Superhero All Grown Up: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 , from a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on a screen story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon (and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko), turns out to be surprisingly and delightfully superior to Mr. Raimi’s first Spider-Man (2002). But you don’t have to take my word for it. Since I never aspired, even in my grouchy childhood years, to be a comic-book connoisseur-least of all comic books about superheroes-at the recent press screening of Spider-Man 2 , I enlisted the services of two pre-teen consumer consultants, Ezra and Fallon. With the consent of their parents, also in attendance, I asked them which edition of Spider-Man they preferred. They both came down on the side of Spider-Man 2 , which surprised me somewhat, since I’d imagined the opinions of youngsters and adults might diverge regarding the two versions-after all, Spider-Man 2 is much more a grown-up love story than its predecessor.

From the beginning, Spider-Man the superhero has enjoyed an edge over his comic-book superhero predecessors, Superman and Batman. For one thing, Spider-Man is not nearly as forbiddingly omnipotent. Indeed, in the movie, he is strikingly vulnerable-we get to see him in a state of powerlessness and helplessness as he’s tossed around like a rag doll by the octopus-like tentacles of arch-menace-to-civilization Dr. Octopus, a position of mortal jeopardy we don’t really see Superman or Batman in.

As a child, I recall experiencing something akin to an erotic thrill whenever someone I liked onscreen was saved at the last minute from a dire fate. Both Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), find themselves occasionally on the edge of extinction, a fate they face with superheroic sangfroid. This is the grace note of their final union-Mary Jane Watson is found to be worthy as much as he is found brave enough to make a commitment to his sweetheart, despite the danger in which his crime-fighting prowess places her. We’re back in the Middle Ages of knights and their lady loves, albeit with Spidey and his sweetheart displaying a romantic intensity few medieval movies ever attain.

There are several possible factors to explain why Spider-Man 2 took off so spectacularly from the unfulfilled premises and promises of the original Spider-Man . Mr. Raimi has clearly experienced a deepening vision of his subject, enhanced by the screenwriting prowess of Messrs. Sargent and Chabon. The maturing roles of Mr. Maguire and Ms. Dunst, and the electrifying expansion of the quasi-maternal Aunt May character by Rosemary Harris, has also added greater depth to the original comic-book characterizations. Perhaps the greatest boon to the Spider-Man sequel is the curiously masochistic pseudo-visionary villain, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), with his dream of perpetual fusion, who becomes the tabloid-headlined “Doc Ock” with his diabolically energized steel tentacles. Add to this the throwaway pathos of Broadway superstar Donna Murphy as the ill-fated Rosalie Octavius and the sweetly old-fashioned B-picture ambitiousness of having Mary Jane Watson “star” in a small Greenwich Village production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (which Louis Kronenberger once brilliantly summarized as “everything counts and nothing matters”).

I must confess, there was a stretch in the film when I felt a childish gee-whiz exasperation with the way Spider-Man was perpetually mistreated and misunderstood by the very people he was trying to save from criminal harm. As Peter Parker, he’s unable to hold a job either as a pizza-delivery boy or as a photographer for nasty newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), whose malicious diatribes against Spider-Man make Charles Foster Kane look saintly by comparison.

Worst of all, Peter Parker continues standing up Mary Jane despite all her overtures and advances. She finally seems to give up on Peter and starts a whirlwind romance with a glamorous astronaut who just happens to be John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), the son of Spider-Man’s bitter enemy. Here, the essential intelligence of the film is confirmed by its refusal to discredit Mary Jane’s suitor in any way. Indeed, John Jameson is not only drop-dead gorgeous as a future husband for Mary Jane, but he even seems to have a sense of humor. If Mary Jane is to leave him at the altar (as so many of her Hollywood sisters did in the past), she’ll have to do it on her own and without any encouragement from Peter or the scriptwriters. I wouldn’t have thought that today’s children would embrace Hollywood’s elective affinities, but I seem to have been wrong.

I now think that I was far from being alone in my disappointments with Mr. Raimi’s first Spider-Man film for not resolving the romance between Peter and Mary Jane. My more cynical friends assured me that the two had to be kept apart for the sake of the inevitable sequels. After all, does Clark Kent ever marry Lois Lane? Get real. Well, folks, Mr. Raimi and his collaborators have gone and done it, and I, for one, am happy they have. This may create a problem for Spider-Man 3 , but as a comparatively impoverished movie lover, I don’t have to face any stockholders with explanations as to why I risked the commercial viability of a future production.

Lest I drown in my own euphoria, let me reassert my professional skepticism: I was less than ecstatic about the gimmicky metal appendages attached to the villainous Dr. Octopus, which my esteemed colleague, Gene Shalit, aptly described as an Erector Set. Fortunately, Mr. Molina is charismatically ambiguous enough to project complex feelings despite his ridiculous encumbrances. His not entirely unsympathetic monster is made to seem humanly redeemable by his recollections of how he’d once inspired Peter Parker, the science student, at Columbia.

