Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Film Appreciation - Spidey, Indiana


Cody Hamman reminisces about a summer eight years gone as he talks Spider-Man 2 for Film Appreciation.



After the record-breaking opening weekend success of Spider-Man in 2002, a sequel was immediately announced. The second film was scheduled for release in 2004 with the title The Amazing Spider-Man, and director Sam Raimi and the main cast he had assembled would be returning to tell the follow-up story.

I was excited for it. Raimi and company had brought one of my favorite comic book heroes to cinematic life in a wonderful way, and I was hyped up to see where they would take things. The rumor, the spread of which was helped along by Kirsten Dunst herself, was that the villains of the piece would be Doctor Octopus and The Lizard. Sounded good to me. With his background full of Evil Dead creatures, I was especially interested in seeing how Raimi would handle The Lizard. I do not mean for that to be a double entendre.

I liked that they were going for The Amazing Spider-Man as the title. If there was a series of sequels, they could name each one after a different Spider-Man comic book. From here we might see The Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, etc.

The project did hit some speed bumps along the way. Tobey Maguire had back problems, so there was fear that he might not be able to play the webslinger. There was some talk that Jake Gyllenhaal might step in to replace him as Peter Parker. But Maguire's back improved and he said the rumors of him possibly being replaced had been overblown. He would be Spidey again.

There were script issues, as drafts were written that had too much going on, too many characters, unappealing plot lines. Not only were Doctor Octopus and The Lizard the villains in some, Harry Osborn also became the second Green Goblin, and there was a love interest competing with Mary Jane for Peter's affection in the form of Felicia Hardy, who was also Black Cat. There was another complicated love triangle in drafts where Doctor Octopus became infatuated with Mary Jane. Thankfully, things were scaled way back. There would be no Black Cat, no Goblin action, no Lizard. Like the first film, the sequel would have only one villain. Doctor Octopus. And he wouldn't have the hots for Mary Jane.

I was glad to hear the news that Doctor Octopus would be played by Alfred Molina, choosing acting chops over name recognition. I best knew Molina from his appearance in one of my favorite scenes in Boogie Nights, a scene he coincidentally shared with the man would be playing The Punisher in the movie coming out a couple months before Spidey, Thomas Jane. Now that scene has the added geeky thrill of providing the sight of Doctor Octopus blasting The Punisher with a shotgun.

I was less glad to hear that the studio was waffling on The Amazing Spider-Man as a title. AintItCool got the scoop on alternate titles being considered - Spider-Man: No More, Spider-Man: Unmasked, or the very goofy Spider-Man 2 Lives (as in, he lives two lives.) Fortunately, instead of those they ended up going with regular ol' Spider-Man 2. I could live (my one life) with it.


The finished film titled Spider-Man 2 is what I consider to be a perfect sequel, with an admirable focus on character that makes it not just a fantastic superhero movie but also a great dramatic film. The movie does a great job dealing with the emotional fallout from the events of and the decisions made in its predecessor.

Peter Parker has been living up to the responsibilities that he has as Spider-Man for almost two years, to the detriment of his personal life. He lives in a small, rundown apartment that he can't afford the rent for because he can't even hold a job in pizza delivery (I often quote paraphrased versions of the "Pizza time" line he delivers along with some late pizzas.) His only solid source of income is the meager amount of money J. Jonah Jameson is willing to give him for pictures of Spider-Man in action, which he then uses to portray Spidey as a criminal in the pages of The Daily Bugle. Peter's schoolwork is suffering, he can't keep promises or schedules, the duties of Spider-Man overshadow everything. Nothing is going right for him. He even forgets his own birthday.


