It's rare I get the chance to review a film that I consider to be one of my favorites. It's something I consider quite the challenge, because now I'm tasked with explaining why I find the film in question to be worthy of the greatest of praise, to try to convince people (who probably already have their mind made up on the subject) of why I feel how I do, about a film I've seen so many times I don't even need to watch it again to write an essay and a half about it. I have to separate emotion from critical thinking, to not just sing its praises, because I personally love it.
It gives me great pleasure to talk about 'Spider-Man 2' today, the film I feel was the first to perfect the art of the comic book movie, one of the rare sequels to outshine the original, and perhaps the greatest work to come out of the majority of those involved. Currently ranked the fourteenth highest grossing domestic film of all time (not adjusted), the winner of the visual effects Oscar at the 2005 Academy Award ceremony (with two nominations not leading to wins, both revolving around sound), with a 93 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and a placeholder in Empire's top 500 movies of all time, 'Spider-Man 2' is an almost perfectly balanced human drama centering around a superhuman man, your favorite neighborhood Spider-Man, Peter Parker, and the repercussions for all the responsibilities and burdens he's hoisted on his shoulders in the two years since the events in the first film.
Parker (Tobey Maguire) is still struggling to find his identity. Incapable of holding a job, he is struggling to pay the rent, despite being the city's savior when he isn't snapping photos for the Daily Bugle, and still pining over Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the literal girl next door who has held his heart for decades. His only family, dear Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), is barely surviving on her own. As Parker deals with his decaying friendship with Harry Osborn (James Franco), he is also stuck with finding a way to stop Doctor Otto Octavius, reborn as Doctor Octopus, his former scientific idol who had four thinking robotic appendages fused to his body in an accident with no way to control them, who is wreaking havoc on the city owing to his excessive pride and his own sense of responsibilities due to a life-changing failure. The stress boils up to the point that even Peter's place in the world as Spider-Man comes into question, as he can't even properly utilize his powers at times.
With great power, comes great responsibility, possibly the most famous phrase from Spider-Man lore, was the theme of the original film, while this second film focuses on the fact that with great responsibility, great power is needed, and not super-powers, either. Much like 'The Empire Strikes Back,' this is a dark tale, one that would rather end with the promise of hope to come, than show a true happy ending. Sure, some may say that the finale to this film is a feel-good story, but it sets into motion the other side of the relationship between Parker and Watson, one of jealousy, showing how even when fresh, the burdens of Parker's life duty as the city's protector can cause him to not truly be there, physically or emotionally, even for the woman he has loved all his life.
Every single facet of the original film is one upped in this second take, which utilizes painted stills of the original to set up the story in the opening credits, to great effect. Characters find their places perfectly. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) now has the fame she's always dreamed of, though she can't quite get the man she loves to love her back, and as such, does her best to replace him. Osborn, reeling from the death of his father at Spider-Man's hands, is a creature of pure anger and greed. J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) is utilized perfectly, a mix of cruelty and sarcasm that lights up every second of screen time, and even (dare I say) grows as a person. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) takes on the role of the wise elder in this installment, rather than the grieving widow, and instills the best wisdom possible, despite not quite knowing the true inspiration she causes. Octavius, one of Spider-Man's oldest foes, is an amazing character, a man of pure circumstance, whose fall from grace is almost as tragic as the true literary classics, combining Frankenstein and his monster into one being. Sure, in the comics he used to be a silly egghead, but he's the unwilling participant in all this, driven by the devices that are controlling him, who carries on conversations with his new arms like Timmy and Lassie, or Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Peter Parker is a revelation this second time around, as his story makes him relatable in the same way that the alcoholism in the Iron Man comic series made its hero more human and fallible. His stress, anxiety, and exhaustion from being a city's protector with very little thanks has worn the youngster out, and his role as the ever-present protector of the people has cost him too much in his real life, as he loses jobs, starts to fail classes, and loses a grip on the people around him, as he delves deeper and deeper into his other life. He relies more and more on the Spider-Man persona to get through his normal life's trials, and even then he still finds himself failing. When even his role as Spider-Man no longer makes sense, due to the random moments his powers stop working, he has the biggest inner conflict of any comic book film until 'The Dark Knight.' He put so much into his one identity, that he loses his grip on the other, and now he doesn't know if he can handle either. Sure, he does whine and gripe about it quite a bit, but I'm sure any one of us on top of the world would be complainers, too, if we fell so hard, so fast. It's also fun to see that when he makes his decision, to be one full person instead of two people, how no matter how good things can be, they will never be perfect, and he'll always need that other identity to survive.
