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Marvel Movies Project: Spider-Man 2

Movie poster for Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Let me be up front about this: I saw Spider-Man 2 (2004) something like 10 times in theatre when it first came out. It also ranks on my list of most-viewed movies since I started tracking my viewing in 2006. Basically, I love this movie. It’s one of my favourites of all-time. Watching it now, I’m struck by the crazy number of people who play small roles in it and have since become more famous: Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi is Peter’s boss at the pizza place; Emily Deschanel, aka TV’s Bones, is the receptionist who won’t take the late pizza; Daniel Dae Kim, who played Jin on Lost, is Doc Ock’s lab assistant; Joel McHale from Community is the smarmy bank guy; Reed Diamond, now of the Whedonverse (Dollhouse and Much Ado About Nothing), co-stars in MJ’s play; and Mary Jane narrowly avoids marrying one of  The Vampire Diaries‘ Original vampires, Daniel Gillies.

I am also struck by how much I still really love this movie and how awesome it remains almost 10 years after its release. Sam Raimi and co. build on the foundation they laid in Spider-Man beautifully. The main cast members are all back — even Cliff Robertson and Willem Dafoe’s deceased characters make brief appearances — and the excellent Alfred Molina joins them as Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius. Like Norman Osborn, Octavius becomes something of a mentor to Peter, but there is no family-type link between Peter and Doc Ock the way there is with Norman, the father of Peter’s best friend. That stronger emotional link makes Dafoe’s Green Goblin a more compelling villain than Ock overall; however, Doc Ock still outshines the Goblin in some ways. He’s more fun to watch, partly because he doesn’t wear a mask — I’ve concluded that no mask or partial mask is always better than full mask in the movies, because you just kinda need to see an actor’s face. (It also doesn’t hurt that his tentacles are “real” in many scenes, brought to life via puppetry rather than CGI.) Plus, his evil persona is simply a bit more entertaining than the Goblin’s. Norman Osborn was scary intense crazy and hellbent on destroying Spider-Man. While Doc Ock is crazy too, really he just wants that precious tritium.

But Otto Octavius, although he is an excellent villain, is almost beside the point here: the most important conflict is the one between the “great responsibility” part of being Spider-Man and Peter Parker’s desire to live a happy, normal life. This of course is not a new theme in hero stories, or in Spider-Man stories: the movie borrows its “Spider-Man No More” theme (and a panel or two) from Amazing Spider-Man #50, which came out way back in 1967.

Spider-Man No More

But Spider-Man 2 handles this old story exceptionally well, with a combination humour and genuine emotion. Much of Peter’s typical Parker luck is played for laughs in the movie, but there’s almost always a serious blow after the silliness: for example, his comical failure to deliver pizza on time leads to the loss of a much-needed job and his encounter with the obnoxious usher causes him to miss Mary Jane’s play, which all but kills his chances with her. Peter also faces more serious worries, such as Aunt May’s financial troubles, the conflict with Harry caused by his association with Spider-Man, and the last straw: the truly emotionally devastating news that Mary Jane is engaged to someone else. The guy just cannot catch a break. By the time Peter finally decides he’s had enough of being Spider-Man, it’s hard to blame him for giving up. To borrow a line from Michael Bluth: he’s a saint, a living saint, and he gets absolutely nothing out of it.

We also see just how difficult that decision is for him to live with, though. For a while he’s the happy geek, putting the glasses back on and walking around without a care in the world while “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” soundtracks his life. Soon, though, his failure to live up to Uncle Ben’s standard starts to weigh on him, and ultimately, a piece of chocolate cake and Aunt May’s words about heroes help him rediscover the meaning in being Spider-Man.

Let’s talk about Aunt May for a minute. She is the emotional centre of this movie. Since her husband’s death, she has had even more trouble making ends meet. Not only that, she’s lonely, living by herself in the house in Queens while Peter lives his life in the city. The scene where she gives Peter a $20 bill for his birthday hits hard: her pain at not being able to do more for him, his guilt at not being able to do more for her, and the absence of Uncle Ben hanging over it all. Peter’s confession of his role in Ben’s death is also a very important moment for Peter’s emotional arc. At first it seems Peter might have lost Aunt May’s love, but later she forgives him easily and completely, and his guilt is a little less. Then, she says this:

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 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. Spider-Man did that for Henry, and he wonders where he’s gone. He needs him.

It’s a lovely meditation on the world’s need for heroes, and if you ask me, it’s also a pretty strong hint that she may have figured out who Spider-Man really is behind that mask when he rescued her from Doc Ock at the bank.

