The Incredible Hulk (fight 1 of 2)

They have an Army, but we have a…

Um. Not quite.

2008’s The Incredible Hulk is underrated. It’s not great by any means, being underwhelming in certain aspects and lacking in others. But its heart is in the right place, and more importantly, it helped continue the groundwork its same-summer companion Iron Man had just recently begun. Again, this sort of thing is taken for granted in Marvel movies now, but all throughout the film you can feel a solid sense of respect & affection for the source material, an understanding that these people get the property, and want to have fun with it.

Certainly it can be credited with swerving the franchise sharply away from the dour, pretentious Ang Lee version. The director of the reboot, Louis Laterrier, is generally known as a genre schlockmeister, but in addition to all the competent action Laterrier actually pulls off some very striking shots and a few other nice tricks.

Unfortunately, while the movie fulfills its action quota, only two of its action beats could be reasonably qualified as “fights.” The first real Hulk-out, in a bottling plant after a tense chase through Brazilian favelas, is excellent but over too quickly and takes place mostly in the shadows; in one of the film’s smarter moves, it’s seen mostly from the perspectives of Hulk’s tormentors, and plays out more like a horror sequence.

But there’s still plenty of fun left to be had.

2) Hulk vs The Army

The Fighters:

  • The Incredible Hulk, aka Bruce Banner. In case you haven’t heard, Banner is a mild-mannered scientist who, thanks to a lab accident involving gamma radiation, turns into a nigh-unstoppable rage beast whenever he becomes too angry or afraid. (This movie seems to tie the transformations directly to his heart rate reaching a certain threshold, a rather bland interpretation.) The Hulk is enormous, incredibly strong, durable, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. He’s also typically seen as “dumb” in contrast to the brilliant Banner, but this varies with each adaptation and even more so throughout the comic’s history; some Hulks are child-like idiots, some have a normal intellect, and some have just flat-out been Bruce Banner in a big green body. More recent work has even claimed that all incarnations of the Hulk retain Banner’s genius on some level, allowing the creature to intuitively calculate his seemingly random destruction so as not to harm innocent bystanders. Also important: not only does rage trigger the Hulk’s transformation, increased anger will amplify his power. “The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets.” Played by Edward Norton, who acquits himself well as a brooding & thoughtful man of action, and also apparently did extensive but uncredited re-writes of the script.
  • A small element of the United States Army, maybe a few dozen. They’re mostly equipped with small arms, but have several Humvees, a few of which are mounted with .50 caliber machine guns, and two more have some other interesting tech. Additionally, there’s a helicopter gunship nearby. (They’re also all wearing the woodland-camouflage Battle Dress Uniform, which the Army had fully phased out before 2008, the year this was released– let alone by 2011, the year this apparently takes place. Oops.) The troops are led by Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, a general deeply involved with the DoD’s gamma radiation/”special weapons” department, who has been obsessively hunting the Hulk for years and is also the father of Banner’s ex-girlfriend, Betty (awwwwwwkward). Played by William Hurt.
  • Emil Blonsky, Ross’ point man in this endeavor. A British Royal Marine “on loan” to Ross for the Hulk chase, Blonsky is a cold-blooded special forces veteran. As the lone non-casualty of the bottling plant encounter, Blonsky has a bone to pick with Hulk, and Ross has worked to enable this rematch by pumping Blonsky full of an unthawed attempt at a re-creation of the super-soldier serum– the same one that made Captain America. Played by GFS hall-of-famer Tim Roth.

“Huge invincible super-monster? Pfft, we got this.”

The Setup: Ross, as usual, is chasing Bruce Banner. This time around he’s pinpointed the fugitive’s location to the sprawling university campus where Betty works, after he’d re-surfaced there seeking assistance. Uncle Sam wants Banner alive, so they can figure out from his body how to re-create the Hulk, so as before they’re going after the guy with non-lethal means. After the hero bolts, Betty tracks down her father and implores him to stop. She is less than successful, and gets detained on the sidelines.

Though Banner’s inside, Blonsky and the majority of the troops remain out front, knowing that’s where they’ll need to be if they can’t subdue him before a transformation. In a neat practical effect, Blonsky is shown very easily out-running the rest of the infantry behind him– a cool way to introduce the effects his “treatments” are having.

Banner leads them on a merry chase across the campus, stopping at one point to swallow a thumb drive containing important data. Gross, but a necessary move for a guy whose pockets are about to get jacked up. Eventually, Banner finds himself trapped in a nifty glass walkway separating two buildings. Soldiers lock the doors on either side, and on Ross’ orders they fire knockout gas into his confined space. He starts to succumb, but when he looks outside and sees Betty distressed, his eyes turn green….

And then this happens.

The Fight: At Ross’ order, all the soldiers start to unload on him, mostly with M16s. It’s little more than an annoyance to Hulk’s thick skin, and deters him not at all as he charges forward. A few Hummers with mounted .50 cals show up and begin firing, but even good old Ma Deuce can only cause Hulk moderate pain. Before they can even try to do worse, Hulk knocks over the nearest Humvee to him, then picks up another and smashes it repeatedly into a nearby sculpture, then the ground. Not one to let a nice piece of wreckage go to waste, the beast rips out part of the vehicle’s engine block and hurls at at a third Humvee, hard enough to knock that one into another Humvee. They both explode, which is always welcome.

