Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Tangled Web of SPIDER-MAN 2

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Sony's effort to reboot their Spidey franchise (and hold on to the lucrative movie rights to the character), has just opened, and from the initial reviews it sounds a bit like those behind this new film may have made some effort to get right some of the things the much-lauded (but not very good) SPIDER-MAN 2 got so wrong.

I was a fan of the first Sam Raimi movie. It certainly wasn't perfect but it succeeded a lot more often than it failed and watching it unexpectedly turned into one of the two best theater-going experiences of my life. In my childhood, Spidey had been a good friend of mine. I read before most kids my age could even recognize their letters and even at that, I was a fan of comics before I could read them myself. And Spider-man was one of my favorites from the beginning. I spent hours pouring over his four-color adventures, making them three-dimensional in my head, then I'd take to the back yard and make up new ones of my own at such a pace that my efforts to instantly act them out could scarcely keep up. At some point, I lost touch with that. You grow up, your outlook on things changes and even if you retain a love for what had captured your heart back then, that love changes as well. Something that means so much to you at that age never really leaves you though. That remarkable level of enthusiasm ends up stamped on your DNA, even when you're not aware of it, and sometimes--very, very rarely but every so often--you come across something that, seemingly like magic, reconnects you to it in some way. This is what happened to me when I saw SPIDER-MAN. Going into it, I was just hoping for a good flick. What I got was one that stuck a tap right into that intense enthusiasm of childhood and turned the spigot wide open. It--and by "it," I mean this feeling I'm trying to describe--was awesome. Spell that word in all caps, bold print, with it underscored and enough exclamation-points after it to make up the Great Wall of China and it would still never be enough.

That reaction wasn't random. Sam Raimi had more than just the talent to pull off the picture and more than just the right kind of talent. He also had that same love of the character, and it floated between every frame. Transmitting that through a big, Hollywood picture is quite a trick. With me, he managed it.

For a brief time, the movie could still bring on faint aftershocks of that initial reaction. This didn't, however, lead me to exaggerate the merits of the movie. It never became one of my favorites. I haven't watched it very often. The Green Goblin's "Power Ranger chic" look never fails to make me groan. It still managed to be a damn good movie though, and in spite of some missteps, a damn fine adaptation of the character and his world.

SPIDER-MAN was a huge hit. It received mixed critical reviews. Two years later, the gang behind the first film returned with SPIDER-MAN 2. It cost more and didn't make as much but it met with smashing critical success. People saying it was better than the original. Calling it the best comic adaptation of all time. Saying it transcended the comic material, which is what people who look down upon comics but know nothing of them always say when they like something based on one.

Nearly seven years ago, I wrote about SM2, and, as is so often my habit, took a very different view. Here's what I had to say about it then:

20 Oct., 2005

It raked in a fortune at the box office, was greeted with nearly universal critical approval, and, in the year since its release, has frequently been a hailed as one of the best comic book movies of all time. Often, as the best.

But I didn't like SPIDER-MAN 2.

More than that, I didn't even think it was a good movie. I didn't hate it, though my reaction to it admittedly becomes much firmer when faced with the blind adoration of many of its fans. It had its moments, some of them wonderful. Overall, though, not good. Frequently awful, in fact. Inferior to the mostly excellent original in pretty much every meaningful way.

Being a lifelong comic fan, I'm always trying, when I begin one of these reviews, to work out some sort of formula that allows me to offer criticism of these movies as both movies and as adaptations. A movie can, after all, be a good one even if it's a poor adaptation, just as the reverse can be the case if the material isn't well suited for the screen. For fans of the characters and stories, of course, the ideal is to have both a good film and a good adaptation. For this piece, I'm not going to make as much of an effort to separate the two, aiming instead for something a little less structured and a lot more free-flowing; more like a series of observations. This are several potential pit-falls to this approach and I may not avoid them all. For the record though, I'm not one who thinks a poor adaptation necessarily makes for a poor film.

On with the show...

In discussing the film in different venues, I've often referred to it as SPIDER-MAN 1 FOR MORONS. Thematically, the movie is simply a rehash of SPIDER-MAN, retreading the same power/responsibility theme that had already been covered in the first film and doing so in exactly the same way, often using exactly the same scenes. Have great power, shirk responsibility, bad things happen, resume responsibility. Rinse. Or, depending on the metaphor one feels is more appropriate, wipe and flush. Essentially a remake, it adds exactly nothing to the story of the original film and in fact takes much away from it in the retelling. Most of the humor is eliminated, most of the elements that allowed us to identify with Peter are removed or severely watered-down and, most egregiously, the story is retold with all the subtlety of a loaded log-truck traveling up a bad road. Lots of noise, lots of flash, lots of driving home the points the film wants to make in sledgehammer-to-the-face fashion but far less intelligence, little charm, little wit and no real point.

