Thoughts On: Spiderman 2
Amidst a plethora of personal issues, Peter Park/Spiderman must prevent Doctor Octavius from destroying New York City.
This is an awesome movie – the second best or maybe the best superhero film ever made (second to, or just beating out, the first Spiderman). There are a plethora of things that make this movie great, all of which come together as a perfect showcase of an epic melodrama. To start we have to look at Raimi’s direction: utter genius. Spiderman 2 is, in my view, Raimi’s Goodfellas. Whilst Spiderman isn’t as polished and squeaky clean as Scorsese’s mob movie masterpiece, there is the same ingenuity, experimentation and play present in the Raimi’s direction here as you see from Scorsese’s. From the sudden stylistic jump into a horror film…
… to weird fourth wall breaks…
… to exuberant, highly stylised and diverse cinematic language…
… to, of course, the Rain Drops sequence…
… there is just so much richness, care and attention that has clearly been put into making this film something special – something different, unique, personal and fun. It’s exactly this that has this film be so re-watchable, because, though the story is highly accessible, there are so many small details of ingenuous direction that continually add to the film – and the same can certainly be said for a film like Goodfellas (hence the comparison). Added to this, the action sequences are tremendous.
This sequence here after Octavius robs the bank is particularly great for the way the bodies interact in a perfectly choreographed mesh of surprising violence. Whilst this isn’t a Jet Li, Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen sequence with spectacular martial arts, and whilst the the CG isn’t immaculate, this sequence is highly immersive and stylised. With aid from camera work and sound design the fight has weight, fluidity, beautiful motion and is almost awe inspiring. As said, it’s not the greatest fight scene ever choreographed, nor conceived, but, the manner in which the many elements of cinema work together to produce this scene – and the many other action elements – is superb.
As touched on, the CGI throughput the film is not perfect – neither is the lighting, green screens and other special effects. However, the same could be said for 2001, Alien, Jason And The Argonauts, Star Wars, the original King Kong, Terminator – any special effects movie. However, what makes all of the classics mentioned transcendent and truly great is not necessarily innovation, technology and photorealism, instead, the integration of style into form, tone and narrative. For example:
If we wanted to, we could call bullshit on this light beam special effect, but, we simply don’t have the urge. This is because the special effect for cinema is tantamount to fantasy as a literary device in a book or screenplay. We know that Tatooine doesn’t exist, but we don’t question that, and we don’t really care to, as we understand that it’s part of the ‘world’ that Lucas creates. The same can be said for good special effects; we know they’re not real, but don’t care as they fit into the world we see being created. It is thus style and the special effect as a world building device that makes films like 2001, Star Wars and King Kong transcendent of verisimilitude as fantasy epics. The same can be said for Spiderman 2. The ok CG fits the style, tone and aesthetic of the world Raimi creates and so, even though special effects aren’t always believable – sometimes jarring – they slip past the critiquing eye.
A similar paradigm comes into play with the cheesy moments of this film – of which there are many. However, one of the most important distinguishing elements between films is context. If you compare Keaton’s The General to Gone With The Wind to The Maltese Falcon to Rebel Without A Cause to Seven Samurai to Goddard’s Breathless to The Breakfast Club to Pulp Fiction to Inception you will be able to say that each film has major faults – or are even terrible. For example, compare the editing of Inception to The Maltese Falcon and you could sat that the 40s classic is dog shit – assuming you have a biased preference for modern editing. In the same respect, compare the acting seen in Pulp Fiction to the acting in Seven Samurai and you can say that Seven Samurai is amateurish and pretty terrible – again, assuming you have a preference for modern acting styles. Having these biases and preferences is perfectly fine. But, if you’re committed to film and learning about the craft, the preferences become looser and you begin to see films in their context and so accept their conventions. In such, if Spiderman 2 came out this summer, it would be a shit movie. However, it came out over a decade ago, and, understanding this, you can appreciate how it fits into a cinematic period – one that had different conventions, styles, technology, such and so on. So, in the same way you can love a John Hughes film as an 80s movie, you can love Spiderman as a 2000s film – and I think this is what makes the ‘cheesy’ elements easily palated. In other words, cheesy kind of just means dated – and dated just means a style that is no longer in use.
