Spider-Man (fight 5 of 6)

The fiery middle of a feud sandwich.

People who don't love this image: what's it like being awful?

People who don’t love this image: what’s it like being awful?

5) Spider-Man vs Green Goblin, round two

[Oh, I realized I forgot to include a couple nebulous “fights,” one in which Spider-Man beats up some armored car robbers and one in which he beats up a gang of would-be rapists in an alley. They’re fine, but since they’re exactly what they sound like, there’s not much else to say. Besides, you’re already getting six entries for this movie, so.]

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, played by Tobey Maguire. Or perhaps more accurately, voiced by Tobey Maguire and played by Tobey Maguire’s stunt man and also some CGI.
  • Norman Osborn aka the Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe.
    • Armed with: Interestingly the Goblin’s trademark glider does not play a role at all in this fight, but he did bring along some specialized metal spheres that turn into flying circular saws– each one having four metal blades spinning at a high rate of speed and apparently have some sort of A.I. because they’re able to hone in on the correct target for multiple passes. Completely ridiculous but the guy’s a supervillain, so why not?

The Setup: After a mirror confrontation revealed the truth to Norman about his split personality (and lead him to gradually merge with it), he decides to track down his greatest threat, Spider-Man. Which is interesting because up until now, the Goblin had only acted to wipe out threats to Osborn’s business; as long as he kept out of sight from then on, Spidey wouldn’t be a threat to him. Anyway, villain confronted hero at the Daily Bugle office and gassed him into paralysis, making him the offer of an alliance rather than a rivalry. He gives him some time to think about it, and he’ll get back to him.

Later, Spider-Man arrives at the scene of a burning apartment building. A woman outside shrieks about her baby still being trapped inside (what is it with people in movies who leave their babies inside burning buildings? I understand being in a hurry but shouldn’t your baby be the FIRST thing you grab on the way out? Even before your pants?), so naturally our hero retrieves the poor thing. After an awkward confrontation with the cops outside, more shrieks are heard, so Peter swings back in for another rescue. But as he approaches the robed figure with its back turned to him, SURPRISE!

Still better than getting Rickrolled.

Still better than getting Rickrolled.

The Fight: You have to love the Green Goblin. He waits until there’s a big fire in broad daylight, then goes to the trouble of sneaking inside a burning building– portions of which could collapse at any time– just so he can confront and if necessary kill Spider-Man. That’s stupidly, wonderfully convoluted. New York’s a big city– how many fires did he hover around before this one just hoping his nemesis would show up? Or maybe HE started this fire (and possibly many before it) just to get Spidey’s attention? That’s terrible and bonkers and I love it.

Anyway, somehow overriding that unreliable Spider sense again, Goblin whips around and immediately hits the hero with a punch that knocks him clear across the room. He tells him he’s “pathetically predictable” (classic comic book use of alliteration) for showing up at the scene of a disaster, and re-iterates his offer, asking if he’s in or out. Peter’s response asceneds him to Cornball Valhalla: “You’re the one who’s out, Gobby… out of your mind!”

“Gobby” is none too pleased with that answer (perhaps because he was out-hammed for a moment), and starts tossing out the blade projectiles he was already preparing behind his back. Spider-Man immediately sets to contorting his body to dodge them–it ends up being five in total– during an extended slow-motion sequence. It’s fine, if a little Matrix-y.

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As soon as he avoid them all, the Goblin leaps in and starts beating on him, then they break as Spidey ducks a couple of the projectiles whirling back around at him from behind. When the two resume fisticuffs, the hero starts coming back pretty hard with a few blows and knocks him back. He’s even more impressive when he starts swatting the pinwheeling blades out of the air, though the third one manages to slice him on the arm first. Raimi takes a moment to zoom in on the wound, which is smart because that’ll be a plot point pretty soon.

Oh, don't be such a sissy.

Oh, don’t be such a sissy.

Spider-Man gets rid of the last two projectiles by bending far over backwards as they fly at him from either direction, letting them collide in mid-air and explode harmlessly. It’s kind of neat that they kept track of how many of those things were active at once and where they’d be coming from, especially in light of the obvious continuity error in the carjacker fight.

The villain rushes in again but the spider nails him with another big punch, and even as the force of it flings the Goblin backwards Spider-Man snags him with a web and pulls him back for a follow-up kick– a tactically smart way that uses the hero’s unique abilities to keep up the pressure while his opponent’s still unbalanced. Raimi & co were certainly faced with a lot challenges when it came to transitioning the one-moment-at-a-time fights of the comic panels into continuous action the audience can see all of, and they came up with some pretty clever stuff.

They’re separated again as the kick sends Osborn through some wreckage, and when he rises he sees that Spider-Man has left the building, the condition of which is deteriorating rapidly. “No one says no to me!” he shouts impotently. He just got  kicked through a pile of fiery debris and his main beef is being turned down? Yeesh.

This is very short, though of course that fits the skirmish-y nature of it. Even with the slow mo it’s all over in a minute or two. But for being so short it’s packed pretty well with some unusual beats and a nice change-up. Besides that it’s in a cool setting, conveying urgency and excitement.

One of the more fun aspects of the Spider-Man character is that because he’s so relatable and sympathetic, it’s not until you step outside Peter Parker’s POV that you’re reminded he’s a hero who’s really only a hard-luck underdog in his own mind; many of the villains he faces regard him as kind of an unstoppable badass. Peter’s narration & thought bubbles betray to us how terrified he is in most encounters and how narrowly he keeps escaping death, but all his adversaries can think of is how impossible he is to kill. (Similarly, reading team books where you get his nonstop wisecracking but are denied his humanizing moments make him look like quite the unflappable weirdo.) This is something the reboot dropped the ball on, of course, as the new Spidey was never anything more than an annoyance to the Lizard.