The problems extend to those around him, who have come to think he's lazy, flighty, and, ironically, irresponsible. Aunt May is mourning as the two year anniversary of Uncle Ben's murder approaches, and Peter is filled with grief over having not stopped the killer when he had the chance. His best friend Harry Osborn is also in mourning over the death of his father, who he believes was killed by Spider-Man, and his obsession with revenge is eating away at his soul and sanity. The fact that Peter gets paid to take pictures of the object of Harry's hatred drives a wedge between them. Peter still pines for Mary Jane Watson, the love of his life who he felt he had to reject at the end of the first film in order to keep her safe from the dangerous enemies that would come with being Spider-Man. MJ has moved on, and things are going pretty well for her. She's getting modeling and acting work, she's dating a guy who has everything, JJJ's son John Jameson, an astronaut, an American hero who, unlike Peter, is able to receive public adulation for what he's done. But she still has feelings for Peter, and she's still haunted by the upside down kiss she shared with Spidey.

The stress of his life and great responsibility weighs so heavily on Peter's shoulders that even his powers start failing him.


Concurrent with all this is the making of a new supervillain, when Doctor Otto Octavius's fusion energy demonstration goes wrong. Octavius created four tentacle arms to manipulate the fusion reaction, controlled by his brain through a neural link. When things fall apart, the inhibitor chip Octavius had in place to keep the A.I. of the arms from interfering with his own thoughts is busted, his mind is jumbled, and he becomes a criminal dubbed Doctor Octopus.

All of the returning actors were given strong material to work with, and they handled it exceptionally well. Of the newcomers, a couple standouts for me are Elya Baskin, very funny as Peter's landlord, and Mageina Tovah as the landlord's charming daughter.

 

Molina is great as the good, well-intentioned Doctor Octavius turned bad. It's almost the 40 minute mark when the film's villain is established, but he brings a lot of fun along with him. My favorite action/suspense moment comes right after the demonstration accident, when Octavius is taken to the hospital to have the arms surgically removed. The arms do not take well to this notion and defend themselves, decimating the doctors and nurses in the room. It's a scene that verges on horror, I saw parents covering their kids' eyes in the theatre, and Raimi really puts his Evil Dead-honed skills to work on it. There's even a moment involving a surgical chainsaw... It's awesome.

 

Raimi was aided behind the camera on this one by his Army of Darkness cinematographer Bill Pope, and the surgery room scene isn't the only Evil Dead touch on display. There is, of course, a Bruce Campbell cameo, this time in the form of a Snooty Usher who keeps Peter from seeing the play that MJ is in. As Campbell says, his character "defeats Spider-Man." Ted Raimi reprises his role as Daily Bugle employee Hoffman. Raimi's Evil Dead II co-writer Scott Spiegel (who, among other things, directed Intruder, appeared in Robot Ninja, and was involved with the Hostel movies) makes an early appearance as a man who almost gets some pizza. Timothy Quill, from Army of Darkness, and Danny Hicks, who was in Evil Dead II and Intruder, are passengers on a runaway train that Spidey has to stop.


I once attended a Q&A with Tom Savini where he went on about how ridiculous the train scene in this movie is. Spider-Man couldn't stop the train the way he does, Savini said, he would just get himself "drawn and quartered." Tom Savini does not suspend disbelief for superheroic acts.


Spider-Man 2 hit screens on June 30, 2004, and I was there opening day. I really enjoyed the film on first viewing, and over the course of repeat viewings I grew to like it more and more.

I used to spend a good portion of my summers in Indiana, in my father's hometown, staying with my grandmother there. I did that for most of my life, for all of my life until grandma passed away in 2010. I started out staying there a week or two, but it eventually became a full month. I spent a month of many summers in Indiana, and I looked forward to my time out there during the months in between. At first, the month would be June, and I would come back home after the fireworks on July 4th. When I was 14 or 15, the month switched to July, with the stay beginning on July 4th and ending in early August. It was during my July 2004 stay out there that I fully came to appreciate Spider-Man 2.

I told the origin story of my dog Zeppelin in my article on the first Spider-Man movie. Coincidentally, there was a discovery made about him during the summer of the second movie.