The bank rescue scene, aside from being one of Spider-Man 2‘s most solid action setpieces, is one of the few self-esteem boosting moments for Peter in the early part of the movie. Aunt May, previously anti-Spidey because he supposedly murdered Norman Osborn, is finally won over. She’s on his side, and she accepts him. Later, when Peter finds himself unmasked on a train full of New Yorkers and they promise never to reveal his identity, it’s a similarly fulfilling moment for him. He’s helped those people and they’re paying him back not with indifference or rudeness, but with gratitude and loyalty.

Spider-Man 2 train passengers

The train scene: a bit over-the-top? Maybe. But it’s also a great illustration of the openheartedness and lack of cynicism that, in my opinion, makes these Spidey movies so charming. I am also a huge fan of the lovely way Spider-Man’s true identity is revealed to Mary Jane for this same reason. (“This is really … heavy.”) Now Peter and Mary Jane can finally go through that doorway they’ve been standing in since the first film.

I’ve probably said more than enough about this movie, but here is a final thought: Spider-Man 2 is a superb movie on its own, but it’s an even better sequel. It does a great job of taking what was established in the first film, showing us how it has changed these characters, and building more depth from that. It even calls back to its predecessor by directly paralleling a few scenes from Spider-Man: there’s Peter and Mary Jane’s backyard conversation, which tells us a lot about how much Mary Jane’s perception of Peter has changed, and Peter’s internal dialogue with Uncle Ben, which Peter imagines taking place in the car on the night Ben died. The filmmakers respect continuity of story and character, and we never forget that we’re watching a movie in a series. They also provide a stellar setup for future movies.

Spider-Man 2 ending

The biggest disappointment of the series is that Spider-Man 3 didn’t live up to its potential. But we’ll get to that later.

Marvel Movies Project: The Punisher

I’m seven films into this Marvel Movies Project and one of the most interesting things so far is the widely different target audiences for these first few films. There’s Spider-Man, which despite being quite violent is fairly kid-friendly. The X-Men franchise seems aimed at teens and up.  The rest of the movies, perhaps surprisingly, are more adult in tone. Daredevil is not as dark as it probably should be, but it does hold the distinction of including the first Marvel movie sex scene. (Granted, it is about as non-graphic as sex scenes get, but still.) Eric Bana’s bare butt makes an appearance in Hulk; on top of that, it’s hard to imagine kids being very interested in Bruce Banner and his weirdo father. Finally, there’s the Blade movies, grotesque and darkly violent with plenty of swearing: definitely not for the children. Which brings us to movie number eight:

Movie poster for The Punisher (2004)

Marvel’s most twisted hero character made it to the screen in 2004 in a movie I hope no one took their kids to see. The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane as Frank Castle, is sadly not about a superhero who loves puns, but rather a retired FBI agent who turns to vigilantism after his entire family is massacred. When I say entire family, I mean his wife, child, mother, father, siblings, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, cousins — this is a very thorough job. (Luckily, cousin Rick and his daughter Alexis skipped the family reunion that year.) Castle just wants his family back, but this is impossible. So, instead, he decides to seek revenge on the man responsible for their deaths — Howard Saint, played by John Travolta — by taking out his entire family, plus his entire criminal empire.

While carrying out his plan, Castle lives in a very strange apartment building with some very odd neighbours, two of whom are played by Rebecca Romijn, also known to Marvel fans as Mystique, and Ben Foster, who would go on to co-star in X-Men: The Last Stand. His interactions with these individuals gives the vengeance-obsessed Castle a bit of a connection to the human world and their scenes serve to lighten things up for a few minutes … until a team of hitmen shows up at the building and Foster’s character is having his piercings ripped out because he won’t give up Castle’s location.

Overall, this film is a dark and violent affair with offbeat characters and several bizarre moments (singing assassin Harry Heck!). Dark, violent, and weird: based on the stuff I’ve read (admittedly not that much), that is a pretty faithful representation of what Punisher comics are like. The movie contains a few very cool sequences, notably Castle’s insane fight with the blond Russian giant and his absolutely epic final revenge on Howard Saint, but I don’t think there are any outstanding performances. Thomas Jane is acceptable but not excellent (though hunky) and John Travolta is, well, John Travolta. It’s not a bad movie. It’s not a great one either.

The Punisher, who first appeared in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, can be an interesting character; unlike Marvel’s other heroes, he kills people on purpose and he does it without much regret. He’s a descendant of wild west vigilantes — a lineage the film seems to draw on by including a couple of western elements, notably in the opening credits — and the ancestor of Dexter Morgan and other anti-heroes who right wrongs by illegal and morally questionable means. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t deal with the character’s shades of grey at all, never really questioning whether what Frank Castle is doing might be wrong, and ending with the idea that “in certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law.” The whole thing ends up feeling a bit like an NRA propaganda piece. It’s unfortunate.

