PatchMan Revisits: Spider-Man 2

Superhero films have been around for a long time now, and there’s little sign of them going away anytime soon (for better or worse). But when their time is up and the genre goes the way of the spaghetti western or the Hollywood musical, an elite few may very well be spared the brush of audience fatigue for the fundamental reason that they transcend the genre. The Dark Knight (2008). Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Wonder Woman (2017). The mere mention of any one of these titles is a hallowed reference in film-goer circles, and Spider-Man 2 (2004) has had a seat at this illustrious table from day one.

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With two jobs, his university studies, rent, and taking on all of New York’s criminals as the masked vigilante Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has never had a fuller plate. To add to his worries, his beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is in financial difficulty, his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) wants revenge for the death of his father, and the love of his life – Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) – has found another man. Stretched to his limit, Peter may have to decide whether being Spider-Man can be a part of his life at all, a decision complicated with the emergence of New York’s greatest menace yet: Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)

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It’s all-too rare for a sequel to better its predecessor, and Spider-Man 2 also adds this exclusive club card to its hands. Director Sam Raimi takes literally everything that was great about the character’s 2002 debut, ups the ante, gives us more, and continuously plays with our expectations. The balancing act the film pulls off in showcasing each and every one of Peter’s struggles is nothing short of remarkable, even just in terms of storytelling clarity. Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee has always emphasised how the central idea was a superhero with actual, relatable problems, and Raimi demonstrates his understanding of this from the very first scene. Peter loses his pizza delivery job for lateness, even after delivering the pizza via webswinging (a minor, but no less glorious sequence). J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons in a now-iconic performance), editor of The Daily Bugle, pays Peter peanuts for Spider-Man photos which Jameson uses for his wallcrawler witch-hunt front pages. Even his birthday money from Aunt May is quickly snatched away by his grubby landlord.

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The film meticulously lays out everything Peter grapples with throughout the film, gradually building up the mountain of grievances for which Peter has his alter-ego to thank, until it’s big decision time. Can Peter Parker and Spider-Man truly coexist? Like the film’s predecessor and its contemporaries, Spider-Man 2 could have easily been overly angst-ridden, but even the ‘angst’ here isn’t so much angst as legitimately adult problems, and the execution of these dilemmas is done with just as much humour as gravitas. Raimi knows precisely where to sprinkle the jokes at Peter’s expense, and likewise at Spider-Man’s. How the film deals with Peter and MJ’s scenes together especially highlights a more mature take on the proceedings than the first film, with the script shedding much of its former corniness in favour of dialogue that actually sounds like two adults talking.

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Spider-Man 2 crafts for itself a superb antagonist in the form of Molina’s brilliant, tragedy-struck Dr. Otto Octavius. It’s surprising that truly great villains in superhero cinema are few and far between, when the solution seems so often to be simply allowing them some substantial non-evildoing screen time.  Our main villain here spends over half an hour of the film as a normal man, a brilliant and virtuous scientist who Peter sees as a mentor, and whose downfall and manipulation by artificial intelligence ‘tentacles’ of his own creation packs an extra emotional punch into Spider-Man’s already-spectacular battles with him. The Green Goblin’s brand of evil may have been deliciously wicked, but Doctor Octopus’ twisted morality and obsession is ultimately more nourishing, and Molina carries the role with hypnotic flair and true gravitas.

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Perhaps Spider-Man 2’s greatest feat is the fact that whilst it’s Peter’s story first, every one of its main characters is given a journey, and the film follows their journeys from beginning to end in effortless fashion. Whether its Aunt May’s money worries, or MJ pursuit of love and success, worlds collide, circle each other, break apart, and it all makes complete and cohesive emotional sense. Harry’s slide into his obsession with vengeance makes for a dark reflection of the film’s central theme of choices and consequences, and by the film’s cliff-hanger end to his arc our appetite is thoroughly whetted for his personal resolution.

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Brimming with unmistakeable adoration for the source material, Raimi delivered a sequel that’s just as much emotional drama as superhero, defying all expectations and continuing to stand the test of time as an intelligent, insightful, masterful blockbuster.