But, whilst this opens up your mind when re-watching the movie, there is a genuity to the cheese and the dated elements. The best example of this is certainly the Rain Drops sequence…
Whilst it is dumb, it perfectly conveys the levity Peter feels as a geeky goof who’s just hung up his responsibilities as a superhero. It’s exactly this that elevates the film beyond just ‘cheese’ and nullifies my argument of style and context because this sequence is simply great and so doesn’t really need explanation. And what we again see at play here is just Sam Raimi’s utter will to be playful, original and unique; to stay true to character and convey a great story.
The best part of Spiderman 2, however, is characterisation. I say this as a person that has never read a comic and doesn’t really care that this is an adaptation. Both Peter Parker and Spiderman are perfect in my perspective. I don’t care that Peter is supposed to be a teenager in high school. I don’t care that Spiderman is supposed to have those stupid shooter things. I don’t care that he’s supposed to be funnier, quippier and so on. Fuck the comic books. Judging this film as a work unto itself, I have absolutely no critique of the way Spiderman/Peter are characterised. I’d be happy to embrace a younger Spiderman, one that is more athletic and creatively offensive in a fight – as most hope to see from up and coming appearances in the new Marvel films – but, that version of Spiderman will be, to me, completely separate from what we see in the original trilogy. And I say this out of pure adoration for the structuring and projection of characters in this film. Peter especially goes through so much and takes one of the most personal and gruelling hero arcs that is perfectly balanced with humour and drama. There is so much to say in this department, but I feel this has been done to death and so I’ll leave as is so we can move onto to our main subject.
Within Spiderman 2 there are many questions you could raise to do with plot and unseen character interactions. The two best examples I can give is the end of the bank robbery sequence…
… and the scene just after Peter starts to lose his powers…
Both scenes are significant plot points. However, many screenwriters will use moments like these as punctuation marks to end a scene and call in a new sequence. So, with the small exchange between Aunt May and Spidey here, we have an ambiguously funny moment – one that raises quite a lot of questions. And a huge question that is never really addressed is: what does Aunt May think happened to Peter?
The two came to the bank together and a remark is even made as Peter runs away from the scene once Octavius starts attacking. However, after Spidey saves the day he just leaves. Did Peter take his suite off, come back and walk his aunt home? What did they say to each other on the way there? Does Aunt May assume Peter is Spiderman? How long has she thought this?
This is all left open and you do get the sense that she does know. You also get the sense that many people must know who Peter is. Not just Joey Diaz and a train full of civilians…
… but, also his doctor…
… and probably Robbie Robertson…
However, the question still remains, and is there because of something you can call cinematic ‘dead space’. These are the parts of a movie that you can do away with because they’re boring, or may just be assumed – things like walking to get to places, meeting people, organising shit, ect. A more fancy term for this is syuzhet. This is a term that was used by Russian film theorists such as Shklovsky in the silent era and is an idea that is hard to grasp if approached wrong, but once you get it, it’s really simple. Syuzhet is simply the parts of a story that cinema contorts or that an audience has to infer. For example, you may see a cut from Peter at work and then him in bed with the lights dim. The syuzhet is often what you don’t see, but assume – it is the implied material that you infer occurred – that being that Peter went home and is going to sleep after a tiring day. There is a term that is coupled with syuzhet and that is fabula. Fabual is the opposite of syuzhet and is the reality of a story – that being the fact that Peter had to walk/web sling his way home. Fabula is in fact very much linked to an idea of ‘The Infinite Story’ that we’ve discussed before. The Infinite Story is simply a recognition that stories have no end or beginning until we give them one. For example, we could ask a billion questions about Spiderman – about his parents, where they came from, what they did, what his aunt was like as a child – and we could infinitely delve into the history of the world around Peter – just as we could the future. This is because time is managed by film, but inherently contains infinitely more than what a film can show. The fabula of a story somewhat implies this idea as it defines the chronological and actual events of a story – essentially the bones of its plot.
