter’s worst year ever without the arrival of a new super-villain. One of the elements from the comic that Raimi has retained, is the notion that all of Spider-Man’s enemies are linked to him in some way. The sequel continues this six-degree rule, with Peter writing a paper on Octavius, and getting to meet the man before his unfortunate transformation. Indeed, the scene in which Peter talks candidly with Octavuis and his wife is filled with warmth, and emotional resonance, which contrasts perfectly with Otto’s evil schemes later on. But Raimi always offsets the melancholy with perfectly-timed humour (the sight of Peter washing his costume at a launderette is priceless).
The writer’s handling of characterisation is probably the clearest I’ve seen in a comic-to-film conversion. Sargent treats these iconic figures to fully-developed story arcs, that really thrive with dramatic resonance. Though it must be said that Sargent had help - gifted novelist Michael Chabon might be to blame for the depth of this tale, and even Smallville producers Al Gough and Miles Millar contributed to the story. This gives the actors an awful lot to work with, and with roles so passionately defined, it must have been a dream project for the cast. Maguire eases back into those Spider-Pants with disarming ease. With the entire film resting on his small shoulders, he does a truly tremendous job. He handles Peter’s life with care; a thousand words projected through a mere mannerism or action. Maguire is convincing whether depressed, lonely, hurt or heroic. In my opinion, he reflects much of what made Christopher Reeve’s performance as Superman so captivating; showing the dual identities at the heart of this story, and the pain Peter faces when questioning his path.
Such stresses would effect even those with superhuman strength, so it’s unsurprising that Parker’s powers would fail him. Maguire’s wide-eyed amazement at his random inability to shoot webs is a neat throwback to the original film; the same bafflement that he registered when realising he had a spider’s abilities. Naturally, Molina’s portrayal is more one-note, but certainly engrossing. A wise choice for the role, he doesn’t go Willem Dafoe’s route of stereotypical snarler. Octavius has a sharp intelligence, and there’s a hint of Jekyll and Hyde about the character - a “victim” controlled by those impressive tentacles, which feed on his darker instincts. Molina manages to show the different opposing emotions, with Octavius switching from concerned to maniacal at a moment’s notice. Out of the main cast, Dunst has the least to play with. Even in the source material, Mary Jane was merely a “damsel in distress”, and for much of Spider-Man 2’s running time, she fits snugly into that stereotype. To her credit, Dunst makes the most of it. A talented actress, she can make a scene that was corny on the page seem realistic on screen. It also helps that she shares sufficient chemistry with Maguire. And lest we forget, that Dunst gets wet for a second time, which is always worth watching...
Thankfully, Raimi refuses to let the supporting cast suffer. Franco is used more thoughtfully this time, and Harry continues to go through changes that will directly impact the future of the series. Franco seems to enjoy showing his descent into evil, adding yet another edge to this over-flowing narrative. Still, he isn’t the only secondary player to receive attention. Those with a keen eye for Spider-Man details will be wowed at the amount of peripheral characters this picture contains. Most of them would become major players as the books went on, including Dr. Curt Connors (Dylan Baker), a scientist who later transforms into “The Lizard”, Peter’s future flame Betty Brant (Elizabeth Banks), and the aforementioned John Jameson, who would become “The Man Wolf”. That said, most of these characters are brushed aside by J.K. Simmon’s wonderful return as Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. Embodying the character so perfectly, Simmons has a field day with his dialogue, and his increase in screen time is welcome. Adding the finishing touch to this cast, is Bruce Campbell, who once again delivers a scene-stealing cameo.
However, it’s often difficult for me to separate the film from its comic book legacy. I’m so in awe of Stan Lee’s achievement, that it’s taken me a while to judge Spider-Man 2 on its own merits, and as a piece of blockbuster cinema. Luckily for us, this is action film-making at its most streamlined and grandiose. Raimi has developed light years beyond the crude trappings of his low-budget debut. In most respects, Spider-Man 2 is his most sure-footed film to date - his confidence really does power the picture, and his handling of different screen conventions has rarely been stronger. The director puts the titanic budget on the screen (estimated at $200 million), and with help from veteran cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix), his vision takes the breath away. The movie looks, sounds and feels fabulous, with all of these areas improving upon the original greatly. However, I’m not saying Spider-Man 2 is perfect. Heaven knows, I have slight gripes...
As other critics have pointed out, the middle act doesn’t do much to further the plot line. Will Peter leave Spidey behind for good? Will he tell Mary Jane exactly how he feels? And just what is happening to his powers? (All elements that crib from Superman II). Raimi and Sargent spend a lot of time with Peter on his soul-searching quest, and there are several slow moments here and there. It’s good then, that Rosemary Harris is around to brighten up the mood as Aunt May. Harris is a genuine fit with this character, so it’s unfortunate that her biggest scene reveals the corniest moment in the screenplay - her rant about the importance of a hero; it’s a trifle overblown, but no fault of the actress. Still, this is all nit-picking. How can anyone punch large holes in a film that is so relentlessly entertaining?