July 4th was always a big deal for my Indiana family. We'd watch the parade, everyone would get together for a cookout dinner at grandma's, then my parents and I would head down to the park to hang out until the fireworks. As July 4, 2004 and my return to Indiana neared, word began going around that Zeppelin had bit one of my aunts during the 2003 cookout. It was sort of hard to believe. Zeppelin had never bit anyone before, we didn't see it happen and my aunt hadn't said anything to us at the time. But when we arrived, this time it became clear - much like myself, my dog is not comfortable around groups of people he's not very familiar with, and while I'll clam up and sit quietly off to the side in such a situation, Zeppelin will bark, growl, and, if presented with the opportunity, try to bite. Zeppelin acted like a madman during the 2004 cookout, and I was so disturbed by seeing this new side of him that, after dinner and a couple hours, I had to get out of there.

There was a small, old, one screen theatre less than a mile from my grandma's house. A theatre that didn't show movies with a rating above PG-13 and was only open on weekends, two shows a night. July 4th was a Sunday, and that weekend they were showing Spider-Man 2. The first showing of the night, 7pm, was about to begin. I left Zeppelin with my mom and escaped to the comforts of Spider-Man 2. I enjoyed the movie even more, I connected more with it emotionally, the drama worked even better.

The movie got out a little after 9. Zeppelin, mom, and I went to the park and watched fireworks, after which Zeppelin and I returned to grandma's to begin our month stay. Without so many people around, Zeppelin soon calmed down, warmed up to grandma and got along with her as he had the previous two summers, and everything was fine. On return trips following years, Zeppelin would stay in his crate during the family get-together.


Grandma was not very technologically advanced. There was no computer at her house, the only channels on the TV were those that the rabbit ears could pick up, she didn't even get a VCR until the mid-'90s. She didn't have central air until the late '00s, and even then, like the air conditioner before, she only put that to use once the temperature broke 90. Under 90 and it was weather for fans and open windows. These things led to some restless, sweaty days in my youth, but I came to see it as part of the charm of staying out there, and eventually even took it as a welcome escape from technology. Although, in 2001 I did start taking portable DVD players and a box full of DVDs with me. But I'm not big on technological advances myself, I didn't even give in to the cell phone craze until I got a hand-me-down phone in 2006. Over the course of July 2004, I stayed in contact with Jay Burleson by writing letters by hand and sending them to him through snail mail, if you can believe that.

My entertainment options were more limited while I was in Indiana, but there was that theatre on the weekends, and they kept Spider-Man 2 for a while. On July 9th, I went back to see the movie for a third time. On July 16th, I went again. By the end of my fourth and final theatrical viewing I, as you might expect since I had seen it four times now, completely loved Spider-Man 2. If anyone wants to call it the best superhero movie ever made, they have my approval.


The most memorable viewing I had of the movie after that July came during a July a year or two later. My father was living in Indiana again at this point, and I was visiting him for a couple days during my stay out there when my stepgrandmother asked if she could come over to his house to watch his copy of the Spider-Man 2 DVD. She had seen and liked the first movie and was anxious to see the second. So the three of us, and Zeppelin (who to this day has never warmed up to my stepgrandmother), watched the movie at his place that night. We all enjoyed it, though since my father and I had seen the movie umpteen times already, we also chatted about things off to the side. I told him about Sam Raimi's background, about how he had worked his way up to this from making a dirt cheap horror movie in a Tennessee cabin, and pointed out things like Dylan Baker's cameo as the one-armed Doctor Curt Connors - "He's going to become The Lizard someday." - and that John Jameson became The Man-Wolf in the comics, which was highly unlikely to happen in the cinematic series.

Now we know that not only will Tobey Maguire not be battling The Man-Wolf, but Dylan Baker will not be playing The Lizard in a movie, and I never will get to see Raimi handle The Lizard, since the series has been rebooted and Rhys Ifans is now crawling across screens, but at the time the future was wide open.


The Raimi-Maguire series may be over now, and a dip in storytelling quality was to come a few years later when the third film couldn't overcome script hurdles like this one did, but the first two movies were excellent and are very special to me in their own ways. Spider-Man 2 was a strong presence during my 2004 stay in Indiana, it saved my sanity that July 4th. Watching this movie repeatedly during a time that I always looked forward to, between exchanging random, goofy letters with Burleson while hanging out with Zeppelin and grandma in a place that I loved to be at, made the summer of 2004 one of my favorites.

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