Quality: 5/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Final Score: 5/5

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PatchMan Revisits: Spider-Man

It started as a whisper. A growing chorus of violins with bows scuttling across strings, met swiftly by a rising percussive patter. A sound more evocative of a spider on its web composer Danny Elfman could have hardly produced, and Sam Raimi’s Spidey trilogy owes much of its swinging and soaring personality to his musical accompaniment. Before 2002, Raimi was a director renowned by audiences of horror and thriller cinema, but entirely untested in summer blockbusters. For superhero cinema, it was a time where ‘angst’ was studio gospel, with everything from The Shadow (1994) and Steel (1997) to Spawn (1997) and Blade (1998) trying (and failing) to usurp the throne of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Needless to say, things needed a shake-up, and suddenly Raimi’s childhood-borne passion for Marvel Comics’ figurehead web-slinger almost single-handedly propelled him into the driver’s seat of one of the most anticipated superhero cinematic debuts in history. $140m budget. $822m at the box office. a trilogy quickly set in stone. People talk about how much of a gamble Iron Man (2008) was with its then-notorious star, a similarly untested director and a second-tier superhero. They forget that trailblazing has been Spider-Man’s territory for far longer.

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High school outcast Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) knows only three things: science, Flash Thompson’s bullying, and his unrequited love for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). When he is bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter finds himself imbued with phenomenal abilities, but his initial efforts to profit off them results in tragic loss, and the hard-learned lesson that with great power comes great responsibility. Becoming the superhero ‘Spider-Man’, Peter vows to protect the people of New York from harm, a crusade which the ruthless and powerful Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) quickly puts to the test.

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It’s easy to forget amidst all the memorable cartoonish-ness of the Raimi films – awestruck citizens, every second of J.K. Simmons, a climax featuring New Yorkers helping ol’ webhead by throwing things at Goblin – that in many ways Spider-Man qualifies as fundamentally angst-ridden. Heartache, tragedy, impossible decisions, the weight of the world suddenly bearing down on Peter’s shoulders, it would have been very easy for this film to have slipped into a maelstrom of moping and mourning. What sets the film apart from its contemporaries is how although it honours a due amount of introspection, it never forgets Spidey’s all-important sense of fun. Peter Parker may be a troubled teen, but once the mask is on he’s a high-flying, wall-crawling wonder.

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Like all truly great origin stories, the film excels in capturing not only his transition from one to the other, but in how he finds himself having to actively balance both identities. Take his first webswing: his Uncle Ben freshly murdered by a common criminal, Peter is emboldened through donning his mask to give chase to the killer, but jumping off a rooftop web-in-hand is still a moment where the film allows a pause for Peter to fully realize his literal leap of faith. When Spider-Man saves Mary Jane from a gang of thugs – prompting the now-iconic upside-down kiss – his face isn’t just half-covered for practical reasons. He is truly equal-parts Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and it’s by sticking to this fine balance that the film demonstrates its deep understanding for the material. It’s also the exact reason for how Spider-Man breaks the ‘angst-y’ obsession of its day, fostering a union between euphoria and intensity.

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Spider-Man’s neighbourhood in the Marvel Universe has always been especially rich material thanks to its pantheon of characters, and this film pays a fitting tribute to this quality through its cast. Dunst, though in action largely just a damsel, is nonetheless a distinctive presence, as is James Franco’s beleaguered best friend to Peter; Harry Osborn. Rosemary Harris makes for a relentlessly endearing Aunt May, even if she is saddled with much of the film’s philosophical exposition, and what time Peter has with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) nevertheless boasts a strong chemistry amounting to a tangible sense of loss.

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But like all great superhero features, ultimately the film is a tug-of-war between Maguire and Dafoe. Dafoe’s Goblin may be as over the top as his glider-riding wardrobe, but every second of him is a treat, and Raimi’s horror background shines through especially in the film’s antagonist-centric moments. And whilst Maguire may have since gone down in comic-book movie history as ‘the crying Spidey’, he’s simply conveying the earnestness of Raimi’s interpretation of this mythos. There’s no mistaking his inner turmoil, nor the extent to which his physical mask provides an emotional one. Peter Parker is just a good kid thrust into an unpredictable life, and Maguire brings it all home.

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By today’s standards, Spider-Man may not be an especially innovative entry into the genre beyond its special effects, but there’s more than enough packed into its runtime to make for a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive experience fifteen years later. ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’, and the film makes sure its audience understands this to the letter.

Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4/5

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Transformers: The Last Knight

They came for the All-Spark. They came for the Sun Harvester. They launched an invasion from the moon. They fought for The Seed. Time and time again the Transformers have come to Earth, their history secretly intertwined with that of humanity. But the relentlessness of their visits hides a deeper secret, one that now draws the wrath of the alien sorceress Quintessa – a creator of the Transformers – and the Autobot warrior enslaved to her will: Optimus Prime. Fugitive inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), Oxford professor Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock) and eccentric historian Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) must solve the Arthurian mystery of Earth’s importance, if they hope to save it.

