Almost like it's 2004 all over again

I watched Spider-Man 2 for the first time in a long time the other day. In doing so, I came away with a few thoughts.*

Firstly, the idea that Spider-Man 2 is one of (if not the) best comic book adaptations in the history of the genre (or sub-genre, as it were) was reinforced in my mind. Secondly, as much as I love the movies as they are, I wish there had been more fight scenes along the same lines as the train scene. Thirdly, I am as disappointed with the film's portrayal of Otto Octavius (a.k.a. "Doctor Octopus") as I was when I initially saw the film in the theatre.

"But Matt!" you're surely thinking. "What are you talking about? Doc Ock was great in Spider-Man 2!" And he was, to a point. But there's always been something about the character's story in the film that I've never really been able to get over.

And that's his tentacles.

Let me explain. His tentacles look great. They're very cool and they're used to good effect throughout the film. However, if you need a refresher, Octavius explains that the tentacle harness is outfitted with an "inhibitor chip" - a small microchip that keeps the artificial intelligence of the harness from influencing his actions. In the ensuing accident that causes the tentacles to be fused to Octavius' body, the inhibitor chip is damaged, and the influence of the artificial intelligence is a very large contributing factor in Octavius' crime spree.

This has never sat right with me. The way I've always seen it is that, by introducing the idea that A.I. is influencing Doctor Octopus' decisions and rationale, you take away a good portion of the character's motivation and, in a way, his accountability. It also seems that it diminishes what otherwise would've been a very nuanced and deep character. With the A.I., it appears that Otto is a pretty nice guy who gets stuck in something beyond his control, something that he's not really responsible for. In a way, the tentacles act as a psycho-changer when one isn't remotely called for - the story dictates that Otto Octavius undergo a severe personality change; however, instead of using the pieces of his personality already there to facilitate said change, they use an outside force to do so, which robs the character of all responsibility and accountability from there on out. Isn't it enough that Otto is a relatively pleasant (if slightly pig-headed and arrogant) scientist who becomes a monster due to his own hubris, who is driven insane not only by his utter and complete failure (and the effects of the explosion), but also due to his role in the death of his beloved wife? This would have added a hell of a lot more depth and nuance to the already great performance Alfred Molina brought to the table. Instead, the notion that the tentacles are influencing his judgment does little more than to diminish the story of Octavius' fall and redemption.

And what bothers me most, I think, is that it would've been so easy to change this at any time during the production of the film without sacrificing anything of consequence at a script level. All that would've been needed, really, are a couple of changes to some dialog towards the beginning and end of the film. Add in a quick bit showing Otto's arrogant streak and change around his expository "This is why I'm eeevil now" scene later in the film, and the rest of the film remains untouched.

It all seems very much like a lost opportunity to me.

And seriously - who puts A.I. in a tentacle harness? That's like giving sentience to an electric power drill.

What do YOU think, Gentle Readers? Am I voicing a valid complaint about an example of weak storytelling, or am I bitching for the sake of bitching?


*Yes, yes - I KNOW I'm complaining about a film that came out THREE years ago, but I needed SOMETHING to get the creative juices flowing after my brief hiatus, alright? Bear with me.


RAB said...

Back when that movie came out, I was saying this exact same thing to anyone who would listen!

(Which turned out to be very few people...)

mkfreeberg said...

It's a great point, which applies to a lot of other villains as well. This has been like a pebble in my shoe in the last few years because, to me, a great movie is great because of the villain.

Sandman in III is even worse. The chip situation was introduced with Doc Oc because the writers were too timid to make a villain just-plain-bad; Sandman was confused about his motivations because, I'm gathering, it was a committee project with multiple incompatible viewpoints.

Probably the worst offender is Darth Vader, who I see as cut from the same cloth as Sandman. Redemption stories are pretty cool, the theme has transfixed the literary world for thousands of years, but it is scuttled by loss of focus. To put it simply -- you can be a good guy who does a (single) bad thing because you're beholden to darker forces that have control over you, OR, you can go out of your way to try to kill Spider Man...and do other things...like slaughtering Jedi children. Gratuitous, mind-numbingly evil deeds, added to the script to convey to the audience what horrible danger is confronting the heroes of the story. You can't do both of those things.

There are other rules for this. In the 1970's and 1980's, the evening television dramas got around this problem by pumping out the same story over and over again, cookie-cutter fashion. Charlie's Angels in particular (gags me to say this) did it right, repeatedly, by always including two villains. My son and I refer to this as the "Rotten to the core" bad guy and the "Aw, gee" bad guy. As in, "Aw gee, you didn't say anything about killing nobody." The Aw-gee bad guy always has a romantic relationship with Kris, Sabrina or Kelly, which leaves one of the Angels feeling deeply conflicted. The Rotten/Core bad guy dies in some fiery car crash.

It seems in the last fifteen years, give or take, our most talented movie directors have succumbed to a temptation of conflating these two types of villain into one. BIG mistake, for all the reasons you've explored.

Great post. I'm a-gonna link it properly when I get time.

Matt said...

I agree on all counts, but personally I was okay with Sandman in the latest Spider-Man. However, that's mostly because Sandman did eventually become an Avenger in the comics, at least for a time, until Marvel decided he needed to be evil again and deus-ex-machina'd the shit out of him. So, as far as that example goes, I took it as a sort of nod to the comics.

Even though I thought Revenge of the Sith was the best of the prequels (which, really, isn't saying much), what you mentioned has always been a big issue I've had with it. Anakin Skywalker's transition into Darth Vader feels hollow - it's not that he's been skirting the line between Light and Dark (except for that village of Sand People in Clones) and finally gives in to the power, it's that he happens to make a mistake and chop off Samuel L. Jackson's arms.


loki-of-aesir said...

I agree to your point on Doc Ock, but I don't feel it removes the character of all responsibility, it's his character-traits which causes the situation where the tentacles take control, it's his character-traits they play on to get him on board with their plans, and it's his character-traits their motivations are based on. So yeah, it could've been better, but really, it could've been much worse.

And Spidey 2 is third behind X2 and Batman Begins. Just so that's said. ;)