Good news O.C. fans! It appears that Seth not only survived his improbable boat trip, but is back together with Summer! At least, that’s the way it looked from where I was standing outside the Arclight Theater in Hollywood tonight at the corner of fiction and reality and if I had a picture phone, I could prove it to you. Alas, that blur will have to sate my sinking Orange County withdrawal until November.
Yet fear not, faithful reader(s), for I have more good news to report: Spider-Man 2 is a leaps and bounds improvement over the first web-slinging installment. More so than Attack of the Clones was to The Phantom Menace or even The Prisoner of Azkaban was to the Columbus duo.
I was quite disappointed by Spidey the Elder. The action and effects were pretty lame by summer blockbuster standards. The story was practically non-existent. The villain was an uninteresting mess. The script somehow failed to satisfactorily milk the inherent drama of the tangled relationships. And don’t even get me started on the infamous Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers meets Batman circa Adam West pointless exposition scene. Still, it wasn’t a total disaster (yeah, I’m looking at you Batman & Robin and The Hulk and probably Catwoman) and there was a lot to like, like the origin stuff, the actors who weren’t Willem Dafoe, the upside down wet-T-shirt contest kiss, the way cinematographer Don Burgess showed off New York City and the final scene in the graveyard.
But Spider-Man 2 works as a whole, topping all of those individual achievements (even if it doesn’t have a single image as iconic as that kiss) and correcting all those failures. In the spirit of one-word-review-week here at The Pop Culture Petri Dish, the pull-quote that came to mind for this movie is: “Aerodynamic!” As in, “Spider-Man 2 is aerodynamic where Spider-Man was plodding.”
And I’m not just talking about Spidey’s movement (though that too is much more aerodynamic here than in the first). I’m talking about the story, the characters, the relationships and the themes. I’m talking about the sense of excitement, the sense of wonder, the sense of humor and the sense of fun – all lacking in numero uno. By no means is it perfect or the greatest superhero movie that ever lived, but it is the best blockbuster to come along in what seems like a long time.
Now for the (very minor) nit-picks: The humor, as great and welcome as it is, borders on self-parody (and one need only look at Batman & Robin (easier said than done, I know) to see where that road leads). The world of comic book superheroes requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, which is aided by the characters within the world treating it seriously. That’s one of the reasons the X-Men movies have worked so well. This doesn’t mean there can’t be funnies – there are plenty of funnies in the real world – but the number of self-referential funnies (and laughs at the expense of poor put-upon Peter Parker) should be limited. Although if you asked me to cut even one gag out, I’m not sure there’s any I wouldn’t miss – they really were clever (especially the one at Tobey Maguire’s expense).
The other nit-pick isn’t so much a nit-pick as an observation. I may only be sensitive to this sort of thing because of a course on Race, Class and Gender in American Film that I took back in film school (or because I’m decidedly un-color-blind), but did anybody else notice that the filmmakers tried to make up for their (and the comics’) ethnically homogenous cast by making every under-five citizen of New York a minority? That’s more than Friends did. I guess that’s admirable?
Oh, and as for my predictions/questions for the future of Spider-Man:
First, the box-office. It’s odd, but when it comes to franchises, quality rarely dictates which installment will gross more. Both Attack of the Clones and now The Prisoner of Azkaban marked significant drop-offs, despite being universally regarded as vast improvements over their predecessors. While you can argue that The Phantom Menace benefited from sixteen years of frustrated, pent-up anticipation, that doesn’t jive with its smaller opening than Clones and infinitely longer legs. And though Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had its own pent-up anticipation going for it, The Chamber of Secrets required only a year’s patience compared to Azkaban’s year and a half. So I’m betting that even with a much clearer path than the first Spider-Man had (there’s nothing comparable to the Attack of the Clones in sight), the sequel will do about as well as Clones. Or it could make like Shrek 2 and Return of the King. What do I know?
As for the next sequel and beyond, they’ve planted three future villains in Spider-Man 2 (though it’s pretty clear by the end who is set up to take front and center in Spider-Man 3). The dilemma they face is whether or not to double up on baddies in the next installment after barely including even one in each of the first two movies (though used much better than the Green Goblin, Doc Ock wasn’t used much more than him). While that technique worked perfectly in Batman Returns (the aforementioned greatest superhero movie that ever lived), it was a part of why the Schumacher twosome failed. The difference is that in the Batman movies, the villains always stole the Batlight from the Caped Crusader while the Spider-Man movies have gone to great lengths (too great?) to avoid that fate. But if Sam Raimi and Co. opt once again to go solo with the villain [TANGENT ALERT BLUE/GUARDED: An anomaly in the realm of comic book movies that both Goblin and Ock have gone it sans henchmen or even consigliari], then will we have to wait for Spider-Man 4 and Spider-Man 5 just to see all the characters in this installment fulfill their destinies (and will they pull a Billy Dee Williams and recast Dylan Baker and Daniel Gillies in favor of more marquee-friendly hams?)? And what of my favorite meanie: Venom? While this potential security of their franchise must make those Sony execs giddy, there’s no way this creative team will remain bound to this series beyond the contractual obligations of number three. So Jake Gyllenhaal better start doing some sit-ups and learning how to act. Or, if I may offer a better suggestion: Call Adam Brody’s agent (and not just to give this blog post a sense of coming full circle or my evening a prescient twinge of irony).