“A guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs? What are the odds?”
‘Spider-man 2’ remains, after 20 other films, the pinnacle of Marvel movies to date. It was made by a unique and passionate filmmaker in Sam Raimi, who was born to bring this source material to the screen and now fully confident in his ability to bring the Spider-man comics of his childhood to life, not to mention the support and breathing room given by the studio to allow him to do so.
The weaker elements of the first film have been attended to. Where as the first often felt as if it were being filmed in Hollywood or on a back stage lot, the production design and cinematography of the sequel transports us seamlessly into Spidey’s world of New York and never lets us go. Where as the Green Goblin wandered aimlessly through the first film looking for something to do, the second gives us a villain in Otto Octavius who has an understandable motivation and a goal to accomplish right through to the end of the picture.
I love how the character falls into darkness because of advice that he gave to Peter but didn’t buy into himself. Octavius, on the verge of the greatest energy breakthrough of all time, is too blinded by the success awaiting him at the finish line to realize that the experiment is doomed to fail and cost him everything. And he is too arrogant to admit his failure when that happens. Rather than working hard to rethink his fusion reactor from page one, he takes the easy option of stealing money so he can simply build a bigger one. To quote the man himself, he is brilliant but lazy.
As well as being a technical marvel due to an innovative combination of puppetry and computer animation which bring Doc Ock’s mechanical tentacles to life, the concept of the character allows the filmmakers to craft some of the most thrilling and kinetic action sequences ever filmed. In my humble opinion, nothing before or since in any comic book movie has approached the awe of when Spidey and Ock go head to head in ‘Spider-man 2’.
What I love most about the character is actually something that not everyone bought into. In order to reconceptualize the character to have a redemptive arc, Octavius’s tentacles are presented in the film as artificial intelligence which take over his mind after the accident which fuses the mechanical arms to his body, also destroys his ability to control them. In subsequent scenes, Octavius is shown to be actually debating his next move with the tentacles. Rather than being ridiculous in execution, Alfred Molina completely sells the concept of this warped man. What makes it click for me is that while the tentacles convince Doc Ock to push on with his obsession and become a criminal, the conversation they have is not too dissimilar from the things people say to themselves to get the same result. If you want to really look at it from a psychological perspective, Ock is simply telling himself what he wants to hear. The tentacles have nothing to do with it.
The second film is epic without being overstuffed, containing the perfect amount of action, keeping its focus on Peter Parker and never forgetting it is a Spider-man film. The story beats it tells, such as Harry unmasking Peter and MJ making the choice herself to be with him, are so well done they feel logical and inevitable, as if we could see no other way for the second Spider-man movie to be told. It is also a film with something to say. The theme of ‘Spider-man 2’ is very much about the gifts we have as individuals and the responsibilities we have to a higher cause to use them, even at the cost of our own selfish needs and desires.
Finally, the film continues to recognize that, for all his web swinging and spinning, what truly makes Peter Parker a hero are the relatable hard choices he has to make as a human being. More than any other Marvel movie, ‘Spider-man 2’ puts our hero through the ringer. Peter must devote himself to fighting crime when he cannot even pay his own rent. His only avenue of cash appears to be selling pictures of Spidey to the Daily Bugle knowing full well they will be used to further tarnish his public image. He is trying to ensure a proper life for himself with a proper education but cannot find the time to study. His love for MJ and decision to not be with her is driving him insane. His best friend also happens to be the son of the supervillain he accidentally killed. He risks losing even the love of Aunt May, the only truly dependable, stable element in his life by confessing his responsibility for Uncle Ben’s death. Oh, and his superpowers stop working altogether.
But ‘Spider-man 2’ is not perfection. Fan as I am, I flick back through those comics that Sam Raimi grew up on and, just like with the first film, sense a small but vital missed opportunity.