This leaves Blonsky to take on the Hulk directly. Armed with a grenade launcher, he starts closing in on the Hulk, firing at intervals the whole way. The first couple rounds catch Hulk before he can react and do knock him back a bit, but soon he’s able to display some battlefield improvisation, and seizes two huge chunks of the metal lawn sculpture and uses them as shields.

Isn’t the guy with the super soldier serum supposed to be using a shield?

After he gets in close enough, Blonksy drops the weapon, though it’s not clear if it’s because he ran out of ammo or if he lost his grip when he has to leap forward to avoid Hulk’s first counter-swing. Either way, Emil is reduced to just using his sidearm from here, which obviously doesn’t faze the big green guy at all. But his acrobatic dodging is quite incredibly, leaping and flipping all around Hulk’s would-be swings.

Ross, impressed, orders Blonsky to draw the target into the next phase of the plan: the sonic cannons.

Sonic BOOM

These new weapons (apparently made by Stark Industries, of course) are non-lethal devices which fire visible waves of “sound” into the air and somehow incapacitate the target. It’s not clear if they do so merely by causing overwhelming pain to the target’s hearing/inner ear, or if they have their own concussive force, as is implied when Blonksy gets grazed by one just as he’s jumping out the way, which sends him tumbling too. But either way, you have to love these things: they’re SUCH a deliciously comic book-y contrivance, symbolic of how much fun this movie’s willing to have.

The cannons, once they’re both trained on Hulk, actually fix him pretty well at first, bringing him to the ground in pain. But once again, Hulk draws his strength at the sight of Betty’s visible distress over him, and forces himself back to his feet. Mitigating the sonic waves somewhat by first putting the metal shields in their path, and then he throws one right down the middle of the vehicle it’s mounted on, blowing it up. With the damage output reduced by half, Hulk is free enough to leap right onto the other cannon, destroying it personally.

Nearly out of options, Ross calls in the nearby gunship. Overly confident and disregarding orders to stand down, Blonsky takes a few more rifle shots at Hulk. When he’s out of ammo, he confronts Hulk face-to-face, daring him to continue their wildly disproportionate duel. “Is that all you got?” he taunts.

This seems… unwise.

Disgusted, Hulk casually but swiftly boots Blonsky right in the chest, propelling into a tree about a hundred feet ahead. It looks like it hurts.

Betty tries to get close to the Hulk to make him calm down, which her dad somehow fails to notice before the gunship closes in. He tells them to not fire but it’s too late, leaving Hulk to use his body to protect her from the hail of powerful ammunition. The entire patch of grass they’re standing on is reduced to a smoking pit by the strafing helicopter, but Hulk survived it. Cradling an unconscious Betty, he leaps away to safety. Mark this one as another loss in the government’s War on Hulk.

This is good, if not great, stuff for the superhero genre. It’s a tight and confined to one location, but still fairly epic in its small-scale way; the 2003 Hulk disaster had another, bigger confrontation with the military which eventually wore out its welcome. Hulk goes up against not just conventional Army might but also some wonky sci-fi weaponry and a deranged, British version of Captain America (not to be confused with the other British version of Captain America), which adds to the fun. And throughout there’s nice beats like the Hulk’s improvised shields, proving the creature’s tactical intelligence.

We even some nice character moments: right after the Hulk transforms, Ross mutters to himself, “now she’ll see,” thinking that Betty will lose her affection for Bruce now that she personally witnesses how much of a monster the Hulk is. But ultimately it’s the Hulk who bravely rescues Betty from Ross’ own monstrous bad decisions.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Something abominable.

Ladies.

Spider-Man 2 (fight 2 of 2)

Choo choo.

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He damn near catches the last train for the coast.

2) Spider-Man vs Doctor Octopus

The Fighters:

  • Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus. No real changes since last time, except Spidey’s powers are working consistently again.

The Setup: Knowing that the last component for his experiment is a sample of the ultra rare isotope tritium, Octavius goes to threaten Harry Osborn (who has taken over his father’s company) for his remaining tritium stash. Harry agrees to hand the MacGuffin over to Octavius if Octavius brings Spider-Man to Harry, alive; this is a pretty serious improvement over Otto’s initial offer of “give me the tritium or I’ll kill you”. Harry further informs the villain that the best way to find Spider-Man (other than robbing a bank, hanging around a fire, etc) is via Peter Parker, the guy who “takes his pictures” for the paper.

The mad doctor decides to get Peter’s attention via the unusual method of throwing a car at the back of his head (something he only dodged thanks to his spider sense, which Otto didn’t know he had), and then taking a nearby Mary Jane hostage, telling Peter to have his “buddy” Spider-Man meet him up for a brawl or else he’ll kill her. So: Octavius kidnaps Mary Jane so that will motivate Peter Parker to convince Spider-Man to come fight Octavius so Octavius can beat up & deliver Spider-Man to Harry so that Harry will give Octavius tritium which will let Octavius try his experiment again. Perfectly straightforward.

[Pretty funny how Peter rejected his chance at happiness with Mary Jane at the end of the last movie in order to keep from making her a target for his enemies, yet lookee here, that’s exactly what happens anyway.]