The icing on the cake for most people, is the improvements in computer-generated shots. A bone of contention for many who saw the original, the visual effects have now reached their peak, with John Dykstra’s team making some eye-opening advancements. (This is to be expected, when $54 million was spent on the effects alone). Those iconic shots of Spidey swinging through the Manhattan skyline are now more crisp and realistic, yet the real hero of this films visual look is Dr. Octopus. Miraculously, the creation of those all-important tentacles has been a total success. With each of them given their own “personality”, the character really does defy belief. I dare say there will be people who complain at a few artificial-looking shots, but as of 2004, I can’t imagine the effects being better.
Of course, this gives Raimi the opportunity to let it rip in terms of action. All of the set pieces blow the original out of the water. This is bigger in every respect, and the action manages to raise the adrenaline sufficiently, leading to a conclusion that is entirely memorable. The initial fight between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus is one such sequence, with the opponents grappling up skyscrapers, and launching attacks in mid-air. The camera follows them everywhere - round buildings, through alleyways - and Raimi is orchestrating the whole deal with gusto. An earlier scene in which an unconscious Otto kills hospital staff has also become a favourite, allowing the filmmaker to tip his hat to The Evil Dead in more ways than one.
However, it all plays second fiddle to Spider-Man 2’s main draw - the climactic fight atop a New York train. It was famous before the film ever reached theatres (with Raimi planning the scene before a script was ever written). It is jaw-dropping for several reasons. 1, it has been executed with the best technology around, giving the sequence a fast-paced ferocity. 2, the time Raimi spent building characterisation and letting the story flow, allows the sequence to be tense as well as exciting. And 3, it leads to a final act that wields several surprises. Undoubtedly the years best action sequence, it has a life and rhythm all of its own, and isn’t afraid to be adventurous (the sight of Octapus throwing people from the carriage like rag dolls, is fiendishly cool). It remains the films most glowing achievement; making way for a last act of show-stopping revelations...
So where will Spider-Man go from here? It’s difficult to say, since Raimi leaves a barrage of different avenues to explore. Harry Osborn could very well follow in his father’s footsteps, and assume the Goblin visage. Dr. Connors might even begin those famed experiments, and become a new kind of foe for Peter to face. Whatever the route Raimi chooses, my interest in part 3 has reached fever-pitch. The only question is - can he top himself one more time? My confidence in him, says that he’ll try, and in today’s Hollywood, that’s good enough.
When the credits roll, Spider-Man 2 has achieved everything it set out to do. As a piece of entertainment, it exceeded all of my expectations. A sequel that doesn’t take the easy way out, it’s a film that fans of the enduring character can truly love. In my opinion, it is the greatest comic movie ever made. It soars to heights that few of its competitors have reached. Whether you agree with me or not, is entirely up to you, but it’s definitely a modern classic. A genuine work of art, I can’t recommend Spider-Man 2 enough...
With roughly a billion in the bank, Sony and Columbia should be ecstatic. The Spider-Man franchise is certainly the jewel in their crown, so it’s unsurprising that the two-disc package for this sequel is outstanding. Anything less than perfection in the video and sound department would be terrible, so it’s wise that they put forth every effort to make this presentation spectacular. One thing’s for sure - Christmas will be “Year of the Spider”.
The Look and Sound
As soon as the film begins, I could see how special this transfer is. Then again, I’m a total geek, so the sight of that classy Marvel logo was enough to give me welcome chills. Presented in time-honoured anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1), this marks Raimi’s first use of “scope”, and it looks amazing - which isn’t too far-fetched considering it was released last summer. The colours (always vital in a comic property) are spot-on, with the whole palette strikingly transferred. There is a sharp sheen to every shot - the detail sears, with the texture of Spider-Man’s costume neatly defined. Blacks are rock solid, and the one or two night-time scenes are just as pleasant as the sun-drenched battles later in the film. If there were faults to be detected, I couldn’t see them. Spider-Man 2 has been blessed with outstanding video. It’s what the format was made for.
Equally brilliant, is the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which turns out to be this years best demo track. And what a ride it is! The opening credits scream with loud surround activity. Danny Elfman’s theme music sounds even better than it did on the first film, and the amount of carefully-defined sound effects should make any bass fan happy. For a quick boost of sound nirvana, skip to the lab accident scene, which had my subwoofer working overtime. We’re talking loud! The lack of DTS never bothered me once throughout this track, since it really brings the film to life. The sound of Spidey’s web firing? The tentacles tearing through human flesh? Explosions? They all sound excellent, with clarity given to all of the elements, and plenty of activity across the whole sound field. Excelsior!
My biggest problem with the previous DVD, was in fact the menus. They looked great, but were sometimes frustrating to get around, and at times, a tad confusing. This time, the distributors have gone for a very simplistic approach, which is still appealing. Very pleasing to the eye, Disc 1 caters for a Spider-design, while Disc 2 has Doc Ock in all his glory. Anamorphically-enhanced, they certainly make this set look professional.
