Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Step-Up Sequel, But Still Not Quite There: Spider-man 2

The Good: Harry Osborn's character, Acting
The Bad: Most of the character, Special effects, Plot
The Basics: When Peter Parker questions his decisions, he decides to let mayhem rule by giving up Spider-man, which gives him the strength to make the same decision he made before in Spider-man 2.

Spider-man 2, no subtitles, was a close call for me and in the pantheon of terrible superhero movies I have been subjecting myself to lately, well, this does not apply. However, were it not for the string of really bad superhero movies I've seen lately, I would likely be a bit more harsh on Spider-man 2. As it stands, the only real crime this movie exhibits is being average. It's a remarkably average superhero movie. By that, I mean that it does some things well, it does some things poorly and the result is a movie that ends up thoroughly in the middle of the road.

Roughly two years after the events in Spider-man, Peter Parker still longs for Mary Jane Watson, Harry Osborn still pines over his dead father and Spider-man is still considered ambiguously between a hero and a menace. Peter Parker finds himself fired from his day job, struggling at school and failing to make ends meet when he comes in contact with the brilliant scientist Dr. Otto Octavius. Octavius is working to create a power source that is reminiscent of cold fusion; a near-unending supply of energy harnessed from a very tiny amount of tridium (in this case).

To assist him, he has built four nearly indestructible metal arms that can work in environments too hot for human flesh (the fusion reaction Octavius is experimenting with essentially becomes a miniature sun). In the test, however, the experiment goes awry, Octavius' wife is accidentally killed and the scientist is transformed into a monster who is controlled by the arms, except when he isn't.

Spider-man 2 suffers from having circumstances that are entirely dependent on the plot. Spider-man begins to suffer from a form of performance anxiety akin to impotence that thwarts him for a time, then disappears exactly when he needs it the most. Similarly, Dr. Octavius immediately seems tortured by the decisions and actions of the arms when they take over. Indeed, early on after the transformation, the arms move Octavius around. However, that concern and humanity disappears until almost the final act when Octavius simply exerts his will once again.

It makes little sense on a character front either. Octavius starts the movie as a scientist and altruist. He is a man reluctant to be funded by Osborn's corporation because he wants the energy source he develops to benefit the entire world, not just make a few people very rich. Unfortunately, the moment the arms begin to exert influence, Octavius is sunk. Indeed, it does not take any real convincing on the part of the arms to influence the scientist. They engage with him in a discussion with the logical simplicity of Quagmire convincing Peter Griffin to not feel bad about lying to his wife and drinking beer in the pilot to Family Guy, when Quagmire says, "Don't feel bad." Similarly, Octavius' instinctive reaction to the influence of the arms is brushed aside when they apparently tell him to keep working on the fusion source.

Come to think of it, what kind of mo builds super powerful mechanical arms and gives them intelligence? I understand giving them programming to function, but what possible use could debate skills serve robotic arms outside taking over their human master? That's just stupid. Add to that, after the initial exchange, where Octavius is clearly not in command (note his body language), there are no scenes of reinforcement where the arms illustrate that they continue to control him. From that point on, Doc Ock is a willing participant in the mayhem.

Good thing Spiderman has gone on a sabbatical. Peter Parker decides between his web-slinging impotence and his desire to stop disappointing Mary Jane Watson, who is now affianced to another man, he will give up being Spider-man. Because nothing says "You impress me" to a woman like giving up being heroic. The message here is clear; without the outfit, normal people are lethargic and will actively avoid doing anything remotely inconvenient, much less heroic. We are meant to believe that a man who has spent two years as a vigilante, who has sacrificed the love of the woman he has wanted for over a decade to fight the wrongs of the Earth, would see a young person getting beaten up in an alley, who calls out for help, and would walk away. No need to call for help, Peter Parker.

That is the sort of inane level of character that Spider-man 2 sinks to that prevents me from recommending it. And I feel bad on that front, because some of the actors are pretty incredible. Alfred Molina, the sole selling point of the movie for me (I did not enjoy the first Spider-man, reviewed here!), is a great actor and when the film uses him, he works well. The problem is, Molina is an actor who could give the role depth and a great deal of perspective. Instead, between the role that is written and the sheer number of special effects shots that Doc Ock is a part of, Molina is not given a chance to shine.

And on the special effects, I was largely underwhelmed. Director Sam Raimi is clearly trying to wow the audience with shots that treat walking on the sides of buildings like walking down the street for Doc Ock, but almost all of the shots using the CG Doc Ock (and the various characters he grabs with his mechanical arms) lose the human element to the character. The film is so concerned with throwing around massive pieces of brickwork, concrete and bags of money, that it loses the subtlety of human expression. That works with Spider-man, being that his face is in a mask, it doesn't with Doc Ock or the supplementals.

The actor who manages to sell us on his character and whose character continues to be both interesting and worth watching is James Franco as Harry Osborn. Franco continues to milk the sulking son who has lost a father character arc which he portrays through a seething vengeance. Franco is great at that. We believe his character is obsessed with finding and destroying Spider-man. That works.

Unfortunately, Franco's role and Osborn's story are almost lost amid the threads of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, Peter's aunt's money problems, and the raging battle between Spiderman and Doc Ock. So, while Spider-man 2 is certainly better than Spider-man, it's not enough to recommend and it's not enough to return to.

Fortunately, for those who missed the first movie and who do not want to subject themselves to it, the opening credit sequence to Spider-man 2 tells the essential story so far to catch viewers up. Thank goodness for small favors.

For other movies based upon the Marvel comic books, please check out my reviews of:
Captain America: The First Avenger
X-Men: First Class
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Blade: Trinity


For other film reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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