04 July 2024

Spider-Man 2: Twenty Years of Mayhem and Mirth

 It was a few days ago now, but for the twentieth anniversary of Spider-Man 2 I rewatched Sam Raimi's best superhero movie with one big question in mind - does it hold up? Is it still what I'd widely acknowledge as the greatest Spider-Man movie as well as the greatest superhero movie ever?

Yeah, it does.

So let's get into that, because damn this thing really does hold up. Like all the truly great films, it's because of a variety of things and they all come together in brilliant web-laced synergy. There is great action, compelling characters, sincere drama, and significant stakes that all come together with humor and cheekiness that you'd expect.

This, Lord of the Rings, Pirates, and the Matrix dominated early 2000s. What strikes me now is how deeply bizarre and auteuristic all these movies were. The 2000s were this time when corporations became punk (this should read: exploited punk and alt aesthetics for mainstream profit), and you see this a bit in movies. There was this great trust planted in fucking Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and the Wachowski siblings, all bizarre directors outside the mainstream who churned out really distinctive works to critical and commercial acclaim. It's just the direct opposite of what we see now. It's weird, the great irony is that as stakes get higher for studios they take less risks on auteur directors, which leads to more crap movies that don't offer that return on investment. There are obvious exceptions like Taika Waititi and James Gunn, both of whom I think have run their course for their own separate reasons.

Oh yeah, Spider-Man.

We got this a bit with Multiverse of Madness (2022), but there is so many distinctive Raimi zooms, angles, earnestness, and moments of pure horror in this. It brings such energy and zing to everything going on here. And it's not like the lighting or shot selection is very distinctive, it's lit naturally and for the most part the camera is steady with typical mid-level shots. But it's the zooms, wipes. Check out this seven seconds:

This is like, what I think of most. Robbie Robertson, played by Bill Nunn is just hanging out, he has no development at all, but you can still understand his relationship with J. Jonah Jameson as a respected dissenter and someone who defends Peter and Spider-Man. But man, that cut when Jonah waves his hand and Hoffman (Ted Raimi!) pops in is great. Hoffman is invented for the film and crowds a crowded room, but his sycophantic quisling contrasts Robbie's dissent and it adds so much color to a frenetic scene that's supposed to feel urgent and desperate.

Spider-Man 2 cuts the fat. It adds characters but doesn't become bloated both because it moves so fast and because the characters are distinctive and have purpose. They're stock but memorable. It all just works. That's a hard line to walk. I also noticed for the first time that Mr. Aziz runs Joe's Pizza. Joe Aziz! Pizza time.

There's a lot more going on here. Elizabeth Banks in an early role. So is Joel McHale! Donnell Rawlings and Hal Sparks showing up make this the most 2004 movie ever. And after a long legacy of being an art freak weirdo, Oscar nominee, stoner comedy star, and sexual abuser, James Franco popping up here is like "Oh yeah...James Franco..." I've always thought he was terrible in this. "Noble Prize, Otto, Noble Prize!" It's so rough. Part of that is an awkward script, but he really seems like he doesn't want to be here. He's here because he was in the last one and they're setting him up for the next one. Harry does drive the plot a bit, and having your best friend hate you adds tension to Peter, making him more alone, so that's something.

Let's talk comic book logic, which I really appreciate in our current Wikipedia, lore-driven age of over-explanation. So, Doc Ock robs a bank to get money to rebuild his machine, and I feel like this scene moves so fast that we tend to skip over it. He's successful in that bank robbery, and then he just acquires the parts to build his machine. Off what, eBay? Like, I guess he just kept the phone numbers of the companies he ordered parts from? Same with Spider-Man's suit, it is so damn high quality to just be ordered by some random poor pizza delivery boy / grad student. But who cares, move past it, move past it. They straight up acknowledge Dr. Strange exists in this universe, I've always thought maybe there's something bigger out there. But it feels like such a comic book, no one even thinks having four metal arms is that weird.

And fuckin A, how the hell is inventing indestructible metal arms with advanced AI that has a spinal-neural interface a side note to the fusion generator? Like, did he also just casually invent these arms? How could he be working on his reactor and think, "What is the best way to control occasional flares and handle the tritium? Probably four giant metal arms with advanced AI in 2004. And this is not a nitpick, because I don't think its a bad thing at all, it's just part of this movie saying, "Listen, this a comic book, it's pulp, it's stupid, just move on, move on, go with it." At the time I didn't realize how much I took that ethos for granted.

