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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Netflix Diary -- Spider-Man II

(The footnotes in this Diary refer to nerdy things that the average non-comic-book-reading person would have no interest in. If you’re not a nerd, just pass them over. There’s not that many of them anyway.)

Previously on Spider-Man: Nebbish Peter Parker[1] gets bits by a cute radioactive spider, and gets spider-powers that make him attractive to the hot Mary Jane. He learns he must use his powers at all times because you never know when failing to do so will lead to the death of a dear relative. Also, his best friend Daniel Desario’s dad goes crazy and builds a super-suit and does general bad-guy things, like kidnap Mary Jane. Spider-Man kills him, and Daniel Desario swears revenge. Spider-Man and Mary Jane kiss upside-down in the rain, but Peter tells Mary Jane that he can’t be with her in an attempt to have the crappiest superhero life possible.

It might be possible to find a cooler villain to translate to film than Dr. Octopus, but I can’t think of one right now. Man, he is cool. You gotta love them arms. Because of this choice of villain, Spider-Man II is probably going to be the best of the Spider-Man series, especially if they try to make James Franco into the second Green Goblin. That dude is just not a comic-book character, I’m sorry. Unless the comic book is about James Dean.

The picture is divided into three distinct sections: The opening 63 minutes, where the story is set up and Peter Parker’s life turns gradually worse; The middle 30 minutes, where Peter decides that instead of being a superhero, he’s going to be just a dude; and, the final half hour or so where he recants his anti-hero stance and does heroic things and resolves a bunch of hanging plot points. Spider-Man II is virtually worthless if you haven’t seen Spider-Man. They try to recap things with comic-y panels over the beginning credits (and it does help those of us who have seen it remember what happened), but you’ll still be hopelessly lost. So, if you haven’t seen Spider-Man, do so now before you read the rest of this recap. It does, as they say, contain SPOILERS.

The movie opens with hopping music and the main titles, and immediately goes to the first of many Humiliations of Peter Parker. He delivers pizzas by moped for a manager named “Aziz” at a place named “Joe’s Pizza”. Here are the things this opening scene got wrong:

Joe’s Pizza has a “29 Minute Guarantee” – if you don’t get your pizza within 29 minutes, it’s free. These types of policies have been illegal ever since that deadly accident involving that one Domino’s driver. You cannot do this (for good reason, too, considering the dangerous things Peter does in order to get the pizza there), and having this in a blockbuster movie only perpetuates the myth that pizzas should be expected to be delivered in no longer than 30 minutes. That’s an arbitrary number, and impossible for any business that’s as up-and-down as pizza delivery to reach all the time. Even today we get people calling the restaurant I work in after 35 minutes, and they always say the same smug thing in the same smug way: “It’s been more than 30 minutes, doesn’t that mean we get it free?”

Peter uses something other than a car to deliver the pizza. I know we’ve all seen Do the Right Thang and think that this is how it’s supposed to be in New York, but you can’t deliver pizzas in something other than a car and not mess them up. It’s impossible. Can you imagine doing that in winter in NYC? You would be delivering ice blocks. A corollary to this mistake is that Peter uses no “hot bags”, which means that either Aziz is a horrible manager, or Joe’s Pizza is mind-blowingly ghetto, or both.

When Peter gets there late and secretary skank tells him she’s “not paying for that”, Peter doesn’t just take the pizzas home, only bothering to return to the store to give back his cash and tell Aziz to f___ off. If Peter was really a pizza guy, he would do this. It’s part of our code. With great power comes great responsibility, but if he’s going to be fired, at least he could get a little food for his trouble. Seriously, what are they going to do, fire him?

Peter does indeed get fired from Joe’s Pizza, and is having massive money problems. The film pulls no punches in letting us know this. He’s Spider-Man, so his world-saving has prevented him from holding a decent job, paying rent on his apartment that’s right out of the Spinal Tap “Hell Hole” video, getting good grades in school even though he’s the smartest one there[2], keeping his Aunt May from foreclosure, and getting any chicks. He can’t tell his beloved Mary Jane how he feels about her because he knows his enemies would crush her like a little red-haired bug, and he just couldn’t live with that guilt. He wants to have it both ways, though, so he decides to go see a play in which she stars (the filmmakers made her a successful up-and-coming actress) to show her he cares. He shows up late, and Bruce Campbell (try not to recall the other character he played in the first film) keeps him out of the auditorium because the “illusion must be maintained.” If there ever was a time for those webs, it would be now, but Spidey just goes outside and sits[3]. He sees Mary Jane come out and is going to weakly apologize to her when she kisses some other guy. That scum. Actually, he’s nice, and he’s Jameson’s son[4], so it’s just that much worse.