So, having touched on fabula and syuzhet, we’ll do away with the former and focus on the later alone – syuzhet. Cinematic dead space is what the syuzhet fills up – or is supposed to. This moment here…
… precedes a lot of cinematic dead space and that is why so many questions can be raised around it. We could presume answers by assuming what happened ignored events or by appealing to the syuzhet. But, what we ultimately have to ask here is: did the director/screenwriter end the scene in the right place; was there more to be found in this scene? Personally, I think there could have been something more found as May and Peter walk home – something that may confirm or more explicitly imply a question of if May knows Peter is Spiderman. However, there is an argument against this as we already do get some amount of implication that May knows. Nonetheless, with Spidey just running off here, you do get a piercing urge to start dishing out sins.
What this moment then serves as is an example of cinematic dead space that maybe should have been explored. Moreover, these are great moments that screenwriters especially should pay attention to as they hold a lot of lessons – like where to cut a scene. After all, the scene where Peter starts to lose his powers could have ended here and cut to a depressed/confused Peter at home…
… but, what we got was this great moment in the elevator:
It’s these magical bits of cinema that come from a screenwriter questioning their own work. We touched on this subject when talking about The Lion King and Ghost. In The Lion King there’s a wonderful demonstration of how to be self-referential or self-aware.
It’s this moment where Timon and Pumbaa cry as Nala and Simba fall in love that we see a great filling of cinematic space. Instead of the director and screenwriter forgetting about the side characters, they used them to make the scene funnier and to add to Timon and Pumbaa as characters. Conversely, other directors and screenwriters show how not to handle self-awareness.
It’s after this action sequence from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol that we get an arduous exchange with Jeremy Renner that references the absurdity of Ethan lighting the flare and using it to escape. It isn’t funny and is just a showcase of lazy writing. The writers knew that they had cinematic dead space to fill and that this action scene wasn’t entirely believable, but just pointed to it and snorted. This is not a good demonstration of self-awareness, it’s just obnoxious.
On the other hand, we get a great example of a lack of questioning and self-awareness throughout Ghost.
There are continual moments in this film in which Sam tries to interact with the physical world – in fact, it is his primary conflict and the way he saves the day in the end. However, he does all of his training and falling through objects whilst standing on the floor. He should be falling through the Earth and floating in space if electromagnetic forces don’t apply to him. In fact, there are a trillion questions you can raise on the physics of this movie – none are ever referenced though. What that means is a lot of cinematic dead space completely ignored.
But, it’s moments like this that show that gold can be born out of questioning that dead space. It’s not just comedy that you can find, but character, adventure, world building details, subtext, metaphors – anything. The Dark Knight is another great example of this. I’d love to see a Lion King 3 – also known as 1 1/2 – version of The Dark Knight in which we see the narrative from The Joker’s perspective.
This is simply because there’s so much dead space that Nolan neglects in this narrative – so much space in which more characters could be explored and more fun be had. We don’t get this, however, which can really leave an audience feeling flat and wanting more – and not in a good way.
Throughout Spiderman 2, we are given so many insights into the personal life of a superhero that many screenwriters would glance over – everything down to how he washes his suits and what they’re like to wear. This isn’t done perfectly throughout, but the way these moments are exposed and used to support the wider narrative is what makes this such a brilliantly conceived movie and is also what gives it such a personal and light tone. So, in the end, the lesson we can find in Spiderman 2 is on what cinematic dead space can do for your movie. It is a versatile tool that is endlessly useful and an avenue to much creativity, so never neglect it or let it naturally find its place; always look for dead space and question how you can use it to your own advantage.
I’ve said my piece, what are your thoughts? Do you think this is one of the best superhero films? Was there more that could have been explored?
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