The Fight: Spider-Man arrives (his powers having been fully restored by the danger to MJ), at what’s apparently their pre-arranged meeting place: the top of a high clock tower.

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(BTW, I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but if any proud New Yawkers spot any errors in my description of their fine city’s geography or notice that I fail to point out any notable landmarks, feel free to point this out. [Obviously I have to explicitly invite this, since native NYC residents are so known for their shy, reserved nature and don’t like to make a big deal of their town’s features.])

The two waste little time before getting right down to bidness, doing their up-close tussling act from before. Spidey soon gets knocked from their perch, but is unfazed: he launches a couple web “bullets” (hey, those are new) on the way down which stun his foe, then swings back up and lassoes a chunk of broken clock arm at Octavius with his free hand. That’s multi-tasking.

Octavius tries using that same piece of scenery as a projectile himself, but Spider-Man is still able to seize him with a pair of webs and pulls them both down. They land not on the ground but on the top of an elevated subway train– apparently one that doesn’t make a lot of stops, because it never stops moving for this whole fight. Also apparently New York doesn’t have elevated trains anymore, but oh well.

The two don’t care, and keep up their fighting. Doc Ock blocks some webbing with his tentacles, but the hero just improvises and instead uses those webs to pull himself in close for a few kicks to the face.

C'mon, man, don't let him walk all over you.

C’mon, man, don’t let him walk all over you.

They both take a break to duck under a low overpass (apparently Otto has Octo-sense, because his back was turned at the time). Octavius is able to seize Spider-Man and fling him high in the air against an above-ground walkway, but Spidey manages to contort himself juuuuust enough to fit through the stone mesh “walls” and lands back on the train to deliver another punch.

The blow knocks them both to the side of the train, where they both just decide “f–k it, we’ll fight here now.” There’s lots of cool stuff as they scuffle from here on, as Spider-Man gets knocked inside of the train twice, at one point grabbing a pole and spinning around it sideways (he was bitten by a radioactive stripper!) to launch himself back out another window. At another point our hero has to flatten himself up tightly against the side of the car as another train comes barrelling down the opposite track. All the while several dozen passengers stand by, dumbfounded.

Eventually Otto is able to sneak around and get the drop on Spidey, knocking him to the ground outside, but with some quick use of his webbing the hero is able to snag onto the train and also dodges all the vehicular traffic he’s now being dragged around in. It’s almost certainly a quick, cute reference to the legendary train chase in the Friedkin classic The French Connection.

As long as Peter doesn't use as many racial slurs as Gene Hackman.

As long as Peter doesn’t use as many racial slurs as Gene Hackman.

As Spider-Man swings to catch up, Octavius tries to mess with him by grabbing civilians out of the train and tossing them the hero’s way. First one, then two at a time. This only barely slows the hero down, though, as he’s able to use his webs to pluck them out of the air and then create netting to toss them safely into. It’s… unclear what Otto’s goal with this is. Typically, villains use civilians in such a manner so they can escape, but Dr. Octopus doesn’t want to escape here, he wants to beat his adversary to a pulp. He expresses frustration when this tactic doesn’t work but what was his idea of it “working”? Surely he didn’t want to kill those people just for fun. Similarly, Spider-Man should not be so desperate to keep up with the train, because he knows for a fact that Octavius wants him. If he just pulled off to the side he would probably figure that Doc Ock would probably also take a time-out and they could continue their fight in a less insane location.

Ah, well. This not being enough, Otto decides to destroy the train’s brake mechanism, sending it plummeting down to the terminal point. Which of course leads into that superb non-fight sequence where an unmasked Peter summons up all his spider strength in a desperate bid to stop the train; it’d be a lot more awesome if it didn’t lead into that incredibly mawkish denouement where the hero gets splayed out as a hamfistedly-obvious Christ figure. Blergh.

When Spider-Man finally comes to, he’s barely strong enough to stand, let alone adequately defend himself against the returning Dr. Octopus, so at least that tactic made sense. Spidey gets conked out, tied up and delivered to Son of Goblin. That’s rough.

This fight, though, isn’t. For all its messiness it truly is an epic fight– perhaps the most complex and ambitious super-brawl seen in film up to that point. It covers an absurd amount of real estate (even if much of that is arguably a cheat because they’re standing on a train), makes a lot of use of its environments and the diverse opportunities each combatant’s abilities provide. A major sticking point is even how the hero willingly hobbles himself in order to minimize collateral damage to innocent civilians. (Zack Snyder was unavailable for comment.)

There’s a sense of excitement here that a simple blow-by-blow can’t really convey, a real “gee whiz, look at that and now look at THAT!” giddiness to it. It’s not just an incredible technical achievement (uncanny valley warts & all) but a labor of love. On the surface it may be irritating that the two’s definitive encounter (there’s actually not really any fighting during the film’s real climax) doesn’t have a definitive defeat, but then, it doesn’t need one: Otto Octavius is the villain but he’s not really a bad guy, just a good guy driven to do some awful things by circumstances not wholly within his control. He needs sympathy and reformation, not a beatdown. Thus the fight ends with an act of raw, self-sacrificing heroism rather than violence. Good show.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: A brief interlude, then something a bit more… redeeming.

