Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 (2004)

This post is for the Raimifest blogathon over at Things That Don't Suck.  It's my first-ever blogathon post, so I'm pretty excited.

If the superhero movie were the western, Superman: The Movie would be Stagecoach--the masterpiece that kicked the genre off in earnest--and The Dark Knight would be The Searchers--the one that revealed the dark heart of the genre, which all others will be measured against afterwards.  But Spider-Man 2 would be Shane, the quintessential evocation of all the genre represents, the clearest version of the basic superhero myth yet produced.

The triumphant sequel to 2002's Spider-Man, which is arguably the quintessential superhero secret origin story (though not the best), Spider-Man 2 provides a blueprint for other superhero sequels to follow.  With the origin story out of the way, the movie can focus on what it does best: the eternal conflicts between hero and villain, hero and love interest, and the call of duty against the wish to have a normal life.  These conflicts are at the heart of any traditional superhero tale, and Spider-Man 2 embodies them more fully than any other superhero movie I know of.

What makes this unique is that it manages to be a full and fully satisfying film while focusing entirely on its central character and his central conflicts.  Like Shane, this is a movie content to tell an old tale in the most simple and iconic way possible and succeed on that basis alone.  It doesn't try to do too much.  Unlike Superman, it doesn't engage in Fordian romanticization, high concept science fiction, or grand epic storytelling.  Unlike The Dark Knight, it doesn't attempt a complex dialectic on the nature of good and evil, law and order, chaos and civilization.  Unlike X-Men, it's not a metaphor for major political issues, and it doesn't involve multiple super-powered characters, each with their own underdeveloped character arc.  It's about Peter Parker, an everyday guy that anyone can relate to, who happens to have superpowers and has to figure out to use them while simultaneously dealing with his own love life and trying to hold down a job.  It's centered in New York City, and it stays there the whole way through--no need to travel the globe or fight battles that threaten the entire planet.  There's plenty of crime to deal with right here, on the smaller, more believable scale.

I confess that I have seen few of Sam Raimi's other films.  My familiarity with him is limited to the Spider-Man trilogy and The Quick and the Dead, a film I found godawful and difficult to sit through.  I have heard from many sources how great his Evil Dead trilogy is, and Darkman and A Simple Plan both look intriguing.  All are on my list to see.  But on the basis of the films I have seen alone, I would still say he is a remarkable director.  Not one of the all-time greats, but one who is capable of working with large budgets on pre-existing properties and making things that give the fans what they want while staying true to his own vision and sensibilities.

The most extraordinary thing I find about Spider-Man 2, is Raimi's ability to juggle great divergences in tone and mood so effortlessly.  It starts with the look and attitude of the film.  Unlike Christopher Nolan's  Batman films, which seem to be attempting to escape their comic book origins by becoming ever more dark and realistic, Raimi's Spider-Man is unapologetically bright and sunny, full of bold colors and fights in broad daylight.  The movie feels like a comic book, and it gets the simple sincerity and enthusiasm that made the original comics so popular and timeless--unlike so many other superhero movies which just come off cheesy, Spider-Man 2's sincerity and decency redeem it.  It doesn't mind offering idealistic speeches once in a while--"I believe there's a hero in all of us,"  "With great power comes great responsibility"--and it is capable of presenting these as simple, heartfelt truths without letting them come as corny, putting an ironic, cynical twist on them, or treating them with such intense seriousness that they become pretentious.  This is an increasingly rare quality in movies these days.  It is something that old masters like Frank Capra and John Ford made their careers on, but no one outside of perhaps Spielberg, and now Raimi, seems able to do today.

The film dances from scene to scene with effortless grace, moving from slapstick hilarity to deadpan subtlety in an instant, then on to intense action with a clear sense of danger, and desperately sad scenes that pack an emotional wallop, then instantly back to humor again without ever tripping over itself or not giving its emotional high points their due.  He even manages to fit in a scene of real terror that feels like something out of a horror movie, when Octavius's tentacles come alive and slaughter the roomful of doctors and nurses.  A big part of the credit for this ought to go to Tobey Maguire, who is perfect as the mild-mannered Peter Parker, a kid who can't catch a break.  He can play the deadpan stuff as straight as Buster Keaton--check him out in the elevator scene, where he complains about the suit chafing a bit too much--but he can also display such infectious enthusiasm we can't help but laugh with delight--see the "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" scene, a reference to another famous western.  He is cute and lovable and innocent, his tears are heartfelt and pathetic, yet he can shift in an instant to righteous anger and heroic action.  This is not an easy combination to pull off, but Maguire never falters, and Raimi shapes his film around that performance.

Hearkening back to '80s style Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, Raimi manages to ladle on the humor and fun and action without neglecting the weighty, iconic image.  He has a terrific sense of pacing which allows scenes to build at their own speed without ever feeling slow or boring, and lets the images tell the story.  Think of the shots of Spidey unconscious on the train, being carried along by the passengers--a shot that could easily have come off as pretentious or too much, by the way, but just avoids it--or the Doc Ock standing tall on the side of a building, daring Spider-Man to come after him, or the super-low angle shot of Peter's fist tightening as his anger builds and he determines to go after the Doc to rescue Mary Jane.  This is not a film that neglects the crowd-pleasing "epic" moments, its a film that knows how to balance the epic with the small to create something truly special.
So I'm finished, and I haven't even talked about what a great villain Alfred Molina makes, or how other supporting actors like J.K. Simmons, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco are so important to the films success.  I haven't mentioned the film's terrific fight sequences, or the highly creative and intense way they are staged, despite being mostly in CG.  I suppose the best way to sum up my feelings about the is film is this:  This movie is the best example of why I love the superhero genre.  When done right, like here, it can be profoundly simple, yet heartfelt and honest, an all-American ideal of heroism and democracy.  This movie embodies more clearly than any other why the superhero is an American icon as enduring as the cowboy, and why the superhero film is the most dominant genre of this new century.

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