This alone isn't necessarily sufficient grounds to damn SPIDER-MAN 2. The power/responsibility theme, even if it is simply being rehashed, is still a Spider-Man theme (though as I'll get into in a moment, the movie deviates wildly from the source material in most matters). And big, dumbed-down rehashes can be fun sometimes too.

"Fun," however, isn't a word in the vocabulary of SPIDER-MAN 2.

In the comics, being Spider-Man caused Peter Parker plenty of problems but it also served as a release from the frequently high stress of his ordinary life. As Spider-Man, he could swing free through the city on a pleasant day, flip off rooftops with reckless abandon and be as big a clown as he wanted. The mask freed him. As dangerous as his activities could be, they were also fun. His Spider-Man persona was that of a merry prankster, a smartass, always throwing wisecracks, relentlessly teasing and taunting the stuffy underworld stiffs he battled, reveling in the role.

This is a crucial elements of Spider-Man, one of the central ones. The first film, though arguably underplaying it, clearly understood it. The second, however, hasn't a clue. Being Spider-Man is presented in it as some sort of cold, harsh discipline to be engaged in relentlessly, joylessly, in martial fashion and as a matter of "responsible behavior," regardless of whatever trouble it may cause in one's own life. Everything else is to be held as a secondary concern; the discipline must always come first.

This is, to put it mildly, quite out of step with the spirit of Spider-Man. Having chosen to shear away such a crucial element of the character, however, director Sam Raimi inexplicably chooses, as the major source for the film's story, a plotline from the comics which depended entirely upon this clown persona element he'd excised. The result is a hollow adaptation, one that uses superficial elements of the original story to tell an entirely different one.

In "Spider-Man No More,"[1] the principal comic story from which most of SPIDER-MAN 2 is drawn, Peter, after years as a costumed crimefighter, had lost touch with why he'd become Spider-Man in the first place. Maintaining the identity was causing him a lot of problems and he was becoming convinced that, because it was fun and got in the way of his more adult pursuits, it was an immature thing. "...every boy, sooner or later," Peter thinks, "must put away his toys, and become a man." It was time to grow up, so "toy" Spidey went in the trash, in that famous image from the comic recreated in the movie. After Peter renounced his secret identity, crime became, for him, what it is to most people; a distant thing about which he heard on the news. Though it took some adjusting, this distance made it much easier to ignore. One night, though, Peter, passing by a warehouse, sees a night watchman being attacked by a pair of thugs. With the crime no longer distant but right there, up close and personal, he doesn't hesitate for a moment to jump into the fray and put away the two would-be thieves. The incident and the sight of the watchman, an older fellow, bring flooding back the memory of his Uncle Ben and of the reason he really became Spider-Man--those things with which he'd lost touch--and this makes him realize he'd gotten the equation reversed. Spider-Man wasn't a toy of childhood. It was his mature acceptance of responsibility, not a youthful shirking of it. He reclaims the mask and swears that no one will ever come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act.

In SPIDER-MAN 2, being Spider-Man isn't something Peter enjoys at all and though he helps others, it seems to serve no positive function in his own life--it is, instead, a joyless exercise through which he puts himself in almost masochistic fashion and that he allows to utterly consume his life because he feels it's the responsible thing to do. He hasn't lost touch with why he became Spider-Man. He has, in fact, become obsessed by it to a very unhealthy degree. When he has an imaginary conversation with his deceased Uncle Ben and tells him he's going to stop being Spider-Man, it's a conscious walking away from what he'd seen and accepted as a responsibility.[2] Such a characterization of Peter is a drastic deviation from "Spider-Man No More" and from nearly all of the over 40 years worth of comic stories. This sharp disconnect from the source material is made even sharper by a scene in which Peter witnesses a mugging a few feet away from him, mirroring the one in the original "Spider-Man No More" story, and, with the victim yelling for help, just walks away.[3]