Spider-Man 2 (fight 1 of 2)

Spidey makes bank.

Okay, sorry about that one.

There’s a “bailout” joke to be made somewhere in this post. I can’t promise I’ll find it.

Everyone’s wild about Spider-Man 2; personally I always found it somewhat overrated. It raises way too many storytelling red flags: the whole clunky plotline about how Peter keeps losing his powers because he subconsciously doesn’t want them (even in the middle of a life-or-death situation? I would have to think his survival instinct would override his girlfriend angst), the half-assed/poorly-resolved love triangle with Mary Jane & her poor fiancee, and, most grating of all, the film’s overwhelming negativity. It’s true that great swathes of the comic book source material could be accurately reduced to “life craps on Peter Parker” but being subjected to so much of it at once over the course of a two-hour+ movie is tiresome. I mean, there’s seriously a scene in this movie where an already-bummed Peter is at a party and gets literally slapped around by his drunken best friend, and then right after that Peter has to watch a handsome astronaut gleefully announce his engagement to the love of Peter’s life. It’s so transparently abusive it crosses the line into comical; I half-expected Peter to then get a phone call from Aunt May letting him know she had cancer. In her butt.

It also comparably skimps on the fight scenes. There’s still no shortage of superhero action– Spidey swinging around New York, foiling criminals and mad science experiments alike– but actual fights are very few. Fortunately, what do we get is quite impressive indeed.

1) Spider-Man vs Doctor Octopus, round one

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, who you well know. Settled even more into his alter ego now, which is wreaking havoc on his real life. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • Otto Octavius aka “Doctor Octopus,” a name given to him by the Daily Bugle after a science experiment gone wrong left him with eight total limbs. In contrast to the comics, this Otto’s “personality is different, which is to say, it actually exists,” in the words of one of my favorite bloggers. Otto is a kindly but driven scientist who loses his beloved wife in the same grisly accident that makes him a monster. Played by the great Alfred Molina, who is less crazy playing an actual supervillain than he was in Boogie Nights.
    • Armed with: Those extra four limbs are impressive steel appendages from a harness on Otto’s back that are easily over four feet long, each about as flexible as a garden hose and equipped with deadly gripper claws, cameras, and a few other tricks. They have a limited A.I. and so can move semi-independently of Otto, and in return can influence him; the explosion that fused the harness to his back also destroyed the “inhibitor chip” that kept them from getting into his head. Originally the device was created so he could perform dangerous experiments from a remote distance, but it’s actually quite the impressive scientific achievement itself. Maybe he should have patented that instead.

The Setup: Peter and his sweet Aunt May are at a large bank, applying for a loan; she’s fallen on financial hard times because, again, Spider-Man 2 is nothing if not a relenting onslaught of depression. The smarmy loan officer who denies (of course) their request is none other than TV’s Joel McHale.

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Classic Winger

Meanwhile, by incredible coincidence, Dr. Octopus is also present. Due to a combination of grief-induced madness and the influence of his tentacles’ wacky A.I., poor Otto has become convinced that his one purpose left in life is to succeed at the cold-fusion experiment that screwed everything up in the first place. Naturally, he’s taken up bank robbery (a grand supervillain tradition) in order to finance it. I’d love to see the lab equipment distributors who’d accept literals bags ‘o cash payment from a robo-tentacled lunatic, but okay. Maybe he “knows a guy.”

Dressed in fedora and trench coat like a dime-store version of The Shadow, Dock Ock just walks right in and straight-up rips off the vault door like a baller.

Classic Otto.

Classic Otto.

After narrowly avoiding the discarded door, Peter ditches May and changes into his costume while Octavius fights off some guards. The hero re-enters the scene quickly and tries to sneak up on Otto from behind, but one of the tentacles can still “see” even when the villain’s back is turned.

The Fight: Dr. Octopous whips around and uses his tentacles (in fact, at this point let’s just assume that most major fight functions Otto does are performed by his metal limbs rather than his organic ones unless otherwise stated, okay?) to fling some of his heavy loot bags at Spider-Man. The hero dodges them easily, even snagging one with a web and flinging it back in Otto’s face with a cheery “here’s your change!” Not quite on the level of comic Spidey’s legendary wit, but cute.

Octavius is briefly fazed, but he soon returns to flinging bags again. Spider-Man tries to dodge and deflect, but that stupid power-failing thing happens again, so he ends up eating a sack of cash and taking a dive. Otto grabs seizes the hero in a pretty dire-looking bind.

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It’s the kind of thing you might think would be funny to describe as “hot tentacle action,” if you were me nine years ago

The two have a fun exchange (“You’re starting to get on my nerves.” “I have a knack for that.”) but before our spider gets his head squished, he uses his free-ish hands to web two large desks on either side of him and pull them in. This makes Otto drop him while he defends himself against one piece of flying furniture but still gets creamed by the other and knocked through the window onto the street.

The police are waiting outside, so Dr. Octopus prudently takes a hostage… wouldn’t you know it, it’s Aunt May! He climbs up a nearby building while his signature music– a delightful monster movie-esque motif– kicks in. Spider-Man lands up higher on the wall and demands that Octavius turn her over. He seems willing to do so, but of course IT’S A TRAP! and the villain drops her. Peter is able to dive down and catch her then web them both up high, which leaves him vulnerable to attack.