The action is also increased, and utilizes a more realistic set-up, all things considered. We see tons of projectile fighting, and lots and lots of Spider-Man utilizing his abilities, in battle, sticking on random objects, shooting web balls or nets, and using webbing like rope, creating tons of leverage. Doc Ock also has the one up on Green Goblin, who was severely limited due to his clunky armor. Octavius is free to use his body, and his mechanical arms, with at least one to hold him steady, no matter where he's fighting, and the others to utilize anything and everything around him as a weapon, as he has that severe advantage in up close combat. He's a bit dirtier fighter, too, utilizing crowds and the fact that Spider-Man wants to protect them, to make escapes or put the webhead in tough predicaments in the middle of a battle. It's really well done, and for all their fight scenes, none of it gets redundant, despite being the same two people fighting over and over. There are also no obvious weaknesses, so Spidey can't just attack a mechanical device to gain an advantage as he did to Goblin's glider.
It's odd, really, watching how much, subconsciously, Peter Parker wants to be revealed in this film. He wasn't too careful with his secret identity in the first film, but here, he's outright blatantly trying to get caught. In the opening scene, his costume is hanging out of his jacket pocket. He throws it in the laundry, ruining all of his other clothing. He jumps into a convertible (after apprehending the criminals in it), takes off his mask, and proceeds to drive around town, through crowded intersections, where people had to have seen him land, let alone see his clothing. People see him run into alleys and change clothing, emerging as someone else. He admits his identity over the phone, when no one is on the other end, despite there being a large crowd of college students in the area. He even admits to a doctor, in none-too-veiled analogy, who he is. He repeatedly takes off his mask when his powers fail. He even reveals himself to his villain to try to appeal to him, despite the woman he's trying to keep his secret from being in the same damn room. He's obviously seeking out help, and not quite realizing that lesson he supposedly learned in the first film, about how his identity can cause his enemies to seek out his family and friends. In a sense, he's incredibly self destructive, but don't mess with the people he loves, as that will knock him out of his funk.
Performances, well, there are still some stinkers. Franco is flat painful, though the writing for the role is so bipolar and ridiculous that it only made it that much harder to shine. Dunst, as usual, overacts and is hardly empathetic or human, though she does nail the reveal shot. Who knows how many takes that took. Still, Maguire has never been better, and Molina makes for a wonderful villain, the most layered baddie in the series (which was imitated with the Sandman in the third installment to poor effect). The good outweighs the bad, readily.
'Spider-Man 2' is Raimi's best film since the 'Evil Dead' series, and for a long time was the gold standard for comic movies. With great villains (including cruel receptionist lady and snooty usher (Bruce Campbell) besting Parker), and a very stacked deck, this film truly represents the coming-of-age story, rather than the first. We get our first real epic fight sequence, a Tim Burton-esque lair for the villain, and the film gets it right after a big battle: Spidey is supposed to save the New Yorkers, not vice versa. It's not perfect, and nearly every moment Franco is in can be considered bad or annoying, but in the end, this is one hell of a comic movie. The door was left open for more sequels, though the series could have stopped here. It would have been like retiring after winning the World Series, but instead, the one-upsmanship of film trilogies led to the downfall of the series. The second installment was co-written by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, while the third installment was written by Raimi and his brother Ivan. As Peter Bracke put it, "the warning signs were there fairly early on,' before the cameras even rolled! At least now, with this release, we can pretend the third film doesn't exist!
