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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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