And that really comes across here, as you can see the Green Goblin perceiving Spider-Man as an even more formidable threat who he will have to use some pretty dirty tactics to defeat; meanwhile we the audience just know him as a scared and lonely kid.

This isn’t a great conflict on its own, but it’s good for what it is and it’s a solid stepping stone to the big finish.

Grade: B+

Random Observation: You don’t find out until the next scene, but this fight does, in fact, take place on Thanksgiving Day (perhaps the fire was started by someone cooking a turkey catastrophically wrong? My money is on the baby-forgetting lady). All the main characters gather at Peter & Harry’s apartment for dinner, and Norman guesses Peter’s alter ego when his telltale wound bleeds through his shirt. Wouldn’t the overwhelming smell of smoke have given it away first?

And hey, this post is going up the day before Thanksgiving! I swear I didn’t plan that out beforehand.

Coming Attractions: Is this the end of Spider-Man?

"Imagine a boot stamping on an organic web shooter — forever."

“Imagine a boot stamping on an organic web shooter — forever.”

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Spider-Man (fight 4 of 6)

Finally, some real hero vs villain action.

"What a novel idea!"

“What a novel idea!”

4) Spider-Man vs Green Goblin, round one

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, now fully embracing his role as a protector of the innocent and sporting a sweet costume. He’s spent the last few months building up a reputation in the city as a mythical vigilante. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin, a millionaire inventor and industrialist whose rash experiment with his own enhancement formula has unleashed a murderous alter ego. In addition to making him go ax-crazy, the formula has given Osborn increased physical strength and stamina; between that and his armor, he’s more than enough to be a physical match for Spider-Man. He’s also the father of Peter’s best friend, which is a funny coincidence. Played by Willem Dafoe, national treasure and Doug Benson’s former bete noire.
    • Armed with: In addition to his armor and helmet, the Goblin is rarely without his trusty jet-propelled glider, which is highly fast & maneuverable. More importantly, it’s outfitted with all sorts of guns, rockets, and (this will be important later), a retractable blade. And since I don’t see any pockets on that suit, it also seems to be where the Goblin stores his supply of pumpkin-themed grenades.

And because it’s inevitable: people LOVE to complain about the movie design of the Green Goblin, specifically his “Power Ranger” mask*. And, look, it’s not great– the mask is awkward for having an open mouth that doesn’t move, and the monochromatic color scheme gives off a distinct “naked” vibe– but it’s not that bad. And the complaints would be less grating if so many of them were not rooted in “they didn’t make it look like the comic,” which is only the zillionth example of nerds not understanding that something that works visually on a comics page or even a cartoon does not always translate well with actual human beings. Even if you could make the Goblin’s original look work on-screen, a lot of viewers would be scratching their heads as to why Osborn would go to the effort of dressing up like something straight out of Lord of the Rings; as it is, the implication that the Goblin helmet is an extension of Norman’s interest in tribal masks is quite sufficient.

[*I’ve seen many episodes of Power Rangers. Neither the heroes nor the villains look like that.]

If he'd just stretched his arms out a bit more this would have been quite the sly Platoon reference

If he’d just stretched his arms out a bit more this would have been quite the sly Platoon reference

The Setup: At a “world unity fair” (are those a thing?) being attended by Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry– in addition to several hundred civilians and musical supervillain Macy Gray– the Green Goblin makes his public debut, gunning for the board members who had been planning to edge him out of his own company.

A few bombs from Osborn wreck the balcony (part of what looks like a huge cathedral) that the board members had been on, preventing escape. Peter sees all this from down on the ground, where he’d been taking pictures, and runs off to change into his costume. Briefly taunting his corporate foes, the Goblin tosses a special bomb that instantly turns them into nothing but skeletons, which immediately crumble to dust. Harry and MJ are on a separate part of the balcony, the former having been quickly knocked out by some debris and the latter quickly becoming isolated on a crumbling ledge. (It’s unclear if the Goblin either knows, or cares, that he’s putting his son in jeopardy; he doesn’t seem to see him there, but Norman did know his son would be attending the event. He sees and reacts to Harry’s girlfriend MJ soon enough, but he probably wouldn’t recognize her, having never met her before.)

That taken care of, Norman starts feeling a little randy, and he hovers near the terrified Miss Watson, lustily menacing her. Pervert.

Still miles better than what Marvel later had the Goblin do to Gwen.

Still much more savory than what Marvel had him do to Gwen in the “Sins Past” storyline.

Fortunately, that’s when Peter comes swinging in in costume– complete with his arrival being announced by an exuberant girl pointing in the air and shouting “Look, it’s Spider-Man!” It’s adorably cheesy.

The Fight: Our hero arrives and kicks Gobby off his perch immediately, knocking him onto one of the many huge balloons nearby. While he’s briefly incapacitated, Spider-Man has to divert his attention to saving the World’s Dumbest Child, who earns his title by just standing there dumbfounded as another huge inflatable device collapses on him. (At this point, Spider-Man has already saved more people than Superman did in the entire Man of Steel movie. And it didn’t take him 17 years of wandering to get there.)

Meanwhile, the Goblin rises to his feet with a cartoonishly angry growl. Several of New York’s finest approach him, at which point he raises his arms with a pointedly sarcastic “I surrender!” and proceeds to beat them up with ease. Sheesh, what happened to their guns? Anyway, Spidey approaches and tries his own luck.

I mean, at most the metal helmet has a SLIGHT Lord Zedd vibe to it.

I mean, at most the metal helmet has a SLIGHT Lord Zedd vibe to it.

Gobby stops the fist with a cheeky “impressive!” and then kicks the hero through some scenery. He hops back on his glider (apparently it has some sort of homing device that can take it back to him if he’s dislodged), and pursues him with automatic fire. It’s a little odd-looking because Spider-Man’s just running in a straight line directly in front of the glider, and the hail of bullets keeps landing on either side of him because the glider keeps moving in a straight line as well. Goblin finishes by launching a missile, which creates a suspiciously small explosion just as the hero web-slings away to safety. That crazy formula may have made him super-strong but he still shoots like a stormtrooper.

Continuing to evade the villain, Spidey bounces amongst the remaining balloons and focuses on saving Mary Jane, whose position is getting more precarious by the second. But just before he can arrive, Green Goblin swoops in on his glider and rams our hero into a huge set of windows. The visual is somewhat… unfortunate.

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But again, STILL much better than “Sins Past.”

There’s some decent scuffling after that, but Peter gets the worst of it and ends up falling down a bit when he’s knocked off the glider. The Goblin turns about but gets a face full of webbing, obscuring his vision. Spider-Man takes advantage of the distraction and rips a healthy chunk of wiring out of the glider’s undercarriage. His ride going haywire, the villain flies away spastically, crying out, “WE’LL MEET AGAIN, SPIDER-MAN!” so hammily it makes me wish Willem Dafoe was my dad.

Peter then of course dives down and saves Mary Jane just before she takes a fatal fall. That’ll be the last time that happens, right?

To say this is far from perfect would be an understatement. Characters make questionable tactical decisions. The CGI is not always convincing, and there’s a high visual contrast between the more aerial/acrobatic stuff and the up-close altercations. The scale of the fight is surprisingly limited, especially given the mobility of both fighters; it wouldn’t be until the sequel that Spidey finally had a truly proper city-spanning brawl.

It is, nonetheless, ridiculously fun. Though he never really did nail the comic character’s trademark taunting, Maguire is solid as our hero. But it’s Dafoe who truly shines, hamming it up without even the barest lingering trace of irony. Dafoe has expressed regret in interviews that the nature of his mask prevented him from fully using his face to emote; he clearly attempts to compensate for that vocally, and how. He comes right up to that line where unacceptable cartooniness would begin, and presses against it like a mime in an invisible box.

And for all its faults, this is most definitely a superhero fight. Though the action keeps within a small area it’s still dynamic, going from air to ground to air again, with both opponents employing a variety of different attacks. The sound design cranks up appropriately to sell even the more glancing blows, conveying the power involved here (Matrix Reloaded, this isn’t). I remember seeing this in the theater and thinking, “wow, I really am seeing it. I’m seeing Spider-Man fight Green Goblin.” Like I said earlier, nowadays we take things like that for granted because we get to watch a full team of Avengers fight off an alien invasion and then go out for schwarma together afterwards, but in 2002, this was more than enough.

Grade: B+. A very high one.

Recommended Links: They actually did experiment with a more articulated Goblin mask, but oddly the problem with it was that it was too good. This is a character who should come off like a man dressing up in a monster-themed outfit, not an actual monster.

Great Weird Al song about this movie. I still love Al even though he makes that same Power Ranger comment.

Who deserves most of the credit for creating Spider-Man? Hint: it ain’t that guy in the first picture up top.

Coming Attractions: Fire fight.

Picture1

Burn, Gobby, burn.

Spider-Man (fight 3 of 6)

In which Spider-Man learns the hard way that great power should be used for more than just wrestling matches.

Mega Powers come with mega responsibilities.

[This also barely counts as a fight, but it’s important enough for the character to merit inclusion. Plus I’ll cheat a bit by writing up the car chase too.]

3) Spider-Man vs Carjacker

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, straight off his wrestling “win” and wearing his homemade costume. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • A carjacker, no name given here but in the third film it’s revealed that it’s Dennis Carradine (he’s not named in the comics at all). He’s desperate enough you can practically see the flop sweat, but is definitely no “misunderstood” sweetie with a good heart; just a petty thug, through and through. Played by Michael Papajohn, a veteran stuntman who has probably had to hear a lot of stupid pizza jokes.
    • Armed with: Pistol and knife.

The Setup: After Peter leaves the fight promoter’s office, a thug storms in and robs him at gunpoint. He soon storms out with security in pursuit, and Peter, having just been cheated out of his winnings by the promoter on a technicality, deliberately lets the robber escape rather than stopping him.

After Peter exits the building to meet up with his ride home, he finds emergency personnel swarming over a recent crime scene– his saintly Uncle Ben has been shot by a carjacker, while waiting for Peter. Ben (who Peter had last exchanged harsh words with), expires quickly, but Peter hears police talking about their pursuit of the suspect, and is spurred into action.

The Fight: Peter flees the scene and strips down to his rasslin’ costume, crawling up to a high building. Spotting his uncle’s stolen car (actually Sam Raimi’s own 1973 Oldsmobile, which has a cameo in almost all his movies), Peter hooks a web line, and even in his rage he pauses, knowing he’s about to try something crazy. His previous attempt at genuine web-swinging had merely sent him careening face-first into a wall, so a sustained chase is like going straight from crawling to cartwheeling.

And he almost does repeat that first performance, but narrowly avoids it by launching a web from his other hand and swining away. It’s in this sequence that Peter intuitively, if frantically, determines how to make his web-slinging work: latch onto the corners of buildings, and when necessary use an alternate hand to correct the momentum. Comic book artists have it comparatively easy because they can just show Spider-Man’s web disappearing from the top of each individual frame, but when filming action like this in movies (in wide shots, at least), it gets a bit more complicated. (This is also why superhero movies and even cartoons have a hard time believably incorporating super-speed into action sequences.)

Spastic or no, Peter does manage to catch up to the car, landing on the roof. The carjacker (smartly filmed from this point on either moving frantically and/or in the dark, with a cap or ski mask obscuring the top of his head) fires a few rounds upwards. Peter isn’t hit but he does get shaken off. Further pursuit allows him to land with a backflip on the car’s hood, where he takes the liberty of punching the windshield and crashing the car.

While pursuer and prey are briefly separated, the carjacker flees on foot into a nearby abandoned building– a factory, by the looks of it– and takes refuge on a higher floor (dumb move, because if the police show up he has nowhere to run). Though the police are in hot pursuit, Peter does take a few mintues to stalk and menace his panicked target, almost giving off a Batman-esque vibe.

"DO I LOOK LIKE A COP?!"

“DO I LOOK LIKE A COP?!”

But he soon reveals himself, and immediately grabs the crook from behind, slamming his face through a couple of glass windows. He knocks the gun out of Carradine’s hands, and when the thief switches to his knife, Peter dodges a swing from that, and disarms him once again with this nifty backflip move: as he spins over backwards, Peter’s feet kick the handle of the knife, and the momentum of his flip sends the weapon flying straight into the wall behind him. Wildly unnecessary but really cool.

Peter then kicks Carradine against the wall, and in the shot between when the kick is delivered and when the actor stops moving, Papajohn has somehow regained his gun and lost his cap. It’s a really bad editing mistake, but then I’ve seen this movie at least six times and I didn’t notice it until I was going through parts of this scene frame by frame to look for screen grabs, so how bad is it really?

He begs for mercy and Peter refuses to give it. But when Carradine’s face is illuminated by a police spotlight, he’s revealed– what a tweest!– to be the same crook that Peter smugly let pass. Again pulling from the Simple & Effective playbook, Raimi and co. made the smart decision to give the criminal a distinctive (though not completely bizarre) hair style: pronounced widow’s peak, with a thick mop of peroxide blonde on top and dark, short hair down low. Thus, the audience immediately recognizes him (ironically, this is the opposite of smart thieves, who try to cover up or just not have any distinguishing features that would make them easy to remember. But of course, most thieves aren’t smart). Unfortunately, Raimi negates that immediately by replaying the elevator encounter in slow-motion (it’s not a flashback of the exact same footage, but Peter’s subjective memory of it), but even that was probably necessary– don’t ever underestimate how slow and inattentive some audience members can be.

Anyway, Carradine takes advantage of Peter’s stunned shock to level his magical teleporting handgun at the boy’s face.

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In the comics, Peter’s spider sense can be circumvented by the Venom symbiote and also some specially made Green Goblin chemicals. In the movies it’s only canceled out by overwhelming personal guilt and/or plot contrivance.

But Peter’s still fast enough to knock the gun away, again, and Peter twists Carradine’s wrist pretty bad, seemingly breaking it. The crook stumbles backward a bit in pain, trips over an exposed pipe, and falls out through the window, dead on impact. Peter flees the scene.

When it comes to the actual fighting, this is another skimpy and one-sided battle; no real challenge, just quick and intense. Maguire plays a great range of fear and fury, and Papajohn is appropriately skeevy as an all-too-realistic type of dangerous low life. It might have been gratifying to see Peter wail on the thug some more, but actually his brief acts of brutality hit the sweet spot: providing a touch of non-exploitative excitement and still clearly out of character for Peter to be deliberately jarring. The only thing the scene really does wrong is the aforementioned editing error, and again, how bad is that really in the grand scheme of things?

Grade: B

Random Pondering: The circumstances of Uncle Ben’s death (arguably improved here from the more convoluted and coincidence-reliant version in the source material) are well-known to just about all comics fans, but from what I’ve seen, before this movie they didn’t enjoy the same level of cultural penetration as did, say, the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. And even without knowing that, the back-to-back occurrences of Peter letting an armed criminal escape and then his uncle getting shot off-screen seem way too easy to connect for that final reveal of Carradine’s face to be a genuine surprise. So I ask: were YOU, or someone you know, genuinely shocked when you first saw this movie and found out the carjacker was also the thief? Don’t be afraid to admit it, this is a safe place. Much like fighting in the war room, there’s no judging at Grading Fight Scenes.

Coming Attractions: Every day I’m gob-ble-in

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It’s about to not be easy bein’ green

Spider-Man (fight 2 of 6)

ART THOU BORED??!

No, thou art scared. Justifiably.

No, thou art scared. Justifiably.

2) Spider-Man vs Bonesaw McGraw

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, though he only barely qualifies to be called that name at this point. His proficiency with his powers has increased significantly since his tussle with Flash, though not to the point of mastery. And his “costume”-designing skills still leave much to be desired. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • Bonesaw McGraw, a popular local wrestler with a lot of style and no mercy. Obscenely over-muscled and aggressive. Played by Randall Mario Poffo, aka Randy “Macho Man” Savage, one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all-time and gone from us too soon. RIP.

The Setup: Theorizing that chicks do, in fact, dig cars, Peter is on the hunt for some quick money in order to score himself a jalopy, and settles on the unorthodox method of participating in a local “open” wrestling challenge: anyone who can survive three minutes in the ring against Bonesaw will be awarded $3000. After being signed in by pie-pooper Octavia Spencer and getting his signature name from a Bruce Campbell improv, Peter finds himself stuck in a steel cage with a very macho man.

"Groovy."

Unfortunately, none of the adjectives he prefaces Spider-Man’s name with are “groovy.”

The Fight: After delivering some trademark Savage-esque trash talk, Bonesaw rushes in at his scrawny foe, but Parker hops away and sticks up to the high wall. From his position of brief safety, Peter tries out some taunting of his own, with a remark that would have caused at least a minor media tiff about this movie being “homophobic” if it had been released today. Hey, 2002 was a different era.

Despite his previous mission statement of staying away from Bonesaw, Peter jumps back down again shortly, and (gratuitously) uses his webs to jump over another running charge. Even with all his reflexes, caution and psychic spider sense, somehow Peter is caught completely by surprise as Bonesaw is handed a metal folding chair from one of his lovely assistants, which he then proceeds to brain Peter with repeatedly.

s3

He couldn’t smell what the Spider was cookin.

Bonesaw is pretty intense, though not quite “Ric Flair just told everyone he used to bone my wife” intense. He hits Peter five times total with that chair, even after he’s down on the ground, and finishes off by tossing him into the bars. Next, Bonesaw’s assistant hands him a crowbar (!), but before he can close in, Peter nails him with several strong kicks, and throws him against the ropes. The fall knocks him out, with the referee declaring Spider-Man the winner. On paper it’s kind of silly to think the Macho Man could be brought low by the brat from Pleasantville, but once you’ve jobbed for the Ultimate Warrior you can pretty much sell anything.

This isn’t a great fight, but it was never going to be. It’s an entertaining sideshow, and the only way to improve it would be to have just made more of it, especially with such a dynamite performer like Savage on hand. As it is, the only thing it does truly wrong is a complete lack of wrestling moves on Peter’s part, and arguably not enough from Bonesaw; The Chair is of course an inevitably iconic part of every movie wrestling match, but did they have to go to that well so quickly? Would a few turnbuckle charges and flying elbow drops have been too much to ask?

Unlike the million flips in the last fight, the level of willful silliness works out excellently here– to the point of eliding over the sequence’s logical failures (chief among them: wrestling’s not real) in favor of just giving everyone a good time. Kind of like any good pro wrestling match, come to think of it.

Grade: B

Subjective Grade Adjusted for Randy Savage’s Involvement: A+++

Alternate Grade Using Non-Traditional Grading Format: Four Out Of Four Slim Jims

Alternate Grade Using Non-Traditional Grading Format #2: OHHHH YEAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH

Alternate Grade Using Non-Traditional Grading Format #3:

Ric Flair Grade: WOO!

Recommended Links: A great Dead Spin column on Macho Man’s career, just after his passing.

Blogger Trivia: I posit that Bruce Campbell does not play three different characters in all his Spider-Man cameo roles. They’re all the same character, because the trilogy is one big prequel crossover with Burn Notice and Campbell is playing Sam Axe under a bunch of different aliases as he keeps tabs on Spider-Man for the government.

Coming Attractions: Tobey wrecks the director’s car.

Worst. Windshield bug. Ever.

Worst. Windshield bug. Ever.

Spider-Man (fight 1 of 6)

Well look who came crawling back.

I fully admit that the pun makes no sense in this context.

After eleven years that have seen two increasingly bloated sequels, a spectacularly pointless reboot, and a veritable renaissance of other Marvel movies, it’s easy to forget what a breath of fresh air Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was when it came out. After 2000’s X-Men, shaky as it was, first demonstrated that on-screen comic book superheroics could be legitimately cool, Spidey came along to prove that they could be amazing. If it had flopped, we’d quite likely not be having our multiplexes filled with any Avengers, let alone six of them at once.

It’s got its flaws and in many ways it’s almost quaint, but in 2002 this movie was a revelation. I saw it in the theater three times and who knows how many at home. I adore this movie so much I’d make out with it upside down in the rain. Not coincidentally, it’s positively loaded with fights.

I was tempted to skip at least this early one, since it’s fairly brief and very one-sided. But it’s set up so much like a traditional fight– complete with a crowd of on-lookers chanting “FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!”– and an important building block for the protagonist that I couldn’t help myself.

1) Peter Parker vs Flash Thompson

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker. He’s Spider-Man. Let’s not waste your time or mine by explaining what that entails. But this is his first day after the big bite, quickly becoming more aware of his new abilities. Played by Tobey Maguire, never better.
  • Eugene “Flash” Thompson, one of the alpha males at Peter’s high school (and dating Peter’s crush, Mary Jane) and a character straight out of the comic, though his appearance is a bit less Aryan here than in the source material. Like many teen bullies he’s not exactly a skilled fighter, just burly and mean enough to be dangerous. Played by Joe Mangianello, a talented actor who’s gone on to find solid success (and even more muscle mass) in recent years.

s1

The Setup: Stumbling through the discovery of his sticky new spider powers, our hero accidentally nailed Flash in the back of the head with a cafeteria tray, spilling food on him. Peter quietly tries to leave the scene of the crime, but Flash stalks him down the hallway.

In a really cool blend of CGI and live-action footage, Raimi gives us a glimpse of the “spider sense” that alerts Peter to immediate dangers and makes him aware of his surroundings; just as Flash’s fist comes crashing in, everything freezes and we get a panoramic tour of the nearby environment. Parker dodges the blow and Flash’s punch leaves a small dent in Peter’s locker, rather than the back of his head. The hero tries to persuade the bully to stand down, but the fight is on. (“I wouldn’t wanna fight me either” is a pretty good comeback, as dim bulb bullies go.)

The Fight: Flash throws a couple strong, swift punches that Peter dodges with ease, thanks to his newfound speed and reflexes. Raimi pulls off another neat trick to convey the hero’s amazing new senses, taking the movie into slow-motion for one punch. While Flash’s arm is still fully extended, Peter (apparently moving at “normal” speed in contrast) has time to move his head to the side and register his surprise. Such a simple yet effective technique.

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Wonder Boy is wondering

Peter then dodges a lunging punch by bending his torso all the way backwards while keeping his legs fully planted, like some kind of master gymnast. MJ, having failed to talk her boyfriend down, urges Harry (James Franco! A shame nothing ever became of that promising young lad) to help Peter out, but that quickly proves to be unnecessary, as Harry himself notes.

One of Flash’s friends briefly tries to join the fray, rushing at Peter from behind (no honor with these jocks, huh?), but Peter evades by jumping in the air… and flipping end over end an absurd amount. Seriously, he does it like eight times, it’s ridiculous. It comes off stupid and cartoony even for the superhero genre. Much better effect could have been achieved with something simpler but still impressive, much like the punch-dodging picture above.

But it’s impressive enough for Flash’s friend, who bows out. An enraged Thompson charges again with a series of punches that Peter blocks. He stops the last one by grabbing the bully’s wrist and twisting his arm upright with intimidating strength, then knocking him back about 20 feet with a simple blow to the chest.

You just got Ice Storm'd!

You just got Ice Storm’d!

Flash skids into a passing teacher, knocking the man’s tray loose and dumping yet more food over the bully’s face. Ha ha. As a smart epilogue to the tussle, Flash’s friend remarks with genuine disgust that Peter really is a “freak,” which puts a slight damper on what would otherwise be a more jubilant triumph. It’s a clever foreshadowing about how being Spider-Man isn’t all just wish fulfillment and fun.

Except for the miscalculation of the obvious wire work, this is all very good stuff. The hero is of course never in real danger, but it’s always a treat to see a bully get his comeuppance, and this is great character-building for Peter– indeed, the entire day where Peter learns all his new powers really is a marvel of economic storytelling. Raimi just hops from one discovery to the next, covering a range of emotions from confusion to panic to exuberance, and stopping for some nice beats along the way like understated flirting with Mary Jane and, of course, a neat little fight scene. Well done.

[Note that in that reboot from last year, they had their own scene of Peter taking Flash down a peg, but it was this weirdness involving a passive-aggressive game of basketball. Such is the nature of an unnecessary reboot to a series that began within recent memory: the new Spidey film had to zag wherever the original one zigged, hence they had to come up with an alternate approach even though Raimi’s straightforward take on this story beat was just fine.]

Grade: B-

Coming Attractions: HEY FREAK-O

"This is how many boxes of Slim Jims I eat for breakfast!"

That’s how many boxes of Slim Jims he eats for breakfast every morning

The Matrix Revolutions

Time to get to some unfinished business.

“Aww, do we have to?”

In many ways, The Matrix Revolutions is even weirder than its predecessor. Though filmed simultaneously with Reloaded, the third film plays and feels much differently than the second; indeed, as I remarked in discussing the previous sequel, it seems at times that Revolutions is slyly mocking Reloaded and its convoluted plotting. Reloaded is unnecessarily subversive whereas Revolutions dives headlong into cliche. Questions and elements raised in the first sequel are largely yawned at by the second. The core cast is separated for the majority of the film and their concurrent storylines are not balanced well in the editing room. Even the titular matrix itself gets less screen time than ever.

And, of course, fight scenes get short shrift. There’s a decent shootout sequence early on, though it’s a bit of a rehash, and the extended war sequence defending Zion is nothing to sneeze at. But the one true fight scene comes in the form of the climactic showdown between hero & villain. Fortunately, it’s a doozy.

Neo vs Agent Smith (final round)

The Fighters:

  • Neo, aka The One, with all the enhanced powers that entails. He’s been re-jacked into the matrix after personally entering the machine city and striking up a deal with their overlord (personified by a giant floating baby head that’s called “Deus Ex Machina” in the credits, which is cute) to face down the Smith Army in exchange for relenting in their assault on Zion. Probably not at the top of his game, what with having just watched his girlfriend die a few minutes ago. Played by everyone’s favorite, Keanu Reeves.
  • Agent Smith, the rogue program gifted with the power of infinite replication via assimilation (resistance is futile); if Neo is the One, Smith is the Many. Now that he’s taken over the Oracle, he’s stronger than ever, able to fly, and has some amount of her precognition. Played by Hugo Weaving.

The Setup: Expanding ever-faster, Agent Smith has taken over enough hosts in order to fill a city– or possibly the entire population of the matrix at this point, it’s never stated. Presumably his rampant presence is what’s also messing with the coding in the matrix enough to create the really bitchin’ storm that’s raging in the background, complete with big ol’ fat rain and almost continual lightning strikes. (Artistically, of course, the rain is supposed to evoke the way the matrix’s code looks.)

Still more appealing than Detroit.

Neo strides calmly down a street that is lined with thousands of Smiths, packed shoulder to shoulder. The lead Smith (the one who absorbed the Oracle) steps out of the crowd for some of that wonderful Hugo Weaving trash talk we’ve come to love. He tells Neo that “the rest of me are just going to stand back and enjoy the show, because we already know I’m the one that beats you.” Which is a clever little way to paper over how if the Smith Army REALLY wanted to defeat Neo, they’d all just dog pile him immediately and the fight would be over in eight seconds.

But that would be neither dramatic nor fun, so instead we get this showdown. The two combatants charge each other as Don Davis’ specially composed track “Neodammerung” (again: cute) revs up.

The Fight: It seems like business as usual at first. Hero & villain exchange a series of fast blows & dodges, with neither gaining a real solid win over the other. The camera work is really good here, as the Wachowskis basically use three profile shots of the dueling fates, pushing in steadily each time they alternate which side they’re shooting from– an unobtrusive yet effective way to convey the battle’s intensity.

Then there’s a big slow-motion shot as the two manage to punch each other’s faces simultaneously, resulting in both flying backwards along with an enormous shockwave (the first of like three or four such shockwaves in this fight– they really overdo it) that displaces a huge sphere of rainwater. Neo seems to get the best of this one because he lands on his feet while Smith lands on his back hard enough to push up a whole chunk of asphalt.

Smith flies up angrily and is immediately met by Neo, and they do this strange  mid-air wrestling thing that never comes across as anything more than awkward.

Writhe of the Titans

Writhe of the Titans

Neo is soon thrown through the side of a building, and just barely dodges (with a jumping splits that would make Van Damme proud) when Smith swoops in for a follow-up. The pair slam into each other again and Neo takes a nasty fall, giving some time for Smith to monologue a bit more about “purpose” and how he wants to destroy everything ever. It’s all terribly nihilistic. I mean, say what you will about national socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.

This seems to energize rather than demoralize Neo, however– he rises with a big music cue and does the franchise’s umpteenth iteration of the “come & get it” hand gesture. They re-engage in what’s probably the best part of the battle, with some strong and spirited choreography, mixing in a healthy but not excessive amount of slow-mo. The Wachowskis show this interior part of the duel from several angles, but the most prominent is the iconic view that silhouettes the pair against the building’s windows.

"Ugh, you are the WORST at giving high-fives!"

“Ugh, you are the WORST at giving high-fives!”

Neo kicks some rogue program ass here, almost systematically shutting down Smith’s attacks and beating him back. He finishes by knocking the villain through the huge windows (Smith loses his sunglasses in the process). Neo then joins him in flight and the two continue dueling in mid-air.

The aerial stuff in this segment is a lot better than before, mostly. There are some wide shots of the two circling each other, thrusting in and backing off (the displaced water following them as they zoom along creates de facto contrails, which is neat), and some closer shots as they forego the clumsy wrestling of before in favor of some zero-gravity kung fu. Throughout we can see even more of the black & green sky, with huge lightning bolts constantly flashing.

Eventually, Smith gets far enough away that he can build up some serious speed & momentum as he rushes back to his prey, while Neo just floats there passively. Presumably he has some plan to dodge or counter Smith at the last minute, but if so it doesn’t work. After the blow creates the biggest shockwave yet, Smith grabs Neo and flies him downward at full speed, slamming them both into the ground hard enough to create an enormous impact crater.

It looks pretty rough for Neo, flopping around limply on the ground. As Smith observes his desperate struggle, he ponders why Neo continues to fight, since he clearly has no hope of survival– the only thing logically worth fighting for, in Smith’s worldview. Any other reason– freedom, justice, love– is just an intangible and artificial construct, just as fake as the matrix itself.

Again Neo is inspired rather than dispirited, because it’s then that he finally stands up and assumes a ready stance, simply telling his foe “because I choose to.” This is the crux of one of the series’ many themes, the triumph of humanism over nihilism. The things we value aren’t inherently or objectively valuable, they are valuable because we choose to make them so.

Neo blocks several blows from Smith, and comes back hard with a few of his own. The first of which is that absurd super slow-mo shot that tracks Neo’s fist and we see it distort his opponent’s face, practically one pixelized pore at a time.

m4

Just like what the Burly Brawl did to excess, again we’re shown that Polar Express-level phony CGI and with all the slow-mo time in the world to observe its fakeness. However, there’s some advantage gained by being able to see Neo’s virtual hand cut through several individual rain drops, a feat that would have been much less doable in reality. Then again, the money shot here is that crazy contorted Weaving face, and most people would agree that the visual is more silly than dramatic, so overall the decision is a wash at best.

A few more punches bury Smith in the side of the crater, but Neo hardly has a moment to catch his breath before the villain flies out of the hole in a rage, petulantly crying out “This is my world, mine!” and beating Neo down some more.

Smith pauses, as he realizes that his prophecy is coming true and he’s almost at the moment where he “wins.” Reciting part of his vision, he inadvertently gives Neo the Oracle’s hint as to what to do, and Neo willingly accepts assimilation. Facing his newest clone, Smith seems to think he’s won, but this actually allows the machines to fill Neo’s real body with a surge of energy that explodes his matrix clone-self and, soon enough, the rest of the Smith Army. Their Smith shells explode, leaving the host bodies behind, Oracle included.

A fitting and unusual end: basically, Neo defeats his enemy by embracing him. He balances (or unbalances) the equation. Even if it does raise the question of, you know, why didn’t he just do that in the first place.