If you cast your mind back to my piece on the first Spider-man film then you’ll remember my long rant on the pointlessness of casting Kirsten Dunst in the role of Mary Jane as well as the redundancy of writing a character with that name yet endowing her with so many personality traits belonging to Peter’s first love Gwen Stacey. If you’ve been keeping up with the series you’ll know that, in my preferred version of the films, MJ has not yet been introduced and Gwen has fulfilled the role of love interest. The love story between her and Peter plays out much as it does in the finished product but with the addition of Gwen’s father, police captain George Stacey providing a human face to New York’s finest who have been charged with trying to bring the vigilante web slinger to justice. The Thanksgiving dinner scene, in which Norman Osborn learns that Parker and Spider-man are one and the same, would have also subtly nodded that Captain Stacey has put the pieces together.
While I think adding Captain Stacey to the first film’s ensemble cast would have helped provide more focus on the city’s police and how they react to the appearance of Spider-man, the main reason you want to introduce him is to kill him off. In one of Spider-man comics’ finest moments, Captain Stacey was killed while saving a child from falling debris caused by a furious battle on the rooftops above between Spidey and, none other than, Doctor Octopus. With his last words, Stacey confesses to Spidey that he knows full well who is under that mask and charges Peter with protecting Gwen.
So imagine our ‘Spider-man 2’. Imagine Peter’s birthday party reintroducing both Gwen and George Stacey with the latter making subtle nods privately to Parker that he knows full well both how he feels about Gwen and what he really does with his “busy” life. Imagine Harry Osborn trying to put pressure on Stacey to have the police begin a full scale manhunt for Spidey to avenge his father’s death with the police captain curtly refusing to do so, secretly protecting Peter. Imagine Captain Stacey showing up at the scene of the Spidey vs. Doc Ock bank/rooftop fight in the middle of the film and being killed, just as he is in the comics.
Just adding that element provides even greater texture to the many story threads of the film. Stacey’s death shows the agony of choice and fate which dominates Peter’s life as Spider-man in that he was forced to choose between saving his Aunt May or the good captain. There is never a third option where he can save both and bask in his heroism. Tragedy must always be endured. Peter actually begins to believe what the Daily Bugle writes about him and questions whether being Spider-man is a liability to innocent people. With Captain Stacey’s last words about protecting Gwen ringing in his ears, Peter is only further compelled to give up being Spider-man to honor those wishes.
Gwen herself, obviously heartbroken over the death of her father, needs companionship more than ever. She needs someone who will always be there to look out for her. Peter knows this and desperately wants to be that person but Gwen has already found what she needs in astronaut John Jameson. Peter is also torn in that he wants to lift the weight from his heart and confess his secret identity to Gwen but this is further complicated being that he will have to also confess his responsibility for her father’s death. Before the end of the film, it is Gwen who will give Spider-man the strength to fight on by absolving him of that blame. Also, by having Doc Ock be responsible for Captain Stacey’s death, a proper antagonism is established between the villain and Gwen. As opposed to her being the bait for the hero, once again kidnapped but some nutcase she doesn’t know.
While the finished film does a good enough job convincing you of Peter’s decision to give up the costume, there was one element that never sat well with me. For all his issues, I could never believe that Peter would give up being Spider-man if he knew that Doc Ock was still at large. This is a force well beyond the power of a police force to stop. If their initial fight at the bank could have established Ock as missing and presumed dead, Peter’s return to normality would have made perfect sense.
But I digress. You can tell how much I admire the ‘Spider-man 2’ that we got. It is everything we, as fans, ask for with these comic book movies. It is a film made with love and passion, with a real story to tell, rather than just a checklist of studio/producer/actor notes of scenes they each want to see stuffed into the narrative. Please do check back with me in a few weeks time for a very close, and most likely angry, look into the film which magically erased all the good work done to the Spider-man movies up to that point and destroyed a franchise. But before we delve into ‘Spider-man 3’, join me next week for a look back at a film which fits the exact same description; ‘Blade Trinity’.