Such a gross mischaracterization is actually the point where an earlier ill-conceived snowball became an avalanche. That early snowball was set to rolling at the end of the first film, when Peter tells M.J., the love of his life, that he can only be her friend, nothing more. It was only one scene and troubling though it was, it did arguably help give a more operatic ending to the movie. And, of course, it could be written off later without too much trouble. Unfortunately, Raimi decided, instead, to build an entire movie upon it. Thus was born the Peter Parker of SPIDER-MAN 2 who, out of a combination of masochistic commitment to being Spider-Man and an obsessive fear of putting loved ones in danger, shuns intimate human contact and commits himself to a lonely, loveless existence--that harsh, joyless discipline. This is a Peter Parker entirely alien to the comic character. In the book, Peter actively pursued romantic interests over the years, like any other normal person. Even after Gwen Stacy, whom he intended to marry, was murdered by the Green Goblin because of her connection to him, he never adopted the course chosen by the movie Peter. And for good reason; it's a completely irrational choice. In the first film, it appeared at the very end out of nowhere. During the course of the movie, the Green Goblin had learned that Peter was Spider-Man and had menaced M.J. and his Aunt May. This is a problem, but the obvious solution is for Peter to zealously guard his secret identity. If it's compromised, all of his friends and family would be in danger in any case.[4] Unless he planned to cut off all human contact--and he clearly didn't--it made no sense to deny himself a romantic interest. Yet that's exactly what he decided to do in "reaction" to the Goblin's actions. The filmmakers arbitrarily committed movie Peter to this inane choice, setting up being Spider-Man and having a real life as all-or-nothing mutually exclusive options. This notion doesn't logically flow from anything in the movie and has more patently obvious holes in it than a Swiss cheese but it becomes the "rationale," if the word can be so abused, for his giving up Spider-Man. It's the only way he thinks he can live a normal life.

In the all-important matter of M.J., we can only empathize with Peter to the degree to which we choose to ignore the fact that he's losing the love of his life only because he, himself, is needlessly throwing her away.[5] M.J., at the end of the film, easily refutes his "reasoning" for doing so by pointing out another of those obvious holes in the cheese; she's an adult, and can make her own decision about what kind of risks she's willing to take. In the meantime though, we've had to sit through two hours of a movie allegedly about Peter Parker/Spider-Man wherein a character who isn't recognizable as Peter Parker or Spider-Man commits to a transparently illogical, arbitrarily-imposed decision Peter Parker never made, requiring him to go through a process through which Peter Parker never had to go in order to reach a conclusion that should have been obvious to anyone from the beginning.

Not very impressive, either as an adaptation or as a film on its own merits.

In the adaptation department, Dr. Octopus doesn't fare much better than Spider-Man. The movie appropriates the spectacular visual of Doc Ock with little of the substance. This isn't necessarily a bad decision--in spite of the efforts of various writers over the years to better shade the character, Doc Ock, in the books, is still rather bland and lacking in depth. He's insane, obsessive, greedy, self-absorbed--quite a weird little guy. The accident that grafts his mechanical arms to his body damages his mind but he wasn't in very good shape in that department to begin with; the brain damage only made bad matters worse. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't succeed in replacing this with anything better. Their attempt to build a better Dr. Octopus makes of him a sort of sympathetic pseudo-villain. Movie Ock is actually a good guy, a fellow with a loving wife and stable life, selflessly dedicated to the cause of bettering mankind. He only does bad things because a protective microchip on his neck burns out during the accident allowing the artificial intelligence in his mechanical arms to manipulate him into it.

The scope of Spider-Man's powers in the film offers another wild deviation from the source material adopted to the film's detriment. This, too, was born, somewhat, in the first film, where we see Spider-Man exhibiting strength and ruggedness that if not completely beyond the abilities of the comic version are certainly at the extreme end of those abilities. With SPIDER-MAN 2, however, all restraint goes out the window. At one point, when his webs stop working in mid-swing, he falls what looks like 50 or 60 stories, crashes into a roof and gets right up without even having the wind knocked out of him (comic Spidey would have been killed instantly by such a fall). Later, he takes another nasty fall and lands with his bare midsection crunching, full body weight, across the lip of a dumpster. Again, no apparent harm. Later, another nasty fall and he bounces off the roof of a car. This time, he appears to be injured but only for humorous purposes (the scene is a repeat of the playing-across-rooftops scene from the first movie[6]). In his battles with Dr. Octopus, he's repeatedly slammed face-first into stone and brick walls; slammed so hard those walls crack and crumble under the impact of his face and body. They leave him completely unmarked and don't even slow him down. (Comic Spidey has, when weakened, been bloodied by ordinary human foes). He falls off a speeding el train, landing on the paved street far below, and zips right back into action without a moment's pause. By far the most outrageous scene though (and the most embarrassingly awful), is the one wherein he stops that train, speeding out of control, with his bare hands.[7]

