In our first re-view this week, Max DeCurtins compares Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 to a Passover Seder. This means its time to intro this re-view with our favorite fact about the filming of this movie: While Alfred Molina was suited up as Doc Ock, he would rehearse his songs for his upcoming turn as Tevye in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Now that you can properly imagine this image, please keep it in mind as you read the following re-view.
“Time to teach these Stoli-drinking Tchaikovskys a thing or two about free press, American-style. You don’t ban those who supported your opponent, you make them wallow in their loser-dom by covering your victory; you sit ‘em in the front row, you give ‘em a hat!” Thus declares Toby Ziegler, White House Director of Communications, on one of my favorite shows of all time, The West Wing.
While anyone whose home pro sports team has competed in a national championship can recognize this behavior, Toby’s snarky comment actually speaks to an under-explored attraction of stories that feature a protagonist with a mild-mannered alter ego: the thrill we get when the protagonist, usually an underdog-type character, finally reveals his/her supernatural abilities to the character who most made the protagonist feel vulnerable and ashamed. As the shy, geeky kid for most of my school life, I certainly imagined at times what it might feel like to shed my alter ego and bust out some magic or superpower, to the manifest amazement of my peers. Years later Lee Pace, as the Piemaker, would articulate exactly what my then-school-aged self had thought: “I wanted to be a Jedi.” I call it an under-explored attraction because, for all the magnanimity that we can dream of in becoming a superhero or sorcerer, one of the chief guilty pleasures of imagining ourselves as these characters includes imagining ourselves using their powers to kick some serious ass.
Toby’s little moment atop the soapbox acknowledges that simply having the antagonist go down in fiery agony doesn’t really satisfy our sense of poetic justice in the way that witnessing the antagonist understand his error satisfies that craving. As—and here I reach deep down to scrape the bottom of my barrel of geekhood—Gul Dukat explains in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, true victory involves making your opponent see that they were wrong to oppose you in the first place. Say what you will about the climax of Return of the King (and I could say plenty), I find it incredibly important that Gollum, having reclaimed the Ring, shows a momentary flash of understanding that the Ring has betrayed him, that in fact the Ring never really belonged to him at all, before he gets swallowed by the molten lava of Mount Doom.
Spider-Man 2 itself resembles a Passover Seder in its structure: one must slog one’s way through most of the ritual, only occasionally nibbling on something bland (matzah), something spicy (maror), or something sweet (charoset), before finally—after what seems like an eternity—getting to the desired bit, the festival meal itself. (Full disclosure: Passover counts among my favorite Jewish holidays, and I actually enjoy very much the long slog that is the Seder. As the structure for a movie it meets, however, with far less enjoyment.) InSpider-Man 2, we get bland things, spicy things, and sweet things, but in the end we pretty much have to sit through the whole movie to see what this chapter really accomplishes.
In many ways the movie is written to function as the perfect middle act: good things, important things tend to happen in second acts; characters endure trials, but major questions and plot points necessarily go unresolved until the third act. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has his relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and his friendship with Harry Osborn (perpetual gay tease James Franco) tested as he seeks to reconcile the strength of Spider-Man with the frailty of his mild-mannered alter ago. In particular, the question of Harry Osborn’s destiny has us all wound up tighter than a web of spider silk, and over the course of the movie he displays frustration with Peter Parker for what he views as his friend’s collusion with Spider-Man. When he discovers that Spider-Man and his best friend inhabit the same body, he finds himself torn in his loyalties. Spider-Man 2 proposes an interesting idea: that a superhero’s superpowers depend on the hero’s emotional health and the strength of identification with the superhero ego. Spider-Man has a more difficult time becoming Peter Parker than Parker does becoming Spider-Man; for all his powers, Parker is powerless to prevent Mary Jane’s engagement to John Jameson (Daniel Gillies) or Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) having to leave her house.
Many of the things that happen in the Spider-Man series focus on how fundamentally good people deal with hardship and loss; as a result, we don’t really hate on those characters who fall from grace, like Doc Ock and Harry Osborn. We want them to experience redemption and, as Toby’s self-assuredness suggests, we also want to gloat a little. I know I do, and not just over the defeat of the villains.
Arguably, Spider-Man 2 contains the scene we’ve all waited for since Peter Parker first got snacked on by that radioactive spider. In order to get Doc Ock to reconnect with his humanity, Spider-Man has to remove his mask and reveal himself as the familiar Peter Parker. Doc Ock rises and goes to the fusion reactor to shut it down while Peter looks on; turning around, Peter stands unmasked in front of Mary Jane. Ever since that upside-down kiss in the rain in Spider-Man, we’ve waited for this. Finally, finally Mary Jane knows the true identity of Spider-Man. We revel just a little bit in her sudden understanding of why her relationship with Peter has never gone according to expectation; her character, ostensibly, is not redeemed until she leaves Captain Pretty Boy at the altar and shows up in the doorway of Peter’s Bohème-worthy studio. Though the end of the movie clearly sets up the expectation for the third installment, the resolution of this chapter with regard to the central love story between Peter and Mary Jane does much to bring most of the narrative to a satisfying end. Had Peter and Harry had a true reconciliation (and had it not been contractually ordained), Spider-Man 3 might not have needed to happen.
As I re-viewed the movie I caught myself at times sneering at the somewhat lackluster dialogue and the rather bland acting, but the more I’ve thought about it the more easily I can see these things as deliberate artistic choices that respect the two-dimensionality of the comic book as an artifact printed on paper. Mark Batalla, of Daily Nexus fame, found fault with the acting in his re-view of the first Spider-Man, but I think the quality improved in the second movie, and in any case I can’t be certain that the two-dimensionality of the movie doesn’t deliberately pay homage to the art and artifact that is the comic. Admittedly, I haven’t read the comics, so I can’t speak from a position of knowledge with regard to the source material, but I’ll try a bit of armchair humanities anyway. The art of the comic book transcends its physical limitations even as it enables the genre of the superhero comic to get away with a certain amount of cheesiness that works precisely because of the medium that expresses it. Movies like Superbad play on this cheesiness to great effect. Simplistic lines and basic delivery don’t necessarily come across that way when written on paper and accompanied by rich illustrations; movies, obviously, come with a different set of expectations and face commensurate judgment from the public that consumes them, just as comic books do. I imagine that handling the movie in this way would require a much more sophisticated approach than that taken by director Sam Raimi.
Ten years later, I can see why the doctor ordered a reboot of the franchise. Spider-Man 2, though better than the two installments surrounding it, doesn’t escape the middling performances from just about everyone save JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, whose exaggerations account for a significant portion of what is actually entertaining in this movie. Honestly, for all that happens in it, and for the not one but several times that Peter Parker reveals his superhero identity, Spider-Man 2 should have packed a much bigger emotional punch than it did.
- Hal Sparks’ terse conversation with Spider-Man in the elevator was quite possibly the best scene in the entire movie. Michael Novotny would have jizzed his pants. That elevator would have been great for a little man-on-Spider-Man action.
- Is it me, or is Octavius’ transformation into Doc Ock comically self-aware?
- The busking violinist is so awkward. SO AWKWARD.
- Wagner has never sounded so tonal as during Mary Jane’s flight from the church to Peter Parker’s front door. Go figure.