The Disc: Vital Stats
Sony first released 'Spider-Man 2' as a part of the 'Spider-Man: The High Definition Trilogy' three years ago, on a Region A marked (playback confirmed the title to be A/B/C) BD50 disc, with no UPC number, barcode, or UPC reference on the spine. This rerelease of the film utilizes the exact same disc, down to the numbers on its underside, complete with the clunky menu.
This new release is the first time 'Spider-Man 2' is available on Blu-ray in the USA outside of the box set. It is given the Blu-ray Essentials slipcover (which is quite attractive, mind you), and the misleading sticker saying it was "remastered for Blu-ray high-def," when it's the same damn disc. Additionally, beneath the slipcover, the box art is nearly identical to the previous release. The bottom border on the front is removed, while the back is identical, save for the addition of the UPC, and the fact that cover has the date changed from 2007 to 2010 (the discs themselves still say 2007). Owners of the box set: the new slipcovers will create problems fitting into the three case box. Even if you have the worst OCD, it will do you no good here.
This release of 'Spider-Man 2' contains two versions of the film. See the supplements section for information on the cuts.
While I may not have been a big fan of the look of the Blu-ray for 'Spider-Man,' 'Spider-Man 2' has so few problems by comparison that it deserves a bit of raving, even if it isn't quite up to the bar we set so high with more recent releases.
The AVC MPEG-4 (2.40:1, 1080p) boasts improved colors, a nice solid grain level that hasn't been tampered with, and superb textures that can truly impress. Black levels are much improved, edges are always natural, dirt is significantly reduced, and facial details shine through easier, with the scratches and divets in Maguire's face coming through very pronounced. Stray hairs pop wonderfully, constantly. There are no banding or aliasing issues, not even in the sharpest diagonals of the suit, while some details on the costume are visible to me on this film for the first time, which is a great compliment. The wear and tear in the random New York buildings and sets shine, while the hospital attack sequence is by far one of the best looking bits in the film.
Skin tones are a bit problematic, as they can run purple at moments, and other times ghostly and flushed. Detail is strong, but there are numerous moments that just feel like there could have been better, where it's not quite soft, but certainly not strong or deep. CG Spidey blends in a thousand times better than in the original film, a big plus, though some CG effects can look pretty last generation and dull in the middle of scenes, a problem inherent in the effects themselves.
While it may show some signs of its age, there is no way to hate the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track on this release. It's slightly quiet, but packs a nice punch when it needs to.
Scenes are provided with a proper sense of ambiance and activity, with quiet interiors (that have random blasting car horns in the deep background), and busy and bustling exteriors. Sadly, even with the increase in activity, not much of it locates to the rear, so this is one New York City that's a bit front heavy in that regard. Localization effects are fun, with the octopus arms constantly coming from one angle or another, and they move through the room constantly, particularly in that wonderful hospital scene, which has screeching highs, and tons of octopus arms flailing every which way. The train fight is also impressive, with great design bringing the fight to life, particularly the various impacts and the constant arm movement. Some bits of localization, like the first unveiling of the octopus arms, can be a bit forced and exaggerated, but that may just be part of the comic-y background. Bass levels are not heavy, though they do come out to play on a few occasions, particularly mimicking the classic monster movie footsteps. Dialogue reproduction is my only complaint, as room dynamics can sometimes feel a bit odd, while more than a few lines are buried, not prioritized in the least, even in the quiet film.
This isn't Peter Porker of Spider-Ham fame. There's no pig to be found in this parade, nothing that can be made the subject of ridicule in the future...except James Franco's performance, back when he didn't know how to act. 'Spider-Man 2' was, for a long time, the Marvel comics film adaptation gold standard, and was certainly the gold standard for comic movies, period. It's enjoyable, light, yet heavy, dark, yet bright, boasts complex characters, and even shows us that even true heroes can't do everything. The Essentials release of the film is the same disc from the trilogy box set, but this time, that's not so much of a bad thing. Still, it would have been nice to have an extra disc loaded to the gills with extras. One could even recycle the film disc doing that. It's kind of amazing that one of Sony's biggest franchises can't get that kind of love.