The other thing Peter does for money (I’m not sure why he lives on his own at this point, especially when Aunt May is all alone. They’re paying two sets of bills and both failing miserably) is take pictures of Spider-Man and sell them to the local news rag The Daily Bugle. The funniest parts of the movie happen in this newsroom, where dynamic, anachronistic, and possibly insane editor J. Jonah Jameson[5] rails against Spider-Man and bosses people around in pointless and non-threatening ways (example: “You’re fired,” and two seconds later, “You’re un-fired.”). There’s also the person who appears to be in charge of accounts payable at the paper, a fetching girl named Betty Brant, who has a little chemistry with Peter that never goes anywhere because of his attachment to the Mary Jane[6].

Then the Director’s brother shows up and says some stuff, and it’s all I can do to keep myself from thinking about “Jocser (sp?) the Mighty” from Xena. I wonder: Does he have to keep putting Ted Raimi in everything he does? You know people would complain if he didn’t, so I suppose he does have to.

This is a good time to mention the Director, Sam Raimi, who came to the world’s attention with the live-action horror cartoon The Evil Dead. He is a phenomenal choice to helm any comic-book adaption because he understands the cartoonishness of what’s going on. He also understands the importance of story, and even though he spreads things on very thick (like the “Peter’s a loser” stuff at the beginning, Peter’s self-doubt, the Undying Love of Peter and Mary Jane, the fact that a Hero must be a Hero no matter what, the evil that overcomes Doc Ock), he does it in a way that is faithful to both the comic book and the characters in the movie[7]. You don’t go to Spider-Man II to see a nuanced story about love and relationships, you do it to see a morality play with lots of web-swinging and dudes with cool mechanical arms. The movie is sappy, sure, but it has to be sappy to make sense in its context. This is a comic book, not Jane Eyre. And the fact that the sappiness works for the movie’s benefit is a testament to the great direction of Raimi and crew and the great story by Michael Chabon and crew.

As long as I’m giving out more praise than usual, let’s talk about Dr. Octopus[8]. When we first meet Dr. Otto Octavius, he is a loving husband and outstanding scientist who spends a great evening with Peter just chewing the fat about fusion. He loves his wife and he loves science. Of course, with a name like “Otto Octavius”, you just know he has to build 4 extra arms for himself to use during the Fusion process. These arms are so directly linked to his brain that literally the only thing stopping them from taking over his mind is a tiny blue light-bulb (he calls this an “inhibitor chip”. Has any “inhibitor chip” ever worked?) located on his neck. You know where this is going. The Fusion experiment[9] that OsCorp (the Corp. fronted by Harry Osborn -- Peter’s old friend, Spidey’s sworn enemy, and the son of the Green Goblin[10]) was counting on goes horribly wrong, the “inhibitor chip” is destroyed, Octavius’ wife is killed, and Spider-Man jumps in to save New York from being totally burninated. The arms take over, and Dock Ock is born[11]. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two straight OsCorp science projects that did nothing but create horrible menaces to New York. I think it’s about time the government adopted a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy on horrible menace creating.

The arms convince Ock[12] to rob banks to finance another Fusion experiment, this time in an apparently invisible (judging by the fact that you can hear the man coming a mile away, and yet nobody has found his hideout) warehouse on the edge of a river. It’s going to be bigger this time. The arms aren’t concerned with possible environmental damage, either. Metaphor for corporations, maybe? They wouldn’t go through all the trouble of making huge CGI arms without making them a metaphor for something, would they?

Meanwhile, Peter’s already crappy life just gets worse and worse. In addition to living a loveless life with no money and rampaging guilt over his dead uncle, his powers seem to be going away at the most inopportune times. This causes young Peter to go to a doctor who tells him it’s all in his mind, and take an elevator ride with a dog and Hal Sparks of Talk Soup fame. It was cool to see him, but it would have been better to see Aisha Tyler. All these things are pushing him to one monumental decision: giving up being Spider-Man. And 63 minutes into the film, at nearly its exact mid-point, he does just that. What will become of New York? Is he going to let Dock Ock just roam around free, sticking his arms into everybody’s business? This is crazy talk. I hate this sort of thing in movies. I mean, we all know he’s going to become Spider-Man again, right? He’s got to come back and make the movie studio more money! So the next 30 minutes we just have no choice but to sit there and wait for it to happen. This is the point at which you go out to get popcorn.