I also think this stuff only works in part because the drama is so real and sincere. This is a pivotal scene for everyone, Ock and Franco sure, but also Peter (How was Michael Keaton's Vulture the only one to figure out that Peter Parker is definitely Spider-Man because he always shows up where Peter is, btw), who loses yet another potential father figure, and possibly the only good thing in his life, his paper on Otto Octavius which could save his grades. It's just blow after blow for this guy.

It eschews the tropes of the genre, eliminating any kind of power fantasy but thoroughly demonstrating how much being Spider-Man absolutely sucks. The whole deal is why be Spider-Man? And the answer is entirely because of the great power and great responsibility deal. It's still a good lesson to learn. Why be good at all when everything in the world is conspiring against you? Because it's your duty, period. That's a tough lesson. Peter Parker feels like Job in this, just brutalized through and through.

There's this psychological deep dive, though. Peter doubts himself and is overladen with stress, and that starts to affect his powers. I always though, like, just test if you can climb a wall, don't jump off a building, Peter. But I know they had to do that back joke after Tobey injured himself for real. Having powers becomes the central conflict of the film.

And he really shouldn't worry about Mary Jane being in danger if she learns his secret identity or if they shack up together. She gets kidnapped plenty of times already. Also these movies do feel thinner when you put it together that the same basic plot of Mary Jane being kidnapped by a villain created by a science experiment gone awry. I mean, play the hits, why not. I think we've progressed beyond, or at least been made aware of, both the damsel in distress and woman in fridge tropes (Spider-Man 2 does both, although I'd argue that Otto losing Rosie isn't as big a motivator for him than just becoming an evil cartoonish supervillain. I think it moreso just shreds his connection to humanity, poetry, right-brained stuff. And just don't have an English professor be your self-sustaining fusion generator lab tech).

On the topic of the movie's climax, that whole famous train sequence exists story-wise solely to exhaust Spider-Man and make him an easier catch, which I'm actually not sure I've ever seen in a movie before. It's kind of an evolution of the Green Goblin's choice, fight me or save people. Spider-Man obviously always saves people, but Ock uses this to his advantage. He also gets super murdery as soon as the arms take over. Who cares, he's the bad guy, he does bad guy stuff. I don't think he ever actually kills anyone. But the threat he makes to peel the flesh from MJ's bones seems really credible.

But it's also a very New York-scale event. I like keeping Spider-Man in the "save the city" realm. It keeps him very ground level, like a Daredevil or Punisher, even though his power set always feels like it should be world-saving A-tier. I think the two most recent Tom Holland Spider-Man films stretched him that far, but Homecoming (2017) keeps him pretty limited. It's right there in the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man title, it helps because he is just a guy who needs to make it to class, catch a show, and deliver pizzas. Like, he can't be galivanting all over the world. It's because he is just a random dude who this responsibility was thrust upon. It's not his job to be a superhero, he didn't choose it, but he does it anyway, and that's really the entire point of Spider-Man.

You know what else gets that right? The Miles Morales Spider-Verse Spider-Man but we all know those are perfect movies anyway.

Maybe we'll talk leads. Molina is amazing, Tobey is always a better Peter Parker than he is a Spider-Man, he's just not that quick witted, funny, or scathing. To be honest, no live action Spider-Man has been able to nail how funny he is. Maybe because it really really contradicts with how shy and nerdy Peter is, but that's all part of the act. Or like, psychosis. He's an inverse Batman.

I really like Kirsten Dunst and where she's gone in the past twenty years, but she's sleep walking through this role, dude. Right here she really doesn't look like she knows what's going on: 

I mean, I love this shit. It's so weird. Such a bizarre take to leave in. It gives the film a lot of energy, a cutting as they go kind of feel. I don't know why that doesn't make it bad. I think it's just vibes. It soars on vibes. I'd call "Raindrops Pouring on My Head" ironic, but they kind of play it straight here.

The whole movie is so earnest, shockingly so. It frees itself from the superhero origin stuff and is able to just launch you straight into everything. I mean, the moral is that you need to be heroic for heroic's sake for goodness' sake. Pace wise it's unnervingly efficient. It's really about an hour and forty of real stuff before denouement and credits. Unreal. Mostly because it's just focusing on one guy and one situation. This might inevitably bleed into why Spider-Man 3 (2007) doesn't work, but I also actually think that follows one concept. Spider-Man 2 is what happens when everything goes wrong for Peter while 3 is what happens when everything goes right. Somehow the latter is far worse, and that's what makes it a challenging Spider-Man story.

So, this is great, it's thrilling, funny, distinctive, compelling, has a great arc, stakes, and is a really great Spider-Man story. It holds up, it's still the best, I'll take any challengers.

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