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You know what’s both hilarious and depressing at the same time? Even Rotten Tomatoes, the Internet’s film review aggregator, has thrown its hands up in resignation at this one. “The Last Knight is pretty much what you’d expect from the fifth instalment of the Transformers franchise”. Because honestly, that’s it. That’s the latest edition of Michael Bay’s bot-battling, bolt-bashing, flatulently-explosive, bullet-haemorrhaging sci-fi disaster porn. That’s two-and-a-half hours and $217 million spent. On the big-screen equivalent of someone jingling keys in front of your face whilst a squad of wind-up monkeys continuously bash their symbols together in a circle around you, and the shipping forecast plays on the radio in the background. And we’re just resigned to it now, clearly. We accept this constitutes ‘fun, dumb cinema’ today. Never mind the fact that once upon a time, ‘fun, dumb cinema’ meant a genuinely good time at the movies and a healthy suspension of disbelief. Never mind however sensationally silly blockbusters got, you still got a real sense of the passion and effort their creators put into them. Jurassic Park. Independence Day. Even Bay’s own Armageddon! They were the real deal. This…this doesn’t even qualify as dumb. This is a lobotomy. This is brain death. An empty husk of a blockbuster practically begging for the franchise to be put out of a now utterly joyless existence.

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Sitting through just ten minutes of The Last Knight proves to be something of a memory test, in that you can’t ever remember exactly how things happening onscreen transpired based on scenes that preceded them, and even when you try to focus you find yourself piecing together visuals, beats and plot devices that are so tenuously linked that it’s like trying to recreate M.C. Escher’s ‘Crazy Stairs’ by just drawing zig-zags. A Suicide Squad-esque unveiling of Megatron’s evil Decepticon crew? He’s Megatron, he leads the entire Decepticon army. Why does he need a crew, and if they’re in human prison then they clearly aren’t the A-Team. An orphan ‘street smart’ girl who just sticks around Mark Wahlberg for the first half hour, then doesn’t, then reappears at the climax to…give a motivational talk to her pet robot? Even an entire storyline about Merlin’s bloodline and a secret society is just a flimsy rehash of The Da Vinci Code. And who in their right mind would look at a Transformers film and think “you know what this need? A little Dan Brown”. And what makes it all worse is how none of these things are done with even the faintest sense of effort and consideration. They just happen. Anything that isn’t an explosion is there to just pad out the runtime. And speaking of padding…

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Mark Wahlberg. Can he act? Does he act? In general, this is a debate in and of itself. Here, it’s a resounding no on both counts. His Cade is a nonentity. A walking, talking commercial for protein bars, tight shirts, and talking smack. Energetically dislikeable, thin-skinned, there simply is no reason why he needs to be in this film at all. Everything important that requires a human face ultimately ties into Haddock’s professor, who unsurprisingly is given little room to showcase her credentials beyond a sharp tongue which the ‘script’ rarely rises to meet. You’ll be scratching your head over how one ‘retort’ to Cade’s quips was supposed to show her as challenging and headstrong when her words are literally “would you rather I take this dress of?” Even the great Sir Anthony Hopkins, the latest in the franchise’s tradition of revered actors paid exorbitant sums to be exposition machines, is reduced to an eleven year-old’s caricature of an old English fellow ‘down with the kidz’, and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey’s Mr Carson) joins him at the bottom of that barrel of cringe as Sir Burton’s sociopathic Transformer butler. Imagine ITV’s Vicious if either Derek Jacobi or Ian Mackellan was a robot. Clearly, the writers did.

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This franchise has never pretended to be anything high-brow, or even somewhat cerebral. Transformers has always been the province of kids and pre-teens, action figure battles royale. The first film did a somewhat decent job of just being that. Simple, stupid, silly spectacle. Every sequel from then to now may have brought the franchise ever-closer to rock bottom, but each one still had at least something that amounted to a highlight. John Turturro. Stanley Tucci. Steve Jablonsky’s score. Dark of the Moon actually getting a little dark. Transformers 5 has all these… and amounts to nothing. It’s a film that doesn’t so much give up the ghost as laugh at you for thinking there was ever a soul to begin with. This isn’t the Transformers of kids and their action figures. This is the Transformers of the Saturday morning commercial break. It just wants to sell. Your entertainment be damned. And the fact that it’s stopped trying to be otherwise deserves a huge loss of whatever respect was still going for it.

