Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Best: Superhero Movies of All Time #15 - Spider-Man 2

Against a New York City background, Spider-Man hugs Mary Jane Watson, with a reflection of Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man's eye as Spider-Man shoots a web.

Many would say that of all the Spider-Man movies thus far, Spider-Man 2 is the best.

And I would agree with them.

Picking up after the events of the first Spider-Man, we see how our hero Peter Park (Tobey Maguire) trying to make his way in the world and as the web-slinger.  He is still in an estranged romantic relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and a strained friendship with Harry Osborn (James Franco).

What the movie captures so well so early on is how much of burden it is for Peter to be Spider-Man.  Unlike Batman or Iron Man, Spider-Man does not have unlimited resources.  Heck, even Clark Kent does better than him in the same field of journalism.  But Peter's life is on the rocks.  Director Sam Raimi captures in such nice visual touches Peter's poverty.  It is such a nice carryover from the first film to see how Peter refuses to make money off of his power.  That path led to the death of his Uncle Ben.

And these early scenes set up the main struggle of the film: is being Spider-Man worth it?  Being the hero leads to an overall decrease in his quality of life.  He barely makes rent, he cannot help his Aunt May, he cannot be with the woman he loves... and he still tends to be hated.  This is a crucial step in the hero's journey, reminiscent of the events of Superman II.

And when he does turn away from his life, I love how he has an internal conversation with Uncle Ben that is framed the same way as their last conversation from the first film.  I know some people find the "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" sequence a bit silly, but that is part of the point.  For Peter, the clouds have seemingly lifted.  He is finally getting his life in order and his is free from the cross he carries.

But Raimi does a great job of showing the toll this freedom takes on his soul.  When Peter witnesses a mugging and resolutely walks away, it eats away at him and the audience.  The mugging is kept in the distance so that you and Peter intentionally keep the victim faceless and forgettable.

The movie uses this selfish turn to allow Peter to make a real choice.  He really needs to know what he is sacrificing.  This brings us to one of the best speeches in any comic book movie:

Aunt May says "He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there, flying around like that, saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams. "

I don't think I've ever seen a speech in a movie that best sums up why Superhero movies matter.  They can teach us how to be heroes in our own lives.  And they embody those two rare traits: courage and self-sacrifice.  Aunt May explains the difference between a person with super powers and a superhero.  And it isn't Peter getting the accolades May describes.  It's about the positive effect you have on other people.

And on top of all of this thematic content, the movie an action spectacle.  There are so many good moments (like the terrifying moment Doc Ock's arms come to life), but the train fight might be one of the best action sequences ever in a super-hero film.

It is shot with such visual dexterity and energy that if it happens to be on TV, I will stop everything to watch it.  I also love the Christological way in which the sequence ends and the way the people on the train stand up for their hero.

Maguire and Dunst are great.  Their chemistry is always fantastic.  Franco's performance is a bit too bland and broad, lacking depth.  Alfred Molina was perfectly cast as Doctor Octopus.  He is beefy enough to embody the comic character without being obese.  He also projects incredible intelligence without insanity.  Unlike Dafoe's Green Goblin, you actually like Otto Octavius before he becomes the villain.

The only thing holding this movie back from being higher on the list is that it too often indulges in camp.  While Aunt May is given the best monologue of the series, most of her lines (especially when she is kidnapped by Doc Ock) are silly.  Also the pseudo-science behind Doc Ock's strains even the widest suspension of disbelief.  That isn't to say that the movie can't have light fun.  But if you lean too hard on the cheesy side of things, it can make the dramatic tension feel compelling.

The movie also suffers from having a terrible final shot.  I understand it's purpose leading in to the third film, but it is like listing to symphony and having the final chord fall flat.

But despite this, Spider-Man 2 is a great movie and deserves its place on this list.

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