Skip to main content

Guy name Otto Octavius ends up with eight limbs. What are the odds?

Spider-Man 2
(2004)

(SPOILERS) It may be a relatively minor heresy, as these things go, but I prefer the first Spider-Man to Sam Raimi’s praise-showered follow up. More accomplished in terms of character work, effects and interweaving plotting it may be, but Spider-Man 2 just isn’t as much fun.

There’s certainly amusement to be had from Raimi revelling in his use of Peter Parker as a punching bag (not as extreme as the tortures inflicted upon Bruce Campbell’s Ash, but in the same ballpark), be it the character’s pallid resistance to embarking on a relationship with MJ – Dunst gets stick for being an unsympathetic love interest, but really, MJ’s simply driven to others’ arms by Peter’s anaemic retreat from any kind of consummation – his guilt over Uncle Ben, and over Norman (both Aunt May and Harry have things to say when they learn the respective truths), his financial woes, his study woes, and his existential doubt over his calling.

The latter comes via a slightly irksome Superman II-esque subplot in which Peter loses his powers (from Spider-Man No More!) It feels too soon to be going down that route, straight after the character’s genesis. The rejection-of-calling trope generally is an overused and inert one that rarely works (something like Iron Man Three did things creatively, divesting its hero rather than have him out-and-out give up, but even that gets brick bats from those who think it dispensed with the essence of what you want to see in an Iron Man movie).

Alfred Molina delivers a reliable, authentic performance as Octavius (less so is his virtual double), but for me, while Doc Ock is technically superior to his villainous predecessor, he’s still little more than a Goblin redux (amenable but ambitious scientist conducts experiment that turns him into a psycho) – just without the unvarnished relish Dafoe brings to such Machiavellian mischief making.

Yes, the operation sequence attempting to remove his vestigial limbs is a Raimi masterclass in PG-13 comic book horror, but it’s also notable that the picture stints on the action for long stretches, expecting the character arcs to be sufficiently involving to support the longueurs; there’s a bank robbery (Peter luckily happens to be on the scene) and the subway train sequence (which has tremendous action beats, but also irks both for the compulsion the Raimi trilogy has to show Maguire unmasked at any opportunity and the reheat of New Yorkers uniting in the face of a (terrorist) threat that already felt clumsy in the first movie). Doc Ock takes Aunt May hostage. Then he takes MJ hostage. Then he disappears for a good spell. There’s also another burning building (the main takeaway here, rather than Peter’s heroism, is the father who doesn’trush inside to save his daughter but leaves Peter to it). Raimi has a knack for making whatever’s onscreen at least watchable, Oz the Great and Powerful aside, but Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Julia, Ordinary People) – from a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, the latter recently announced as the Picard showrunner – chartsverytraditional beats. We even have a repeat of the main villain capturing Spidey and yet again failing to unmask him (albeit, he leaves that to Harry).

The Octavius material is at least appreciably front-loaded, so we get to know him as a nice guy – with a nice wife – before things go pear-shaped. He even tells bad jokes (“We found the rubber band”), which may not have been, but seems like a very Raimi touch. But Doc Ock just isn’t an interesting baddy, and his plans aren’t very interesting either. It isn’t until the final confrontation that Molina is able to recapture some juice, as Peter pleads with him for control of his tentacles (their responsive AI nature is another neat touch). If this makes it sound like the movie is failing, it’s more to point out that I don’t think its areas of success are as unparalleled as is often made out.

On which subject, while Franco brings his natural charm to bear as smug, abrasive and now increasingly obsessive Harry – this works in the Raimi movies, but repeating it in the Garfield outings when it had already been thoroughly explored was a big mistake – the relationship between Peter and MJ isn’t compelling the way it needs to be. I’m sure Mageina Tovah’s Ursula, the moon-eyed ditzy daughter of Peter’s landlord (Elya Baskin), is there simply as a holding pattern of someone who can see Peter’s better qualities, but she’s so much more affecting than MJ, you rather wish these two “losers” got together instead of being asked to care whether MJ goes down the aisle with J Jonah Jameson’s son.

Elsewhere, JK Simmons dutifully steals the entire show whenever J Jonah Jameson’s onscreen, the priceless moment of the movie being his sustained laugh in response to Peter asking “Can you pay me in advance?” Raimi naturally throws in humorous touches throughout – I particularly like the busker of the classic Spider-Man theme reflecting Peter’s moods and Campbell’s snooty usher – as well as setting up elements that would never have a payoff, from Dylan Baker’s Curt Connors as the Lizard to the potential avenue for Man-Wolf to appear (Harry’s son’s a spaceman). That said, this is simultaneously much more keyed in to sequel continuity, with Harry discovering his father’s hidden chambers and being haunted by his mirror self setting up the third instalment.

Raimi also shifts to the 2:35:1 aspect ratio seamlessly, although aerial sequences are consequently now very much using streets as corridors, blocking off the sides of the frame to achieve a similar effect to previously. Spider-Man 2 won the best visual effects Oscar (the only such award for the Raimi trilogy), but it’s nevertheless noticeable how some of the virtual Doc Ock and Spideys haven’t aged well; as with the previous instalment, Raimi knows not to linger on shots – a failing of the Wachowski sisters in The Matrix Reloaded – but he’s unable to disguise the joins.

The irony is that Spider-Man 2’s tentacle removal scene was trumpeted as Raimi unleashed, but he’s actually more visually anarchic in the first movie. There’s a degree of responsibility here that dampens down the proceedings a little too much. For every masterful composition (and the car hurtling through the restaurant window remains masterful), there’s a feeling that this is almost toomeasured, sustained, composed. Being mature and studied, hitting all the right notes, doesn’t altogether suit the director, even if it brought the greatest acclaim of his career.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men (1992)
(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

What happens at 72?

Midsommar (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ari Aster, by rights, ought already to be buckling under the weight of all those accolades amassing around him, pronouncing him a horror wunderkind a mere two films in. But while both Midsommar and Hereditary have both received broadly similar critical acclaim, his second feature will lag behind the first by some distance in box office, unless something significant happens in a hitherto neglected territory. That isn’t such a surprise on seeing it. While Hereditary keeps its hand firmly on the tiller of shock value and incident, so as to sustain it’s already more than adequate running time, Midsommar runs a full twenty minutes longer, which is positively – or rather, negatively – over-indulgent for what we have here, content-wise, and suggests a director whose crowned auteurishness has instantly gone to his head.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.