Quality: 0/5

Entertainment: 0/5

Final Score: 0/5

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Wonder Woman

Diana, princess of the Amazons – a race of immortal warrior women created to protect humanity by Zeus himself – has trained her whole life to become the greatest fighter of her people. When US pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the shores of Themyscira in 1918, the hidden island paradise of the Amazons, she learns of the Great War that has been raging across the world and sets out to bring an end to the fighting the only way she knows how: by destroying the god of war himself, Ares.

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It’s easy to just describe Wonder Woman as a midpoint between Captain America: The First Avenger, for its period setting, and the mythological roots and sprinkled fish-out-of-water humour of Thor. A fair enough description, if all you’re really looking at are the aesthetics. Wonder Woman, taken in its entirety, is perhaps one of the most unique and awe-inspiring films to have ever come out of the comic book genre. Rarely has a film of its kind demonstrated such an unyielding commitment to substantiating the hero’s journey, and such defiantly patient storytelling in a bazaar of relentlessly quick-fire, breakneck-speed blockbusters. This is a film that breaks the spell of cinematic bloodlust and craving for carnage that has beset this genre for so long (not that Wonder Woman is without its exceptional action set-pieces), and brings the focus back down to earth, to a person who just wants to help people however possible. Director Patty Jenkins has hit it out of the park.

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Gal Gadot has now entrenched herself as the definitive Wonder Woman of our time. Her performance is nothing short of sensational, embodying not only every aspect of Diana’s personality but every step of her maturing process to a flawless degree. Diana is woman, and warrior, and both define her just as much as each other without compensation or compromise. Her relationships with her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and aunt/mentor General Antiope (Robin Wright) are especially integral in establishing this balance. Arguably more so than most origin stories, Wonder Woman lives or dies on the calibre of its star performer, and so this film truly belongs go Gadot. Chris Pine also is on standout form as the daring and honourable Steve Trevor, charismatic as ever but here imbued with a quiet, war-weary cynicism for his fellow man that clashes with his fundamental faith in humanity. If performance-wise the film belongs to Gadot, then character-wise the film almost belongs to Steve for precisely this conviction that provides the film’s fundamental lesson: that between love and war, there’s trust. (A think-piece by the Nerdist’s Alicia Lutes explores this more fully that’s well worth a read).

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What criticisms can be made of Wonder Woman are largely nit-picky: at times, the film can feel somewhat overly weighted-down, so determined to ‘get it right’ that it perhaps overspends time and energy on what really should be minor considerations, an overlong boat scene meant to establish Diana and Steve’s dynamic when alone for example. Also in that regard, perhaps too often dialogue veers into excessive explaining territory, rather than letting performances and actions speak for themselves (a pitfall of the film’s climax especially). The only shortcoming of the film’s spectacular action sequences (truly unleashing the power of Wonder Woman) is a mild overindulgence of slow-motion that can likely be blamed on Zack Snyder’s input, and a case can be made for somewhat subpar CGI in these instances. The greatest misstep of all? An attempt at sleight-of-hand with Ares’ earthly identity that falls short of a ‘twist’, but still delivers a memorable payoff.

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Context, so often, is everything. What we make of something depends almost always on not just the thing itself alone, but on ourselves at the point in time we experience it. The brightest, funniest, warmest film in the world cannot guarantee that someone watching it on a dark, terrible, cold day will laugh or smile. To say that Wonder Woman arrives with an abundance of context is to say the least. Stuttered, intensely divisive efforts to establish a shared cinematic universe of DC’s most iconic superheroes. An ongoing international wave of feminism, acting as both umbrella and lightning rod for a plethora of social issues, met with both enthusiastic support and evermore combative opposition.

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Should any of this remotely impact the Wonder Woman watching experience, when so many superhero origin films have come and gone in baggage-free luxury? Absolutely not. But like Diana herself discovers upon leaving Themyscira’s waters, the world is not what it should be. Nevertheless, she persists, and the result is a superhero film that earns its place in the league of Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. From the moment Diana steps out into No Man’s Land, to a final shot that we can hope will serve as a rallying symbol for cinema of the future, Wonder Woman sheds all considerations of its context, and in doing so becomes timeless.

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Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4.5/5