What you missed over the next thirty minutes while you were standing in line getting popcorn: Peter throws his costume away, which some guy delivers to the Daily Bugle. He then tells Mary Jane that he wants to be both responsible and her boyfriend (leaving out the fact that he’s doing this because he’s no longer a Hero). Mary Jane tells him it’s too late, and you can tell she doesn’t even like non-Spider Peter – she looks at him all weird. Peter rescues a child from a burning building (how cliché’ is that?) without any Spider powers, and at one point it appears that the child is able to lift him out of certain death. This anomaly is not explained or even acknowledged. Peter has a creepy chat with his dead uncle, who tries to guilt him into being a Hero again. Peter also gets a piece of…pie from his landlord’s daughter, who’s like the Slavic version of Dunst[13]. Mary Jane decides her fiancé doesn’t kiss upside-down well enough, and thinks again of Peter. Dock Ock formulates a plan to get the expensive glowing mineral her needs to build his Fusionator – he’s going to trade with Harry Osborn. When Harry gets Spider-Man, Ock will get his glowing CGI mineral. Ock goes off looking for Peter, who he thinks will lead him to Spider-Man. Peter rethinks that whole “I hate Spider-Man” thing (after a creepily prescient talk with Aunt May and some little kid I don’t remember from the first film), and gets his costume and powers back. He goes to talk to Mary Jane, and tells her he doesn’t love her, and before they can kiss to (dis)prove it to her, Ock shows up and takes her away.

Whew. You missed a lot. Anyway, Spider-Man has this climactic battle with Ock that I’ll spare you most of the details of. It’s terribly exciting. By far the most interesting part is where Spider-Man becomes Jesus and spreads his arms out to sacrifice himself for a bunch of strangers on a train. For some reason he takes his mask off (I think it shorted out(?)), and after he stops the train they take his exhausted Peter body (with arms sprawled out and a wound in his side…hmm) and lay him down and look at him. They can all see who he is. One of the people says, “He’s just a kid.” In that one statement the film captures the greatness of Spider-Man: he has sacrificed everything -- even his youth -- to save people. Everything is about the responsibility. That moment in the train, as he wakes up and sees the people he just saved looking at him, and some cute moppet gives him his mask back, and they’re all, “Your secret is safe with us,” is the best moment in the film. It inspires greatness.

Doc Ock doesn’t like this, and enters the train with Spidey on his mind. The people courageously stand in front of him, but he moves them out of the way and takes Spider-Man to Harry Osborn. Harry predictably removes the Spider-mask and recoils at the thought of his best friend killing his father. Or at least that’s what I think was happening. James Franco isn’t really that great of an actor, so I couldn’t tell. There seemed to be some recoiling, though. Spider-Man gets free from this and finds the invisible lab where the Fusionator is. He tries to uplug it, but it’s too late to stop the chain reaction. Oh, and Mary Jane is there, imperiled and totally soaked, just like in the first film. You gotta go with what works, right?

Eventually, Otto Octavius regains control of his mind as the arms immerse in water and short out. He saves the days by drowning the Fusionator in the river. I don’t know the scientific principles behind it, but it works. So Ock ends up saving the day after almost ruining the day, and the mask-less Peter as Spider-Man is discovered by Mary Jane afterward. She says she “somehow knew all along”, and it all comes together for her. Peter says he loves her, but they can’t be together, because then she would be a target for his enemies. Of course, the mere fact that he loves her automatically makes her a target, but he’s too “oh, poor me,” to see that. He lowers Mary Jane to the ground on a web, and she hugs her fiancé. Poor Peter. Poor, poor, Peter. They say the world needs a hero, and he’s not going to stand there and wait.