Such things look absolutely ridiculous on the screen; they're abjectly pointless, brutal assaults on the willingness of the audience to suspend disbelief. Perhaps more importantly, they amount to an attack on another core element of the Spider-Man character: his basic humanity. This was the very thing that made Spider-Man so revolutionary in the 1960s. He's "not Superman," to quote Aunt May's laugh-line from the first movie. He isn't a god pretending to be a regular fellow; he is a regular fellow who just happens to gain amazing powers. Throughout SPIDER-MAN 2 though, he's presented as an all-but-indestructible juggernaut, with strength and durability so far beyond our frame of reference as to seem positively otherworldly. This works to undermine our ability to relate to the character; it's a constant visual reminder that he's not one of us--taken to the extreme it is in the movie, not even remotely one of us.

Related to this is another of the character's core attributes brutalized by this treatment: his bravery. For all of Peter's doubts and anxieties, Spidey is a very gutsy fellow. Frequently, he's completely outmatched by his opponents. In the early years of the book, which saw the introduction of most of the key villains, it became a virtual formula that he would fail in his first attempt at taking them down, sometimes rather spectacularly being served a dish of his own posterior. In the latter category belongs his first encounter with Dr. Octopus.[8] Ock dismantled him in short order, tossing him aside when he was through like a piece of refuse. But as in all those other stories, Peter gets it together, comes back and, defying the odds, puts the villain away. By contrast, it's difficult to imagine anyone giving too much trouble to the character with the capabilities we see in SPIDER-MAN 2, much less outmatching him. He's relentless, unstoppable, possessed of Hulk-like strength and nearly impossible to injure; attributing bravery to him for what he does is like attributing it to a person who squashes a bug.[9]

Of course, no one wants to see a movie about a "hero" squashing a bug. The filmmakers deal with the problem they've created in so radically amping up Spider-Man's powers in exactly the wrong way; they radically amp up the durability of the villain in order to make him more of a match. They don't bother to give any in-story reason for it either. As with their Spider-Man's vow of celibacy earlier, this is a matter of one bad decision dictating another. The result is both an absurdity made even more absurd and a thing so completely removed from the source material as to be unrecognizable. In both the comics and the movie, Dr. Octopus is bonded with his mechanical arms via a lab accident but he, himself, has no superpowers--physically, he remains a normal human. In a fight with Spider-Man, comic Ock must let his mechanical arms do the work and be careful not to let Spidey land a solid blow on him. One good shot and it's all over. In the movie though, Spider-Man is shown laying into Ock with full-blown, right-to-the-face haymakers over and over again, to little or no apparent effect. In a bank, he hits Ock so hard with a very large bag of coins that Ock is blasted backwards, his head and body leaving a crater in a rock wall, again little effect. Moments later, he hits Ock with a desk so hard it blows Ock off his feet, across the room, through a plate-glass window, and into the side of a car outside. Even after all that, Ock's impact on the car is still violent enough to blast it off the ground as though another car had plowed into it at a high speed. It doesn't even slow Ock down.

And so on.

"Spiderman 2" isn't one to let a little thing like internal logic or consistency get in its way either. The fellow who can stop a train with his bare hands can't even slow down Ock with repeated haymakers but frail old Aunt May manages to stagger Ock by striking him with her umbrella.[10] The film's lowest point in this regard occurs as the dreadful climax of the elevated train sequence. As noted earlier, the entire film presents Peter as being almost pathologically obsessed with the notion that his activities as Spider-Man pose a danger to his friends and family; it is, in fact, his central motivation throughout the film. If such a fear had no other effect, it would certainly lead him to zealously guard his secret identity, exposure of which would be the very thing that would place his loved ones in danger. His anxiety about this is so great that he's made of his life a misery, but during the train sequence, he whips off his mask and needlessly exposes his identity to the entire train full of people.[11] Rumor at the time was that this was done at the insistence of star Tobey McGuire, who wanted to be more strongly associated by moviegoers with the character of Spider-Man rather than just nerdy Peter Parker. This seems likely, as the entire film is replete with scenes where, while out as Spider-Man, he removes his mask. It thus offers a character far more more obsessed than his comic counterpart has ever been with the fear of placing his loved ones in danger via his Spidey activities, but one who, paradoxically, is far more careless--almost cavalierly careless--than his comic counterpart about having his identity revealed to the world.

