Holy smokes, I went and saw a movie.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was primarily a DC man in my comic-book reading days. I liked my heroes simple and my stories uncomplicated by the angst and social commentary that Marvel employed. I read The Amazing Spider-Man of course, because, duh, you were practically required to read at least one Spider-Man title if you wanted to keep up your end of a conversation at a comic store. But I can’t say that I was ever a huge fan of Peter Parker and his woebegone adventures. It seemed like every issue his best friend would turn into a super villain and kill his girlfriend, or Aunt May would fall down a well, or whatever. And even when things went right, when Spidey defeated the bad guy and saved the day, he would invariably get pelted by garbage thrown by bystanders who had read the most recent Daily Bugle editorial. Sure, all this was to make a point — that with Spider-Man’s great power came great responsibility — but it often left me wondering why Peter Parker even bothered. More to the point, it left me wonder why I bothered to read it. Hell, I was living the life of a junior high school student, so it’s not like I needed any more grief. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I was a bit lukewarm on the first Spider-Man film.
Still, I was excited about the sequel, because my favorite villain in Spidey’s rogue’s gallery has always been Doctor Octopus. Possibly Spider-Man’s most lethal and powerful enemy, Dr. Oct was also a complete loser, an overweight schlub whose plans for world domination were as often thwarted by his own insecurities than by the efforts of the wall-crawler. Every match between the two was essentially “Guy Who Can’t Get A Break vs. Guy Who Can’t Get His Act Together,” and I looked forward to seeing this brawl on the big screen.
But the first hour of Spider-Man II was a veritable primer on everything I disliked about the comic book, with Peter losing his job, behind on his rent, bummed about his non-existent love life, and agonizing over Aunt May’s penury. And yet, for some reason, I found myself sympathetic towards Peter rather than simply annoyed by him. I’d love to cite my newfound appreciation for complex character studies as proof that I have matured in the 15 years since I stopped reading comic books, but since I know for a fact that that hasn’t happened, there must be something else at work here.
If I had to guess, I’d say that “something else” is Michael Chabon, author of my favorite book of 2002 and one of three Spider-Man II story writers. Chabon has a gift for writing about both heroes (The Escapist in Kavalier and Clay) and regular down-on-the-luck schmoes (the professor in Wonder Boys), so it seems like he’d be a natural for tackling the Peter Parker / Spider-Man dichotomy. Chabon or no, I bought into the whole “tortured teen as superhero” backstory this go-round, where, in the previous installment, it left me unmoved. And it’s a good thing, too, since the story was more “Spider-Man vs. Peter Parker” than “Spider-Man vs. supervillian”.
And when it got around to those “Spider-Man vs. supervillian” scenes, the film did not disappoint. Okay, maybe there was a little disappointment, plotwise. For one thing, I like my Bad Guys bad, not just conflicted. And there were certain aspects of Doctor Octopus origins and motivation that were introduced in the unmistakable style of “well this doesn’t really make much sense but HEY LOOK OVER HERE!!” But once the two superdudes started pounding the tar out of each other, all was forgiven. I wouldn’t call the special effects in S-MII a vast improvement over those in the first film, but they had at least advanced enough that I wasn’t sitting in the theater wondering why I’d paid $9 to watch an X-Box game. And at least one sequence, a lengthy brawl upon a train, ranks among the best fight scenes in recent memory.
(Better still, Doctor Octopus’s tentacles look a lot like the “squids” the Neo and Morpheus fought. So if you squint your eyes just right while during Spider-Man II you can kind of pretend like you’re watching a sequel to The Matrix that doesn’t totally suck.)
Spider-Man II has been hailed by some as the best superhero film since Superman. I dunno if I’d go that far, but between this film and X-Men United I’d definitely say the superhero genre is hitting its stride. S-MII not only reminded me of everything I liked about The Amazing Spider-Man back when I was a reader, but even made me retroactively appreciate that those things that I disliked at the time. It’s a rare superhero movie that actually makes me wish I’d spend more time during my formatives years holed up in my bedroom and wasting away the days with a stack of comic books.
P.s. See, this is the kind of meticulous backstory that makes Spider-Man such an intriguing character.