Then the perfect ending happens. It’s like, so melodramatic superhero, but it had to be done. You can’t end II the same way you ended I. You just can’t. Mary Jane leaves the other dude at the altar, and goes to Peter’s hell hole apartment. He can’t believe it, but she tells him that he’s not the only one who gets to be in on this decision, and that she chooses the life of the Superhero Wife – she’s going to make the sacrifice for him. They kiss (aww), and a police siren blares. He has to go. She says, “Go get ‘em tiger,” which is the cheesiest, most George Lucas line ever but somehow Dunst makes it not so cheesy. He swings away as she looks on, wondering what she has gotten herself into. Like I said, it’s the perfect ending. It’s too bad they’re going to have to ruin it with Spider-Man III.

Speaking of the next movie, it appears my worst fears will be realized as Harry Osborn insanely sees his dad in mirrors and finds a secret Green Goblin Material Stash behind some one-way glass. Aw, man…it looks like I’ll have to wait until at least Spider-Man IV to see Mysterio[14] now.

I give this one 4 ½ overpriced popcorns out of 5, cuz it was gooood


[1] Played, in the best casting ever, by Tobey Macquire. Beats Michael Keaton as Batman, doesn’t it?

[2] His Professor is Dr. Connors, who discerning viewers may know eventually has his own “experiment-gone-horribly-wrong” and becomes that most pitiable of Spider-Man’s villains, the Lizard.

[3] As he sits outside, an Asian woman plucks a violin and sings the theme song for the old badly animated Spider-Man cartoon show. You know, “does whatever a spider can” and what-not. This song was also ripped off by They Might Be Giants in the song “Particle Man”. It’s in our public consciousness, so it’s kind of funny and strange to hear it in this movie. It would be like having Michael Keaton walk by a dude singing “dananananananananananananananana BATMAN!” in Batman Returns.

[4] See next paragraph

[5] Jameson’s kind of like Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings – it would have been better to leave him out than get him wrong, since mishandling him could totally derail the movie. Thankfully, the Jameson here is pitch-perfect greatness, and adds needed liveliness to the whole thing.

[6] Ms. Brant and her family were big players in the early days of the comic book – which is why her hair looks like it’s right out of an idealized version of the late 50’s- early 60’s. The comic started in the mid-60’s, but it has a lot of 50’s sensibility to it.

[7] Contrast Raimi’s job with the original Batman movies directed by Tim Burton – Raimi manages to avoid all the mistakes that Burton did, most notably making the film more about the villain and the hero’s gadgets than the hero himself. In the end we knew more about the Batmobile than Batman. But then again, if you had cast Michael Keaton in the role, would you have concentrated on him?

[8] Once again, a brilliant job by the film in naming him – having Jameson do it in a funny rant where he mentions not only “Dr. Octopus” but also his standard nickname “Dock Ock”, and the name of another Marvel Comics character (albeit a totally spare one IMO), Dr. Strange.

[9] Introduced by Molly Cheek, who played the wife in “Harry and the Hendersons”(the TV show, not the movie). I checked, because it was bugging me.

[10] The villain from the first movie, and if you needed this footnote, you’re in serious trouble.

[11] And played near-perfectly by Alfred Molina, who captures the integral parts of Dock Ock – intensity and intelligence.

[12] I don’t remember the arms being in control from the comics. I may have missed that and thought he was just plain crazy, like all the other “manimal-type” monster-men Spidey faced. It’ amazing how many of his enemies were just men crossed with the idea of an animal. That’s comic books, I guess.

[13] I don’t remember the landlord’s daughter being in the original comic, and truth be told she totally unnecessary here. And now that you mention it, the landlord’s name is “Ditkovich”. Steve Ditko was the original author of the comic. How cute.

[14] Or Electro, or the Scorpion, or the Lizard, or the Vulture, or the Sandman, or the Rhino, or Kraven the Hunter. Fortunately, this also means that we won’t see Venom or Carnage or any of the other overly-drawn characters that so ruined the later issues of the comic books.

4 Comments:

  • At 8:39 PM, Blogger Danny said…

    wow...I never knew...

     
  • At 5:59 AM, Blogger Mike Pape said…

    What didn't you know?

     
  • At 9:17 AM, Blogger Lord Bif said…

    Actually, Thomas Hayden Chruch is playing Sandman in the new movie.

     
  • At 9:48 PM, Blogger Mike Pape said…

    Oh, great -- It's going to be like one big episode of "Wings".

    But seriously, that does give me hope for the next movie, since it will have a real villain. I had heard he was signed on to do it, but I didn't know it was going to be Sandman. Now that I think about it, that could be really cool.

     

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