After Otto gets in a few licks the two start going at it in earnest, largely trading blows up close as they fall down the side of the building.

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The CGI is not always convincing and the action is a little confusing, but it’s intense and fun nonetheless. Octavius is finally able to seize his foe and fling him all the way across the street, and re-positions himself near May, who’s only just found her footing. As he taunts Spider-Man to come back over & play, he prepares a steel spike behind his back, which May sees.

An unsuspecting Spidey across the street does that trick from the first movie where he uses two webs to pull back and slingshot himself at high velocity. He flies in like a bullet, and before Doc Ock can spear him, the hero gets some unlikely assistance.

EPIC

Betty White-style

The distraction allows Peter to dodge the spike, grab his aunt as she falls, and take her to safety as Otto scurries off. May is pleased to be proven wrong about “that awful Spider-Man” but still implies she deserves credit for the outcome of the fight. Oh, you wacky old people.

This is some solid superhero fun. It’s not quite an epic clash but the fight does score points for moving briskly from inside the bank to the street then to fairly up high in the air. The expected punches and tentacle-swipes are augmented with blows in the form of desks and money bags (and one mean umbrella), making for a more dynamic encounter.

The octopus elephant in the room here is how hard it is for our hero to take Dr. Octopus down. Unlike the Green Goblin, Octavius’ overall physiology was left largely unchanged by the incident that made him a supervillain; except for that tentacle-harness and some bad brain wiring, he’s completely human… and a paunchy, middle-aged scientist at that. Once Peter gets in close, Otto should be even easier to take down than Flash Thompson; one punch ought to be enough to knock his block off (and in the comics, it typically was), yet movie-Ock absorbs a numerous spider blows, not to mention getting bowled over by a massive desk and so forth.

Does it matter? Your mileage may vary. Personally, I’d say Raimi and co. had enough of a challenge constructing dynamic & quasi-believable superhero fights as it was without having to worry about the additional restriction of not letting the hero lay a finger on the villain until the very end. Think of this suspension of disbelief as similar to the one that must be engaged whenever the film switches over to obvious (but still necessary) CGI.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Rumble in the jungle.

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Uh, the urban jungle.

Spider-Man (fight 6 of 6)

With great power comes awesome macho poses.

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You may be cool, but you’ll never be “dual bicep-flexing Spider-Man” cool.

6) Spider-Man vs Green Goblin, final round

The Fighters:

  • Spider-Man and Green Goblin, duh.

The Setup: Having deduced his rival’s secret identity, the Goblin bursts through Aunt May’s bedroom window while she’s praying and puts her in the hospital (does she ever wonder what that was all about, or does she just assume that’s something he does to random people? Either way, rough year for her). Then he kidnaps Mary Jane and tells Peter to meet them at the Queensboro Bridge, where he arrives to find the villain holding her in one hand and (via cable) a tram car full of children in the other. Just before he drops them both simultaneously, Goblin taunts Spider-Man and explicitly describes this choice as “sadistic.” Points given for honesty.

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Points deducted for gratuitous angle of Goblin-crotch.

(Even casual comic fans recognize this setup as an homage, if a superficial one, to the death of Gwen Stacy from the classic comic books.)

Like Captain Kirk, Spider-Man tends not to spring for the no-win scenario, so he audaciously jumps in to personally catch MJ, then immediately web-swings to the other side and catches the tram car’s steel cable with his free hand while his lady friend clings desperately to his torso. Impressive, but in addition to probably giving him the mother of all muscle-cramps, the ploy exposes Spider-Man to a couple of flyby-punches from his adversary, the second of which even makes him drop the cable briefly. He regains it, and desperately holds on while a small civilian boat races to get underneath him and catch the dangling car.

Just as the Green Goblin extends his glider’s blade and prepares to swoop in for the kill, he’s distracted by a rain of debris from a group of good Samaritans watching from the bridge, expressing solidarity with the city’s hero. This is done because Spidey is a hero in need of validation due to all the bad press he receives (is he a threat or menace?), and also because this movie was set in New York and came out less than a year after 9/11.

“Patriotism, my one weakness!”

“Patriotism, my one weakness!”

The gambit buys Peter enough time to drop off Mary Jane and the hostages, but unfortunately he’s not quick enough to defend when the Goblin flies in & lassoes him with another steel cable, dropping him unceremoniously in the ruins of a wrecked building and following up with a pumpkin bomb to the face.

Sick burn.

Sick burn.

This of course leads right into the modern trend of superheroes losing their mask (in whole or in part) for the final portion of their movie. Hey, why shell out big bucks for a recognizable actor if you’re not going to show their face?

The Fight: The explosion leaves Spider-Man pretty banged up and weakened, which Goblin takes full advantage of, hitting him with a series of powerful blows– some of that shot in painful-looking slow-motion. No music, just hard hits and high stakes.

To both his and the movie’s credit, the hero doesn’t just take it like a chump. He tries to block, to swing away and even creates a big web barrier to faze his opponent, but the Goblin just keeps coming, systematically shutting him down. After kicking Spidey against a stone wall, he holds his wrist in place with a boot stomp and rubs the imminent defeat in his face, telling him that this all could have gone differently if the hero had just played ball. He brandishes an extendable spear thing (where’d he get it? The glider is not within arm’s reach and he certainly wasn’t holding it during the fisticuffs) and prepares to run Peter through.

But his taunt about how he’ll follow up by killing MJ in a slow and presumably unsavory manner gives Spider-Man a second wind. He catches the blade mere centimeters from his face, and two successive shots (interrupted by a view of angry disbelief from the villain) show his resistance progressing from desperate to determined.

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Heroic music swells up. Spidey finally pushes back so hard he sends the Goblin flying back several feet into a partially wrecked wall, then webs his feet to trip him forward. Another set of dual webs pulls the entire wall down on the villain, and when he emerges he’s much the worse for wear. Not wanting to give him a moment to breathe, Spider-Man swings in and seizes Gobby, then uses the momentum to hurl him into another wall. He lands and delivers a series of blows to his now helpless nemesis, until the Goblin removes his helmet and pleads for mercy.

The “fight” portion is pretty much over from here. The Goblin’s switch back to the Osborn persona is a feint, trying to distract Peter while he remotely activates his glider and brings it up to impale the hero from behind. Fortunately Peter is having none of it, rejecting Norman’s entreaty to be a father figure by re-affirming poor Uncle Ben as the man who made him who he is.

Two weird things happen then. The first is that this rejection causes Norman to revert to his more villainous voice and declare “Godspeed, Spider-Man” for no reason I can think of. It seems an odd thing to say before killing someone, and why tip him off too early anyway? Or is the “Norman” personality, speaking with the Goblin voice, trying to warn him? Either way, between that moment and his helpful spider sense (hey, remember that?), Peter is able to leap over the glider as it charges in, and instead hits the man directly in front of him: the Green Goblin. The second weird thing is that Raimi inserts a very brief close-up shot of Dafoe’s face just before impact and the actor says “oh” in a very casual, wimpy and resigned sort of voice– like he’d just missed a green traffic light or something. It’s meant to be funny, and it sort of is, but it’s very unnecessary and tonally jarring, considering the rest of the scene is played for high pathos rather than laughs.

Arguably a third weird thing is the position the glider impales him in. Not a good way to go.

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Right in his little goblin.

Tonal missteps and the odd continuity error aside, this is really excellent stuff. The bleak and desolate setting indicates the finality of this last rematch. It follows the predictable pattern of Villain Is Totally Winning But Now Hero Is Totally Winning, but throws a few curveballs in there with Spidey’s fruitless resistance in the first part and his unexpected ferocity in the second; not to mention the bridge encounter that immediately precedes the fight proper provides a different sort of challenge for the hero, and a reason he’s so vulnerable at the outset. Ultimately it isn’t just clever tactics or sheer physical strength that allows Spider-Man to triumph, but drawing upon his own determination to do what must be done… an idea that’s played no small role in the comic’s history, as well as tying into co-creator Steve Ditko’s philosophy of doing everything you can to fulfill your own personal responsibilities, no excuses.

The method of Goblin’s demise is well-done, too. Superhero movies are cursed with getting caught between needing to put down the film’s villain permanently while also having a protagonist who doesn’t kill people, even in self-defense; it can be hard to thread that needle without it coming off as cheap. (The abysmal TV show Smallville faced this unenviable challenge on nearly a weekly basis, resulting in quite a lot of convenient amnesia.) But Osborn’s death works here in a way that feels both earned and deserved while still absolving Peter of any guilt (not that Harry will see it that way for the next one and a three-quarter movies). It’s also pretty much the same way the original Green Goblin “died” way back in the 70s comics after the Gwen Stacy incident, and at least the movie’s Osborn has the decency to stay dead.

A fitting end for a movie that helped kicked off the superhero cinematic renaissance.

Grade: A-

Recommended Links: Beware of what else Spider-Man can do to you.

Chris Sims makes a good case as to what differentiates Marvel heroes from their Distinguished Competition, and why the very nature of their limitations makes it so inspiring when they surpass them. Spider-Man gets a lot of spotlight.

Coming Attractions: We’ll go straight to the sequel, why not?

We'll just dive right in.

Just dive right in.

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.”

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.

s7

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

s8

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.

s2

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

Superman vs The Elite (fight 4 of 4)

“Is that… Superman?”

“Not anymore.”

4) Superman vs The Elite

The Fighters:

  • Superman, voiced by George Newbern.
  • The Elite: Manchester Black, Coldcast, Menagerie/Pam, and The Hat. Voiced by Robin Atkin Downes, Catero Colbert, Melissa Disney, and Andrew Kishino, respectively.

The Setup: Since their last tango, the Elite have decided that Superman is yesterday’s news, and declared themselves to be the new world police. They announced they’d settle the Bialya/Pokolistan conflict once & for all, which Superman tried to head off by (in an excellent sequence) non-lethally destroying a squadron of jets that had been sent to attack a civilian population center… only to discover that while he’d been doing so, the Elite had assassinated the bloodthirsty leaders of each nation. An enraged Superman decked Manchester Black over this, which resulted in the miffed Brit issuing a grudge match between the two forces, tomorrow.

Superman spends an anxious night pondering his options– even Lois thinks he might not be able to win– and leaves at dawn to face them. They arrive on the streets of Metropolis but, at his request, the fight is moved to a less-populated area. Flashy as ever, the Elite teleport all five combatants to the moon (Alice), in which the Hat’s magic has thankfully created an artificial atmosphere. But the group has brought along several floating cameras, which they use to broadcast the  conflict to the entire world.

Superman tries one last time to reason with the Elite, but they laugh it off and get right to business.

The Fight: Really, Superman fights against only three of the Elite, while Black hangs back and monologues. Addressing the watching world via camera (and implicitly the viewer, since the speech mostly plays over our view of the battle), Manchester lectures about how the time of old-fashioned “capes” like Superman is over, it’s the 21st century and the world is more complicated than dropping off bank robbers at the police station and getting kittens out of trees. The Elite are an authority (ahem) unto themselves, and they’ll punish as they see fit. “He who has the power makes the rules,” and so forth.

Superman performs well against the other three but like Atomic Skull was in the last fight, he’s overwhelmed by sustained, alternating attacks from multiple opponents– not to mention visibly hamstrung by his moral restraint.

And crazy reptile chicks on his back.

The staging here is probably the most viscerally exciting portion of the whole fight: incredibly smooth animation does a great job with cool stuff like Coldcast smashing away at the hero’s face, Pam straddling him and trying to bite his head off with a giant slug, the Hat summoning rock formations out of the ground to crush him and missiles for him to dodge.The music here is different than anything that’s come before: exciting, but filled with a sense of desperation and sadness. There’s an overwhelming sense of wrongness to seeing these smug punks pound on the Man of Steel.

Finally a tired but determined Superman makes a lunge at Black, who halts his narcissistic speech to hit the Kryptonian’s mind. Superman has adequate mental defenses to keep his mind from being read, but he seems helpless against a direct psychic attack. Manchester induces a stroke that gives him Superman a major nosebleed and sends him to the ground, shouting in pain.

He’s just defenseless enough to be seized Coldcast, who unleashes a full-force, all-out blast of power (it’s unstated but safe to assume he’s stronger than ever after stealing the Skull’s energy) right in Superman’s face. A massive explosion (visible from space) rents the ground, and when the smoke clears there’s nothing left of Superman except the tattered end of his cape.

Smug about their apparent victory, the four re-unite (Black’s telekinetic shield protected them from the area of effect on Coldcast’s blast) and prepare to leave, when suddenly they hear their enemy’s voice. He sounds… different, unlike he has this whole time. He doesn’t even sound angry; he merely speaks with a steady and terrible calmness.

“I finally get it. Thank you… I made the mistake of treating you people like… people. Now, I understand better… I understand now what the world wants, what it NEEDS. The world needs people in charge, willing to put the animals DOWN.”

As he speaks there’s a slow pan around the Elite as their dread mounts. Not only are they thrown off-guard by the fact that they failed to kill their enemy, they also have a palpable sense that the rules have changed. The worst kind of bullies are the ones who derive their advantage from their targets’ innate decency, and it’s clearly no more Mr Nice Superman.

Out of nowhere, Menagerie gets hit by a dart, with Superman’s Kryptonian crest on it. The effects are immediate: she howls in pain and falls to the ground as her slug symbiotes forcibly come out of her. Coldcast picks her up and he can’t tell if she’s breathing. The truth hits home for the rest that they might not get out of this alive (“He’s playing it our way!” Black frets), and suddenly a whirlwind forms on the moon’s surface, courtesy of Superman’s incredible speed. He briefly appears in the center of it, a dark silhouette with glowing red eyes.

As the tornado approaches, the Hat cockily levitates higher and begins a spell to undo it, but suddenly chokes off in mid-word, clasping his throat. As he’s carried off into space, the others deduce that magic barrier or no, the Hat still needs to breathe, and Superman’s vortex sucked the air right out of his lungs.

Black and Coldcast teleport back down to Metropolis, thinking that Superman won’t be so destructive in the midst of his favorite town. Black plans to “flatten the whole city” (some protector!) the moment their opponent shows up, but his team’s numbers dwindle yet again when a red & blue blur collides with Coldcast and sends him out of view in the blink of an eye.

Crashing to the ground like a meteor (and sending debris flying everywhere, including apparently on people), Superman informs Black where his teammate went. “Orbit. He went into orbit at Mach 7. If you had super-hearing, any second now you’d hear the… pop.” Superman shows his face for the first time since “dying” and the beating he took has only made him MORE intimidating. He’s streaked with blood, his costume is torn up, and a burst blood vessel has made one eye go red. He looks– and acts– more than a little deranged.

Above: WAY better than how they handled this in Superman III.

Black bellows about Superman having killed his whole team, to which he calmly replies “Your team of killers. Now they won’t be killing anyone else.” As he does so, Black uses telekinesis to throw piles of debris at Superman, which the hero casually sidesteps, so fast that his actual motion can’t be seen, only the still moments in-between. It’s super cool in a way that’s hard to convey in words, so:

Manchester puts up a green force field that Superman wears down with repeated blows, the last one knocking him backward. He summons up debris from all over and tries to crush Superman in the middle of it, but the Kryptonian calmly frees himself and sends several tons of car and concrete out into the crowded area around him… one batch of rubble actually seems to land on Lois, which Superman doesn’t even notice. Or care about.

As Superman slowly walks through a sustained psychic pulse that Black lashes out with, he asks the Brit how it feels to be deconstructed, to be the victim, to watch his dreams die. Manchester responds with an enormous telekinetic blast that pushes Superman farther away, so the hero plays his trump card. His eyes glow briefly, and although Black thinks he was attempting to melt his face off, Superman had actually launched a microscopic ray of heat straight through Black’s eyes, found the abnormality in his brain that’s responsible for his psychic abilities, and cut it out. “Instant lobotomy.”

Black is now utterly helpless, a fact which Superman underscores by calmly approaching and slapping him around. Literally slapping.

Super Pimp.

The fourth and final slap knocks some blood and probably a few teeth loose from Black’s mouth. In tears, he snuffles out “This isn’t you, you don’t do this!” to which Superman replies “I do now.”

It’s ugly and it’s mean. Everyone sees it and is distressed. Even Terence Baxter, the pissed off little urchin who was so enamored of lethal vigilantism earlier (and is nearby this fight too, in an odd coincidence), begs Superman to stand down and not stoop to his opponents’ level. But the hero lets it sink in– the fact that he’s giving them what they think they wanted, and showing them what it would really look like.

Superman can move at the speed of thought, he can level mountains with a blow, he can count the molecules in the air, he has a whole fortress full of advanced alien technology, and he’s nearly impossible to kill. If he abandons his principles, if he believes that life is cheap, if he arbitrates rather than enforces justice, if he decides that his might makes him right, then he’s no longer a protector or a hero. He’s an angry god. And this is what he was actively arguing and fighting against the whole story, if anyone had cared to listen. They’re listening now.

But fortunately for all involved (especially current crybaby Manchester Black), Superman didn’t give up the fight against his dark nature. With a deservedly smug grin, he reveals to all how he’d planned this show right from the beginning, with more than a little help from the Kryptonian robots he has stashed in his fortress. His helpers were always there to sneakily protect bystanders so that it looked like he was being reckless with collateral damage, and they’ve similarly whisked off the  remaining members of the Elite– they’re all chilling in the fortress as he speaks, imprisoned and unconscious but alive. Superman’s helpers had even enlisted the Elite’s bio-ship, Bonnie, by promising that they’d free it from the team’s enslavement.

It was hard work, just like the difficulties Superman faces every day when he clings to his principles in an ever-harsher world. Meanwhile, hatred and violence are easy, but worse for everyone in the end. So Superman threaded the needle and maintained his code while still getting everyone real familiar with what they’d see if he didn’t… and what they’d probably see from the Elite, after enough time of unchallenged rule.

Black tells Superman if he thinks this is over, he’s living in a dream world. To which, corny as ever but still right, Superman replies:

“Good. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better. And on my soul, I swear that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”

The people cheer. Superman wins, and more importantly, his dream does.

So it’s not perfect. The genuinely exciting portions of the fight are over by the halfway mark, and while the second half keeps up plenty of narrative excitement to make up for it, upon re-watch you find yourself wanting to see Superman take just a bit longer to dismantle the Elite. Though of course that’s probably the primitive lizard-brain part of you talking, the part heroes like Superman want you to overcome. Also, that “heat vision surgery” thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Newbern plays it terrifically here, especially interesting after years of hearing him as such a boy scout in Justice League (even the “bad” alternate version of him from one episode sounded pretty cheery). Parts of his performance are even better when you re-watch the film in light of the final revelation: when he lets loose an over-the-top melodramatic laugh during the tornado scene, it’s not because Newbern is hamming it up, Superman is.

And of course all praise due to the writing of Joe Kelly, adapting his own story here. Kelly is somewhat notorious for inserting overt and clumsy political messages into his comics (he even shoehorns them in this film a few times, retroactively applying a War on Terror angle to a March 2001 story), but his dialogue here shines. And he gets Superman.

This is the Superman I love, and the one the world loved for roughly 70 or so years of comic history. If, as the navel-gazers like to say, the old kind of Superman is no longer “relevant” in today’s world, then that’s the world’s problem, not Superman’s. He’s not a reflective figure but an aspirational one.

And this is not, Henry Cavill’s dazzling performance aside, the Superman we got in Man of Steel. (SPOILER WARNING for next sentence). That’s a Superman who not only kills his adversary at the finish, but also causes untold thousands of deaths in collateral damage as he callously tosses his foe through a surprising amount of buildings, taking down whole city blocks just so the filmmakers can aesthetically highlight the scale of superpowers involved. A Superman who exists not to protect or inspire but only to fight… and as the absolute last person on the Internet who should have to demonstrate his affection for fight scenes, I can safely say that I want something a little more from Superman. Something better. Man of Steel’s Superman resembles nothing so much as the act Superman puts on in this movie, in order to fool the Elite and prove a point.

(Not to dump on the movie relentlessly, but… speaking of those fight scenes–you know, the fight scenes that the movie sacrifices so much to portray and are supposed to be its major saving grace? Man of Steel basically has a whopping two fight scenes. Superman vs the Elite has, in case you missed the title cards here, four fight scenes of varying quality, plus a few neat sequences of Superman saving people and the like. And it does all that in half the time.)

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: You & I have unfinished business.

killbillposter