Pop quiz. Without using Google or some other search engine, identify the movie Roger Ebert called “the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen.” Okay, if you are reading this review, you obviously know the answer, but that bit of trivia should win you a bar bet or two. Unless of course all your friends think Spider-Man 2 really is the best superhero movie they’ve ever seen.
In Ebert’s defense (as if he needs my help), that statement was probably made in 2004, so there’s no guarantee he didn’t (or wouldn’t) amend it in the face of whatever best superhero movie ever was released just a few minutes ago.
Besides, my rule in such instances is that you can only mock someone else’s choice if you are willing to make a case for your alternative. The most telling aspect of revisiting Spider-Man 2 ten years later was not that I couldn’t share others’ enthusiasm but that it reinforced for me how dispensable and disposable the whole lot of superhero movies are. If pushed I might cheat and pick The Incredibles. The Avengers at least has has some really witty Joss Whedon dialogue. But although I’ve known them all already–have measured out my life with superhero movies–I strain to remember anything about any of them excepting the last one. Which is, I guess, the point. As long as the audience doesn’t remember more than the basics, you can keep making more, keep remaking, keep rebooting. Perhaps the lion’s share of what we are paying for with remakes and reboots is anticipation–the potential that something could be different, exciting, memorable. Even if it is not, that potential gives a small thrill all the way up until the point we actually see the movie itself, at which point we don’t really enjoy it. We just start waiting for the next one.
What I Said Then
I didn’t review Spider-Man 2, but a scour of the archives surprised me with the fact that I gave the original Spider-Man a “D” in the old Viewpoint blog, along with the following comments:
Spider-Man follows the formula of the Batman movies–hero’s orgii in Act I, villain’s origin in Act II, action set piece in Act III. Follow with sequels centered around new villain origins. Did nobody tell director Sam Raimi that the Batman franchise was worn out? [….] It doesn’t help that this is basically an origin story, so most of us know the plot.
Beyond just the lack of innovation, the movie suffers from a bad case of schizophrenia. It can’t decide if it wants to be campy fun, a la Dick Tracy, or psychologically dark, a la Batman. The movie works best in its less serious moments, reaching its zenith as Maguire jumps from roof to roof (not yet in costume) with a “wow-isn’t-this-neat” teenage thrill [….]
Raimi was quoted in Premiere magazine as saying Spider-Man was the hero we admire spiritually, not just physically. His comment, and the movie that accompanies it, seems to conflate ethics, guilt and spirituality. In the comic book, Peter Parker has an act of selfishness come back to haunt him. The film doesn’t even have the courage to follow through here, prefacing his refusal to corral a criminal with an apocryphal incident in which the person being robbed refuses to pay Parker money he has earned. Like so many other things in this film, the scene tries to have it both ways: Spider-Man is a misunderstood victim but he is also a haunted hero.
The special effects were okay, but by the third time you see them, you are ready for them to be used in a story line. The Green Goblin’s mask is too plastic and hence not scary. By placing the Goblin primarily on his hover-scooter, Raimi is forced to film him from a distance, and the action seems very small and far away during the action scenes. I could go on and on, but let’s face it, you’ve already seen this movie and either agree that it stunk or are probably going to see it again anyway.
What I Say Now
Well first of all, Premiere Magazine is no more. Magazines in general are dinosaurs, so that’s a nice little bit of nostalgia from twelve years ago.
I’m more favorably disposed to Maguire’s performance than I was ten years ago. The film still suffers from the character-actor age gap that plagues most movies about high-school. Maguire was born in 1975, so he would have been twenty-seven when Spider-Man came out, presumably twenty-five or twenty-six while filming it and playing an eighteen year-old high-school senior. By the time Spider-Man 2 came out he would be twenty-nine. This goes with the territory, but Spider-Man, of all superheroes, is dealing with teen problems (at least to start), and Maguire’s age tends to reinforce the script’s tendency to treat Peter Parker as an adult arrested in his development rather than a teen having to cope with adult problems.
This seems particularly true in his relationships with Aunt May and Mary Jane. Honestly, I’ve never been convinced by any of the comics’ or films’ attempts to paint May’s character. Mary Jane here is–let’s be honest–a world class narcissist, alternately telling Peter she is engaged and then ripping him for not being dependable (i.e. revolving his life around her). Spider-Man has also always built its conflicts around sitcom quality bad timing. To plagiarize Auric Goldfinger, one instance of bad timing is happenstance, two is coincidence. A comic book character whose entire life revolves around them and whose writers depend on them to underline the one and only theme is just tedious .
If the acting is okay but the script is weak, that leaves Raimi’s direction. The advent and wide use of CGI might have an impact on how we look at films even ten years apart. It felt to me like the first Spider-Man used a lot of closed frames to convey more of the comic book feel than would wide panning and scanning. Stylistically, this, combined with the commitment to stilted dialogue, makes both Spider-Man films feel like live action comic books more so than movies about comic book characters. Also contributing to this feeling are the acrobatic stunts and judicious use of wide shots. My comment about the Green Goblin in my first review were reinforced by a second viewing. Check out this scene, watching for how the cuts are edited to minimize special effects. The relatively low tech aspects of the special effects may be a plus for those who don’t like superhero movies to begin with, since these characters are still marginally tethered to the real world (rather than computer generated ones) where laws of physics still apply. But advances in spectacle quotient and movies like Kick Ass have already re-trained us to read low-tech as camp or parody. The effects and fights in Spider-Man are a rung or two above Burt Ward’s Batman, but not so much so that the comparison never enters your mind.
By the time we get to Spider-Man 2 the effects do seem to have been jacked up a notch. Dr. Octopus’s arms and the explosion that fuses them to him are the sorts of special effects that now pepper rather than punctuate movies, and while they are certainly a cut above anything in Spider-Man, they don’t exactly instill in us the “I’ve never seen that before” or “I wonder how they did that?” reaction.
The Last Word
Perhaps it is too high a threshold to ask a movie to show us something we haven’t seen before. Certainly a film can be conventional and still be executed well. It is the very generic nature of Spider-Man 2 that makes me wonder at Ebert’s comment. It’s possible that superhero movies are by their nature so limited in the stories they tell that they could well have maximized the formula early and settled into a long period of simply repeating it. If so, though…if Ebert’s estimation were still to hold, then isn’t that an indictment of the genre itself and the people who perpetuate it?
Because one thinks the “best” anything ought to have a shelf life of more than ten years.