SPIDER-MAN 2 was a big success and I know I'm pushing a very large rock up a very steep hill on this one but I also know that history's judgment of a film often isn't the same as that passed by the temporary passions of its own day. I don't really have any formal closing comments here. These are some of my observations on the film and why I didn't like it. Take them for what they're worth.



[1] From "Amazing Spider-Man" #50

[2] Raimi visualizes this by having Peter revert to his former pre-Spider-Man nerdy self from the first film.

[3] The only exception to this that springs readily to mind is "Spidey Cops Out" from "Amazing Spider-Man" #112, wherein, in the course of two pages, Spidey encounters but refuses to get involved in a mugging, then a kidnapping, the latter with the victim screaming to him for help. In the story, Aunt May had disappeared and he'd decided it was more important to try to find her than to get involved in the incidents in question. Still, it comes across as a gross mischaracterization (the fact that I even remember it attests to that). The story was written by Gerry Conway. It was only his second issue on the book and he hadn't quite gotten a handle on the character yet. He went on to a classic run.

[4] He keeps M.J. at "just friends" arm's length throughout SPIDER-MAN 2 but she's still kidnapped because of the Spidey connection.

[5] In the comics, the creators were forever devising ways to put Spider-Man between Peter and his various romantic interests but as contrived as they sometimes were, they made much more sense and you could empathize with Peter's plight. Betty Brant, after the death of her ne'er-do-well brother, was very firm on the point that she wanted a stable, boring mate who took no chances. Gwen Stacy believed Spider-Man had murdered her father. And so on.

[6] Significant portions of the movie were direct repeats of things from the first film. We get Peter taking out the garbage again, leading to another familiar conversation with M.J. We get the villain-talking-to-himself scene (in the first movie, it was Osbourne talking with his evil Goblin side--this time around, it's Octavius conversing with his mechanical arms). Another rescue of another child from another burning building. Another conversation with Uncle Ben (same car set, same wardrobe as the first time around). A repeat of that roof-jumping scene, played for comedy as it was the first time around. M.J. is once again kidnapped by the villain in order to draw out Spider-Man. The villain once again has a last-minute moment where he comes to his senses. And so on.

[7] Regarding the scope of Spidey's strength, there are moments of wild inconsistency in the comics (the most outrageous--and idiotic--probably being his takedown of the cosmically-powered Firelord in Amazing Spider-Man #269-270), but stopping a speeding train like that is a feat worthy of the Hulk; it isn't even remotely within the power range of any version of Spider-Man we've seen before. I singled out the train thing but that's only the most outrageous example of this sort of thing.

[8] From "Amazing Spider-Man" #3, another story from which SPIDER-MAN 2 is drawn.

[9] To put a finer point on this line of criticism, one of the most celebrated moments from the comic came in "Amazing Spider-Man" #32-33, when Spider-Man is pinned beneath a large piece of machinery in a room that is rapidly flooding. A few feet away is a new serum that will heal a dying Aunt May. If he can't free himself, he'll die, and, without the serum, she'll die. He's completely exhausted though. He's been running for days without a break. He'd just fought his way through a phalanx of hoods then gone 10 rounds with Dr. Octopus. The machine above him is massive. When he first tries, he can't budge it an inch. Between the two issues he spends seven pages--an eternity, by Silver Age comic standards--struggling to free himself, thinking of Aunt May, beating himself up again for Uncle Ben's death, insisting to himself that he won't let May die.

And, throughout the course of this, slowly, ever so painfully, he manages to begin lifting the machine off his back and, with the strain so great he's on the verge of blacking out, he frees himself. The sequence is one of the greatest moments in the history of superhero comics and is widely regarded as Spider-Man's defining moment. As such, its a severe criticism of SPIDER-MAN 2 indeed to note the obvious fact that such a sequence--Spidey's defining moment--would, after seeing what he does in the second film, look insultingly disrespectful of continuity if included in any subsequent film.

[10] She saves Spider-Man's life by doing so--Ock was about to skewer him on a large blade. In SPIDER-MAN 2, May is a fan of Spider-Man and dislikes Dr. Octopus, exactly the opposite of the comics.

[11] The passengers' subsequent promise that they won't tell anyone is pure corn, and handled in such a disgustingly saccharine manner as to be wretch-inducing--easily the lowest depth the film plumbs.


This is reprinted from my comics blog, here: