July 01, 2004

THWIP!!!

I, like many people not quite nerdy enough to see the midnight showing early Wednesday morning saw Spiderman 2: Electric Boogaloo last night. Ok, I was busy and couldn't go to the midnight showing. So here's my short review: Not as good as the first, but if there were a cult that worshipped Spiderman, even if he was a minor deity, I'd convert in a second. Soon you'd see me in the mall with a shaved head, handing out flyers and inviting people to our "weekend retreat". That is to say, I love Spiderman more than my own mother, or at least something very close to that. That didn't turn out to be the short quip of a review that I intended it to be, so I might as well keep going...

Spiderman 2 fits into my "Unified Theory of Second Movies" perfectly. You see, when a movie comes out that has the potential to become a longer series but is as yet unproven, the first movie has to do a number of things: create the univese and explain it to the viewer, introduce the main characters in this universe, and tell a succinct story which has a satisfying ending in the event that the movie doesn't actually do well enough to spawn a series. Classic examples of this are Star Wars: A New Hope and The Matrix. The universes in these movies are rich enough that there's lots for fans to talk about and discuss, which is why they might spawn series to begin with, but the movies have a definite end with a satisfying conclusion and don't leave people expecting a sequel in case one never happens. This "brick wall ending" is in contrast to something like, say, the Back To The Future movies which were always, from what I understand, planned as a trilogy and had the backing from the start to make sure the trilogy happened, hence the really wide open endings to the first two films (see also LOTR). Even there though, notice that the second film's ending is a gaping chasm compared to the first's. And another possibility is to have a series of completely unconnected movies, at least from a plot perspective (ala Indiana Jones).

Then comes the second film. The difficulty in the second film that isn't generally shared with any subsequent films is that the film is presented with a wall at the end of the first movie which it has to explode in order to re-open the universe for further exploration. This can be awkward, especially if the movie needs to re-examine problems which the first movie either explicitly or impliedly solved. Take The Matrix for example: At the end of the first movie we're basically left feeling that Neo is an unstoppable God. Obviously having God as a omnipotent character won't make for a very gripping film, so Reloaded had to find some way to make Neo powerful, but not god-like, an endevour whose trickiness you can verify by all the message board rants on the internet. Additionally, in breaking the universe back up, the second film almost always has to, at some level, recap the story from the first movie so people at least know the characters.

Furthermore, the second film has to leave it's own ending wide open enough that a possible third movie can pick up the plot slightly more easily than the second while at the same time not leave the story hanging in mid-air to the extent that audiences feel cheated by a no-ending. All this and the second movie still has to tell its own bracketted story which arcs within the span of the movie.

This brings me to the wall crawler. The first movie was not a guaranteed success (we need look no farther than the spring release date, which is restricted to unproven action movies)so we had our classic formula: Tight script, interesting universe with plenty of supporting characters inhabiting the fringe of the story pulled from the comics both for a little fan service as well being there "just in case there's a sequel", and a solid brickwall ending. It worked perfectly for me and still stands as probably my favorite hero movie, though there are a couple contenders to the throne that aren't that far back.

So with Spidey 2, yes I'm finally talking about Spidey 2, we had to reopen the universe, which wasn't terribly difficult in this case, and recap the story from the first film which cleverly done in the opening credits. Where I felt Spidey 2 ran into some problems, at least from a film standpoint, is that it seemed to try to do too much. As big a fan of the comics as I am, from a film standpoint the story almost seemed disjointed by all the name dropping and sequel-possibility-creating moments. This is something that may go away with multiple viewings, which will happen when I inevitably buy the DVD, but for now I found the extended ending somewhat distracting, largely because I wasn't expecting it. To me this wasn't like Return of the King, which I knew was going to be the last film and sort of expected an extended wrapping up of loose ends, it was just sort of like the beginning of the third movie found its way into the end of the second. The problem with the ending I fully expect, however, to go away once the third movie is out because that's the thing about most of the problems with second movies; they largely go away once the series is complete. All the threads they leave hanging in the air are cleared up and dealt with. To the doubters, think about if Empire Strikes Back had been where the original series ended. As good a movie as it is, that would not be a satisfying end to the story and people would like it less because of it. Empire is liked better because it can be all dark and unfinished which it can do because it can rely on Jedi to be the happy ending everyone expects and secretly wants/needs but outwardly scoffs at.

Also, I hadn't realized how much I liked Willem Dafoe's performance in the first film until watching Alfred Molina in the second. This isn't to say that Molina is bad, far from it, but Dafoe was better as was his script. Doc Ock is given some pretty generic villan-ey lines and monologues that, while fine in a comic book, sounded really weird for a grown man to be saying to himself out loud.

As much time as I've spent writing all of this, here's the thing: It doesn't matter. It's got Spiderman in it and he's more human than ever, which has always been Spidey's draw. He's just a nerdy kid at heart with all the awkwardness and self doubt that comes with it, though if any nerds look like Tobey Maguire I imagine they wouldn't have quite as hard a time with the ladies. But like the first movie the everyman shines through, unlike other heroes like The Punisher that your average person doesn't even want to relate to. Other than some weird script problems, and the sneaking suspission that the whole movie was a Viagra commercial, Spiderman 2 is everything I want a Spidey movie to be: heroic, visually impressive, cool in-jokes/references, and a bunch o' webs. It's not the first movie, but it boads well for films to come. Everyone see it now.

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