EDITORIAL: Why SPIDER-MAN 2 Is The Best CBM To Date (PART ONE)
Why is Spider-Man 2 the best comic book movie to date? Because of the themes presented? Characters? Direction? I try to throw down my opinion, leaving out ideas of "cool action scenes" for the sake of real, probing analysis.
“It's a real movie, full-blooded and smart, with qualities even for those who have no idea who Stan Lee is. It's a superhero movie for people who don't go to superhero movies, and for those who do, it's the one they've been yearning for.” – Roger Ebert
How many superhero movies are relevant? Not to the needs of comic book fans, but to the general public? How many superhero films capture the times of the age of its debut? Films like The Dark Knight capitalize on psychological thrills and moral conundrum. Features like Watchmen find themselves firmly rooted in a fictionalized and terrifying past. Movies like the X-Men franchise speak, in allusions, to social themes. And while all of those films bring something new and fresh to the genre, ultimately, each falls short of a particular relevance by the time the credits roll.
Spider-Man 2 is an elevated picture. While providing the thrills, action, and emotion that should come standard with vigilante fare, it has at its core a message that is relevant and pervasive. Thematically, it’s a feature that remains true to both its characters and the story it promises to deliver. In this article, I’d like to go through some of the elements that make Spider-Man 2, in my opinion, the strongest superhero movie of all time.
Spider-Man 2 Defies Genre
While some claim that Spider-Man 2 does not know its own identity, my claim is that director Sam Raimi isn’t satisfied with portraying one genre. The movie, with masterful pace, shifts from soap opera theatrics to 1950s movie-monster homage in a matter of seconds. It relishes the idea of being a sentimental character study and then morphing into a bombastic, frentic action film, with glorious set pieces and spectacularly choreographed hand-to-hand battles. Simply put, Spider-Man 2 is not, in any way, lacking in an entertainment department.
It’s a movie that walks the high wire of action, using a meticulously balanced bar of comedy and drama to keep it from plummeting to the cliché, and it never misses a beat or waivers into territory where it abandons what has already been established in the scenes prior. All the while, it’s a film that asks you to read between the lines. A while back, I wrote an article about how Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane Watson is easily the finest portrayed female in all of superhero cinema. The article was met with mixed reception. For many, it was Dunst, herself, that provided the sub-par character development. For others, it was the way the character was written and how it didn’t match the one from the comics. But Alvin Sargent’s script asks you to read between the lines of her character, eliciting a level of communication between audience and character often looked over in standard action movies. For those who don’t care for Dunst’s decisions as a character, for me it was a breath of fresh air to see her manage a lifestyle so independently, and to call her own shots in a way that wasn’t overly “masculine” by any definition of the word.
It’s a Redemption Story For Every Character
For a movie that balances a barrel of themes, Spider-Man 2 should be applauded for its devotion to its characters that work independently from each other. What I like about Raimi’s feature is that it presents all of its characters in a way that makes it seem as if each person could have their own stand-alone movie. You could easily follow Harry Osborn’s malicious obsession with the hero he claims killed his father for two hours. Mary Jane’s rise to stardom is definitely worth a shot for celluloid. Aunt May’s solitude and financial struggle has all the makings of an Academy Award-winning drama? And who wouldn’t watch a stand-alone feature of a Doc Ock slowly spiraling into madness. Case in point, those are four primary characters who, for all intensive purposes, don’t need Peter Parker in their lives, which, in retrospect, is the very definition of Peter Parker without Spider-Man...an everyday nobody. It’s one thing that bugged me about The Amazing Spider-Man: every character was dependent upon Peter for the story to progress. And that doesn’t mean that makes for a bad film; it just means characters can come off as expendable when that was never the intention.
But keeping with the theme of redemption (my personal favorite theme), every character in the picture has an arc. Every character changes, for better or worse, in the running time of the movie. And all of them experience, to some extent, some form of redemption. Aunt May learns to forgive Peter for Uncle Ben’s death, while making independent strides to live on her own, which includes selling her home. Harry finds a time and place to forgive his friend, and then abandons those intentions to follow a specific legacy. Mary Jane leaves the high life for what she truly believes in. Octavius falls to evil and then to heroics. And Peter refuses his responsibility for the sake of normalcy and ultimately ends up finding a new definition of himself in the Spider-Man costume. For each character, there is a struggle, a descent, and (for most) a rising from the ashes. That’s strong writing, as numerous films skip over those elements to keep the protagonist front and center.
It Uses Both Practical and Special Effects
Maybe you’ve heard about me talk about Christopher Nolan and why I think that, despite his expository writing and lack of flair for dialogue, he’s easily one of the best directors working today. Why? Because he uses practical effects for his large stunt pieces. It’s insurance that his movies stand the test of time, because, for the most part, he refuses to allow computer generated imagery to overtake actual movie magic and stunt-work. And for straight-action films, I find that to be a tremendous philosophy. But when stepping into the realm of comic book adaptation, one must be willing to break those rules quite frequently, dependent upon the character.
Again, case in point, Raimi has an extraordinary balance between CGI and practical effect usage in this movie. Ock’s arms are only graphically superimposed in fight sequences. In others, they’re giant puppets. That’s a testament to the craft and knowing what looks good where and what just doesn’t work. Because of this decision, Spider-Man 2 still looks great and easily holds its own in the action department. And who could forget the hospital scene? That’s sheer terror.
It Abides by the Rules Its Universe Sets
The universe of Spider-Man 2 is a realistic one. Let’s talk about realism, for a second here, because there are two major trains of thought. The boundaries of realism can exist both in the structure of the film and outside. When people say “A man with mechanical arms that control his brain is unrealistic,” they’re referring to the perception that to an audience, that is unrealistic. However, by the nature and standard of the picture, included, in this case, with concepts of a man with spider-like abilities, living caricatures of New York stereotypes, and massive street battles with no forensic or judicial follow-up, the character of Doc Ock is completely legal.
Some movies abandon this logic for the sake of entertainment, completely forgetting the rules they’ve established. Note: “realism” has nothing to do with tone. In fact, one who identifies a dark movie as being “realistic” has done nothing more than project their personal perspective on the world into debate. Happy or light films can be “realistic.” To gauge the realistic components of a film, find the most explosive, ‘out there,’ but integral element of the movie, and see if everything else in the picture supports that while being less extreme. For example, in a movie where four mechanical arms are taking over the mind of a brilliant scientist, a man-made sun used as an energy source is “realistic.” However, that all changes if, all of a sudden, angels fly down from the heavens and introduce a new element of the picture and throws everything off track.
It’s why Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises got so much gyp. The film started off setting its grounds with the most integral element of the feature being that the villain, Bane, was a hyper-terrorist with malicious intent and couldn’t feel pain. The audience is willing to accept that, and for most of the run time, the movie abides by that universe. But when the movie begins to play with time, physics, and unrealistic expectations of character location, it’s an abandonment of the rules set by the filmmakers at an earlier time for the sake of thrills many would find cheap.
In conclusion of part one of this two-part article, Spider-Man 2 holds a relevance because of how it’s made, as well as the contents of the film itself. I’ll continue to probe into more of these themes in the conclusive article.
So ends Part One of why I think Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero film of all time. We’ll get to Part Two in the near future.
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