Putting the thematic & philosophical entanglements aside here, what we have here is essentially a straight-up, comic book, superhero vs supervillain fight, and on the kind of scale that had been rarely attempted at the time. The closest prior analogue would be Superman II’s climactic battle against Zod & co, and while that had its moments, the special effects of 1980 were, shall we say, not up to the task. (Or maybe Nuclear Man in Superman IV, but let’s not go there.)

The effects are a lot more up to the task here, if still imperfect. Hero & villain fight on the ground and in the air, they toss each other through buildings and deliver earth-shattering blows. The Gumby-like CGI and occasionally awkward sky-tussling don’t help, but largely the Wachowskis’ effects team and choreography deliver on selling a brawl between two godlike superheroes. Though the excitement dips toward the end, there are enough changes of pace and scenery throughout to keep the overall struggle from betting too boring.

They were really shooting for the stars on this one, and while the fight is missing some element that would make it truly great, it is highly entertaining and satisfying nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Tobey-Man, Tobey-Man, does whatever a Tobey can….

He was bitten by a radioactive emo kid.

The Warriors (fight 2 of 2)

The Warriors are about to have their climactic battle. Can you dig it?

How could you say no after seeing this image?

How could you say no after seeing this image?

2) The Warriors vs The Punks

The Fighters:

  • The Warriors, or at least the six remaining. In addition to Swan, Snow and Cowboy from before (Ajax was arrested for attempting to rape an undercover female cop not long after the last fight), we have:
    • Cochise, another able fighter and a guy with some fashionable head choices. Played by David Harris.
    • Vermin, one of the less impressive Warriors. Played by Terry Michos.
    • Rembrandt, the smallest and seemingly the youngest of the Warriors. He’s also their resident graffiti artist (hence the name). Played by Marcelino Sánchez.
    • Mercy, a troublesome street girl who abandoned the mediocre “Orphans” gang to roll with the Warriors earlier (and has since developed a weird relationship with Swan), is also on hand, and contributes a small bit. Played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh.
  • The Punks– yes, that’s their name. Somehow managing to look more laughable than the Baseball Furies’ “clowns in sports outfit” thing, the Punks’ uniform is long-sleeved striped shirts underneath full overalls. They’re supposed to be tough inner-city New Yorkers but they look more like prep-school jocks dressing like farm hands for a tacky Halloween party. Oh, and a couple of them are wearing roller skates. They do have an assortment of bats, knives & chains, so there’s that.
"A motley band of ruffians, we!"

“A motley band of ruffians, we!”

The Setup: The disparate Warriors have finally re-united at Union Square Station, but soon discover they’re being tailed by several Punks (when they finally gather it ends up being nine). Ever the savvy tactician, Swan guides his crew into a men’s room and waits for them to follow.

The Punks enter to find two rows of closed stalls, and one scout begins to methodically search each door while the rest either block the exit or take up positions in front of other stalls. But one of the first doors checked reveals Rembrandt, who swiftly raises his can of spray paint and lets the Punk have it right in the face.

p3

It could only have improved his hair.

The other Warriors take that as their cue to bust out en masse, and the brawl begins immediately.

The Fight: Pure chaos.

Basically, everything happens at once. Much like the last fight, it’s hard to provide a blow-by-blow, but even more so– instead of three-on-five, now it’s six-against-nine, and in a more confined space to boot. But amidst the insanity, there’s a vague progression of the Warriors’ slow crawl to victory, even if things are dire enough it looks like they could lose. And as frantic as it is, you still get a definite sense for how each of the protagonists is doing, and nearly everyone gets at least one memorable moment.

(It’s not perfect, however– there’s one edit of Snow having, then losing, then suddenly having his bat again, that’s particularly noticeable. But absolute perfection is a big ask in a scene with this many moving pieces, especially on Hill’s low budget.)

Cowboy breaks his bat with a tough swing against one opponent, as does Snow towards the end. Despite his dirty pool with the graffiti, the tiny Rembrandt gets taken down early. Vermin gets in some good hits but gets thrown nastily into the mirrors above the sink.

p4

Or at least his stunt man does, but who’s counting?

Cochise pulls off a brutal-looking, wrestling-type move when he puts a Punk in a side headlock and runs that head straight into a wall. Later he chokes another Punk with his own chain and flips forward bodily. Snow seems to be a particular MVP, getting in lots of cool karate moves on multiple opponents (Brian Tyler was a practiced martial artist at the time of filming). Even Mercy helps out a little bit.

Almost as deadly but less well-known than the Vulcan Neck Pinch is the Skank Shoulder Bite.

Almost as deadly but less well-known than the Vulcan Neck Pinch is the Skank Shoulder Bite.

Swan dishes out a lot of punishment, but takes a lot as well, at one point getting ganged up on by two assailants. But it all works out for him in the end– indeed, whenever Swan or any other Warrior starts looking rough, a teammate is usually nearby to swoop in and help. It’s clear these guys have had a lot of practice kicking ass together.

The leader actually gets in the last blow of the fight, diverting a charging punk’s momentum into a throw that sends him crashing through a stall door. Warriors 2, New York 0.

Again, we see the amazing skill (both in the actual fight and quiet tactics that set it up) which make the Warriors so formidable (“Good. Real good” you might say), but this time in an even more intense and brutal setting. There’s a palpable excitement to this fight that’s hard to convey, but it really does work on all levels. Epic without being flashy.

Grade: A-

Recommended Links: A who’s who of the Warriors and the rest of the cast, complete with optional Where Are They Now.

Coming Attractions: Confusion conclusion.

“No, EDWARD is the best!” “You take that back!”