Marvel Movies Project: Daredevil

Daredevil (2003)

After the huge hit that was Spider-Man, the next Marvel character to make his way to the big screen was blind lawyer Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, the Man without Fear, in 2003. Daredevil is a much less popular character than Spidey, of course, and Daredevil the movie unsurprisingly didn’t come anywhere close to matching Spider-Man‘s box office performance. This is not only a reflection of the two characters’ relative popularity; it also reflects the quality of the two films, as Daredevil is unfortunately one of the weaker entries in the Marvel movie genre. (I should note that, for this rewatch, I went with the theatrical version of the movie. People kept telling me the director’s cut was far superior so I watched it a few years ago and concluded that actually, it’s not that much better.)

It’s too bad, because Daredevil is a pretty cool character and this movie has a semi-decent cast. Ben Affleck, who seems like a good guy and has become a very good filmmaker in the last few years (Argo was one of my favourites of 2012), stars as Matt Murdock. It’s not one of his greatest performances — safe to say Affleck might go back in time and erase 2003 if he could: his other big movie that year was Gigli — but it’s also not his fault he has to deliver terrible lines like “I hope justice is found here today … before justice finds YOU.” The late Michael Clarke Duncan is quite menacing as Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin — I totally believe he could throw Ben Affleck across a room, too — and Colin Farrell gives an enjoyably psychotic performance as Bullseye. Jennifer Garner is good as both versions of Elektra: early Elektra, who’s a typical superhero love interest, and the revenge-obsessed post-father’s murder Elektra. (And doesn’t her stance on the poster bring to mind that “male superheroes posed like female superheroes” meme?) In some ways, this film works better if you view it as an origin story for Elektra; overall, though, there isn’t enough focus on her arc to make that totally effective.

The major problem I have with the movie is that it can’t decide what it wants to be. It starts off trying to be all gritty, with a muted colour palette and the miserable Matt Murdock’s sad life of isolation. But then it becomes a cartoon with Matt and Elektra’s absurd fight in the park, which is one of the most ridiculous meet cutes ever. Bullseye is also more on the funny side of psychotic than the scary side. Personally, I’d have preferred it if they’d stuck with the darker version of the story, because that’s more how I, being most familiar with the character from Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker’s runs on the comic, see Daredevil. Instead of going for the full on noir version of Daredevil, the movie goes with a watered down emo take on the character, complete with a training montage of Elektra stabbing sandbags set to an Evanescence song.

Ah well. Despite its flaws and general silliness, this movie is fairly fun to watch. If I saw the blu ray on sale for under $5, I would consider buying it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Daredevil in the movie world at this point is the situation with the character’s film rights. 20th Century Fox, which produced Daredevil, needed to get another Daredevil movie in production by October 2012 in order to hang on to the character. They did not — though they had something in the works — and so the rights have now officially reverted to Marvel. Interestingly, at one point, Marvel is said to have offered Fox more time to get their Daredevil reboot going in exchange for Fox returning the rights to Galactus and the Silver Surfer, which Fox owns as part of its ownership of the Fantastic Four, to Marvel. Fox, who appear to be firmly committed to the idea of a Fantastic Four reboot, declined. It seems both 20th Century Fox and Marvel see more potential for box office glory with the Silver Surfer than they do with Daredevil, but I think Daredevil done right could be a great movie. Let’s hope Marvel comes up with something that shows off the character’s full potential.

Marvel Movies Project: Spider-Man

Spider-Man (2002) movie poster

Who am I? You sure you wanna know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale, if somebody told you I was just your average ordinary guy, not a care in the world … somebody lied.

So begins Spider-Man (2002), the absolutely excellent first film about Marvel’s flagship costumed character. But let me assure you: this film, like most superhero films worth watching, is all about the man behind the mask. In this case, that man is Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire. Peter, aside from being a superhero, is also a nerdy high school student who lives with his elderly aunt and uncle. One day during a school science field trip, Peter is bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider and develops many spider-like abilities. After inadvertently causing the death of his beloved Uncle Ben through inaction, Peter decides to use his powers for good. Uncle Ben’s words — “With great power comes great responsibility” — become Spider-Man’s crime-fighting mantra. Meanwhile, Peter must also deal with more normal problems, such as the fact that he’s in love with the girl next door. That girl, Mary Jane Watson (oh, boy), is unfortunately also admired by more popular and less geeky guys like the school bully Flash Thompson and Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, whose father Norman is not only a billionaire scientist, but also Peter’s arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin.

Spider-Man was easily Marvel’s biggest hit to this point — in fact, it is still the third-highest grossing Marvel movie ever: it made over $800 million worldwide, more than double X-Men‘s gross. And yet, despite the massive success that seemed inevitable given the character’s status as one of the most universally-known superheroes in the world, the movie took a long time to get made.