“Limited Edition” Gift Set
Thankfully, UK audiences can get their hands on this spiffy gift set, which is certainly worth the price tag for completists. It contains original artwork from the designers who worked on the film, a “Concept to Screen Comparison”, postcards featuring the popular advertising campaign of ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Choice’ and ‘Destiny’, and finally, a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #50 (which is worth plonking down the cash for). Fabulous.
Comprehensive is the key word for DVD producers these days, and this set is no exception. You’ll be dreaming about Spider-Man after you’ve digested everything these discs have to offer.
-- Audio commentary from the film's director, producer, co-producer and actor Tobey Maguire
-- Audio commentary from members of the technical crew
-- Spidey Sense trivia track with pop-up facts
-- Blooper reel
-- Web-i-sodes: four original online featurettes
-- Ordinary music video from Train
--Making The Amazing: a 12 part documentary from production to the premiere
-- A Hero In Crisis: a look into Peter Parker's personal battles
-- Eight Arms To Hold You: Doc Ock from comic book page to the big screen
-- The Women Of Spider-Man: a look at the lives of Mary Jane, Aunt May and others
-- Enter The Web: a multi-angle look at the pier sequence
-- Art gallery: a collection of Alex Ross paintings
-- Easter Egg
-- Web link
The tracks for the first film were hardly the best commentaries around, but they were certainly fun, delivering some decent production insight and jovial banter. These tracks, while hardly first-rate, are much better. In most respects, they indicate the love that the cast and crew have for this film. The primary track comes from Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, Avi Arad (Producer) and Grant Curtis (co-producer). Fun from the start, the track mostly belongs to Raimi, who highlights the many problems he faced with the production, and how he tackled such a mammoth film. Maguire also chimes in with lots of quips, but little technical insight. Still, his rapport with Raimi makes the track enjoyable. Naturally, Marvel honcho Arad has plenty to say about bringing this character back to the film world, and Curtis helps elaborate on certain technical issues. Worth a listen.
The next commentary, is effects-oriented, and therefore much dryer. That said, there are some fascinating facts along the way, if you’re willing to give it a try. It features Steve Johnson (animatronics), Eric Hayden (puppet master), John Dykstra (visual effects supervisor), Anthony LaMolinara (animation supervisor), Scott Stokdyk (visual effects supervisor) and Lydia Bottegoni (visual effects producer). It isn’t scene specific, so the commentators often talk about effects from different times in the film, or a specific shot from the previous scene. As you’d expect, they use a lot of geeky mumbo-jumbo, and get into the nitty-gritty behind your favourite shots. It’s not especially enjoyable, but interesting at times.
This option is merely a fact track, much like the one on the first film. It’s stuffed to the gills with factoids, tidbits, and production information, but there’s quite a bit of repetition. Still, if you want to watch the film and learn at the same time, this is the option for you.
Elsewhere on the first disc, we get a batch of “Web-i-sodes”, which were shown online during the films production. They are reasonably short vignettes, covering Costume Design, Comic-Con Q&A, J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. All of them are worth watching at least once. The “Ordinary” music video by Train is a decent track, though it doesn’t get anamorphic treatment. Finally, there is a batch of Columbia trailers (including the one for the main feature).
This is where we really get into the experience of making Spider-Man 2. Columbia have exceeded themselves here, with the best feature being --
“Making the Amazing”
This runs for a whopping 2 hours, and covers everything from the projects beginnings right through to its triumphant premiere. It can be watched in its entirety, or split-up into smaller portions. Essentially, it documents the key areas of any motion picture - story, characters, casting, direction, writing, visual effects, filming, editing and distribution. It documents each of these stages in acute detail, with a plethora of behind-the-scenes footage and interview material. Most surprising of all, is how Raimi works with his cast/crew. He’s one in a million, keeping his cool at all times, and getting the most from them even when the production is at its hardest. Still, the main draw here (and elsewhere) is Dr. Octopus. If you want to know how those boffins created the character, this piece will tell you. Required viewing, this documentary puts the first DVD in the shade.
After this, the remaining featurettes seem like mere extensions of a larger work, but all of them prove equally entertaining. Hero in Crisis, is a great analysis of how Peter Parker suffers throughout the film, and how he rises above his “petty” problems. Ock-Umentary: Eight Arms to Hold You once again delves into the villain of the piece, and Interwoven: The Women of Spider-Man takes a rather frank look at Peter’s love life, and closest family. More intriguing, is Enter the Web - 12 minutes of multi-angle production footage, which gives you a good idea of how time-consuming these productions are. Choose which angle you want, and watch the crew go about their work. Rounding out this set, is a gallery containing Alex Ross’s bravura art work. In most respects, this is a fabulous package. Uncle Ben would be proud...
One of the most anticipated films of 2004 gets a DVD to match. In my mind, Spider-Man 2 is the best blockbuster of the year, and one that will continue to reward its audience on repeat viewings. Columbia’s disc is definitely a must-own, and a perfect Christmas gift. Is this the “Ultimate Spin”? If not, it’s pretty darn close...