Despite the emotional amplitude of the dialogue, what drives the love story most strongly is the overwhelming spirituality of the camera’s love affair with Ms. Dunst. I haven’t seen such luminous close-ups since the great screen stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Who would have thought that Mr. Raimi, the director of horror films, would light up the screen with such a chaste depiction of love, and without a trace of lechery?

Cole’s Cozy Closet

Irwin Winkler’s De-Lovely , from a screenplay by Jay Cocks, gaily lives up to its giddy title as a stylized evocation of Cole Porter (1891-1964), his tangled, tortured life, and his by turns joyous and anguished music. It arrives on the screen at a time when movie musicals have been virtually outlawed by the industry because, according to the bigwigs, the genre doesn’t “travel well” outside the U.S., where half or more of a movie’s box-office receipts are garnered these days. Besides, Porter’s melodious songs are as anachronistic in today’s beat-obsessed hip-hop musical market as the glorious scores of Porter’s contemporaries, Jerome Kern (1885-1945), George Gershwin (1898-1937), Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Irving Berlin (1888-1989), to name just a few of the most illustrious American songsmiths of the last century.

In a sense, Mr. Winkler and Mr. Cocks have “outed” Porter as the flamboyantly bisexual celebrity he was-Michael Curtiz’s censor-ridden 1946 musical “biography,” Night and Day , managed to conceal its subject’s “perverted” tendencies. I was a Columbia College freshman at the time, and I recall my more cynically knowledgeable acquaintances chortling not at the suppression of Porter’s “secret vice,” but at the reportedly scandalous behavior of Cary Grant and Monty Woolley at a posh hotel (Woolley and Porter had reportedly been an item at Yale as well). In the more uninhibited De-Lovely , Alan Corduner plays Woolley.

The point is that, not so long ago, there was a pervasive tradition of whispered highbrow homophobia, before we were all “liberated” from our fears and prejudices in the 60′s. One indication of this is Ring Lardner’s wise-guy 1930′s printed version of Porter’s most passionate lyrics with lisping spellings. If for no other reason (and there are assuredly other reasons), I recommend De-Lovely to my readers for its honorable role in opening another door to our ridiculously repressed past.

But there are other, more hedonistic inducements to see the film as well, most notably in the emotional chemistry of Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd as the long-married Cole and Linda Porter. Biographical purists may quibble over the liberal inaccuracies in casting Mr. Kline as the much shorter and slighter Porter, and Ms. Judd as a much younger screen version of Linda Porter, who was eight years older than her husband in real life.

Still, when compared to the grotesque evasions and subterfuges of the 1946 film, De-Lovely provides a breath of much-needed fresh air on a subject that’s still problematic for mainstream Hollywood movies-and for the body politic as well.

Nevertheless, it was probably wise for Mr. Winkler and Mr. Cocks to “stage” Porter’s life as a continuously creative performance, highlighted by his signature songs. Jonathan Pryce winningly plays the congenial interlocutor, Gabe, who leads the grimly aging Porter from his living-room piano to the wider arena of both his triumphs and his defeats.

Mr. Kline is no stranger to the musical stage, and he’s immersed himself impressively in Porter’s music, thereby making it resonate as a projection of his character’s deepest and most profound feelings. As for Ms. Judd, it is not hyperbolic to suggest that she and Mr. Kline make exquisitely beautiful music together.

As I listened to the lyrics of Porter’s most intense love songs, I couldn’t help thinking of Ella Fitzgerald’s sublime recording of the Rodgers and Hart songbook. Larry Hart, like Porter, was notoriously gay, and his moving torch songs reveal the accumulated frustrations and agonies of too many one-night stands.

If I have delayed discussing the many contemporary singers who have bravely pitched in to resurrect the old Porter songs, it’s because I have very mixed feelings about the convulsive changes in musical tastes within my own lifetime. I realize that Mr. Winkler and his backers had to think of audiences who have lost contact with the Porter heritage. I would’ve preferred recordings by Ethel Merman and Alfred Drake, as well as the other dearly departed luminaries of the Broadway music theater that I grew up on. But even here, there were more than glimmers of a great talent making little songs of great sorrows.

I suppose that Cole was thinking about Linda at least part of the time as he poured out his heart on the piano. But there is no doubt what the subject is in Porter’s “Love for Sale”; nor is there any about Larry Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance.” Yet there is a common bond that links us all together, straight and gay and, in Porter’s case, something passionately in between.

Mr. Winkler and Mr. Cocks can be credited with a rousing recovery from the curse of all biographies-following the downward spiral from birth to death-when Mr. Pryce’s suddenly joyous Gabe produces all the musical performers onstage for an immortalizing rendition of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” So that’s who “Gabe” really was …