(As an aside, I wonder which superheroes have the greatest name recognition among the general, non-comic-book-reading public. I have always considered Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man to be a sort of “big three,” with Wonder Woman and the Hulk likely rounding out the top five and Wolverine floating just at the edge of the list. I hesitate to put him in the top five only because my mother, who is probably a pretty good representative of the average person who knows superheroes from their work outside comics, saw a picture of him and had no idea who he was. But of course, the Marvel movies may have changed some of these rankings. You’d have to think Iron Man is pretty well-recognized by now, possibly eclipsing the dormant-outside-comics Wonder Woman among a younger audience. Anyway.)

Like the story of Peter Parker’s life, the story of how Spider-Man came to the big screen is not for the faint of heart. There’s an interesting summary of all the drama at io9, but here are a few of the main points: Marvel had sold the film rights to the character as early as the 1970s. Roger Corman bought Spidey’s rights in 1982, then James Cameron was involved in the early 90s. A few years later, there were lawsuits over which of the several companies who thought they owned the rights actually did: ultimately, it was Marvel. But they sold the rights again — for good, this time (so far) — to Sony in 1999, at which point production finally got started.

I have a book called Spider-Man Confidential: From Comic Icon to Hollywood Hero by Edward Gross. Gross has put together a timeline of developments during the production of Spider-Man, which includes the names of the many actors who were at various points rumoured to be up for the role of Peter Parker. It is a mind-boggling list; some of the possibilities open up a whole world of “what if?” scenarios. A few examples: Jason Schwartzman, Wes Bentley, Nicholas Brendon, Freddie Prinze Jr., Heath Ledger (who was offered the role and turned it down), and Leonardo DiCaprio. In Daredevil #16 from May 2001, Peter Parker looks uncannily like DiCaprio; I’ve often wondered if this was a consequence of the casting rumours. Maybe not, though, because Tobey Maguire was confirmed to have been cast in July 2000. Kirsten Dunst, cast in December 2000, was the last piece of the main cast to be put in place, and filming began in January 2001. The movie was released at long last in May 2002.

This isn’t a perfect movie. The fact that both the hero and the villain wear masks takes away somewhat from their early confrontations. The film also doesn’t do a good job of showing Spider-Man’s wisecracking side.

But those small flaws aside, it’s pretty awesome. Right from the opening credits, featuring Danny Elfman’s excellent score, to the closing credits with the only semi-decent song Chad Kroeger was ever involved in, it is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying experience. The script has a great balance of comedy and more serious moments, plus it includes some fun stuff like the montage of New Yorkers talking about who they think Spider-Man might be with the nod to the “Spider-Man, Spider-Man” theme tune. Peter’s crush on the unattainable Mary Jane makes for an engaging love story, and the pair’s upside down rain kiss has of course become legendary (even being re-created on one of my favourite TV shows). Sam Raimi’s direction is spectacular: he and the visual effects team bring Spidey to life perfectly in all his webslinging glory.

The early part of the film where Peter is discovering his new abilities is one of the most irresistibly fun sequences in the history of movies; the scenes of Peter chasing down the man who killed his uncle are also excellent. The film so effectively portrays the euphoria of his first climb up the building, and then later, the fear mixed with excitement as he goes after the thief. It also captures the kind of hokey 1960s tone of the early Spidey comics very, very well. It is a completely earnest movie about a good kid who just wants to be responsible. Aunt May and Uncle Ben are like a wonderful pair of kindly, good, old-fashioned grandparents. Peter and Mary Jane’s romance is sweet and innocent, and some of their dialogue is, uh … “corny” seems like an understatement — but it works with the tone of the movie. The purity (for lack of a better word) of their young love is juxtaposed against the ugly and rather disturbing back alley attack on Mary Jane and Norman/the Goblin’s disgusting sexual comments about her.

Willem Dafoe was a solid choice to play Norman — he plays the crazy well. The entire cast is great: James Franco makes Harry pathetic but still likable; Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson as May and Ben are the salt of the earth; J.K. Simmons is J. Jonah Jameson from the old 1960s Spider-Man cartoon brought to life; and Kirsten Dunst brings a lot of depth to Mary Jane, whose party girl persona is clearly a cover for the serious low self-esteem issues arising from her home life. I am also a huge fan of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. He was basically typecast in “wide-eyed innocent” roles at this point and it serves him well here, in portraying both a hero trying to find his way and a young man whose unaffected admiration makes the girl he loves feel good about herself. Plus, he’s superbly geeky, and much closer to what I’d expect Peter Parker to be like than Andrew Garfield was in The Amazing Spider-Man this year.

I must admit, it’s been a pet peeve of mine that people seem to be so very dismissive of the original Spider-Man now that the completely unnecessary remake “reboot” is out. We all loved this movie for good reason when we first saw it and it has aged well, too. The effects still look good, Sam Raimi is still a great director, and Spider-Man is still the best, most amazing Spider-Man origin movie.

Though, it’s not quite the best Spider-Man movie ever — we’ll talk about that one in a few weeks.