I went on a movie-watching binge this weekend past. Spiderman 2 on Friday, and King Arthur Saturday. It's nice to not be disappointed in a summer blockbuster, let alone two in a single weekend.
Spiderman 2 is a considerably better movie than the first one. Sam Raimi started off as a really good horror movie director, and he finally was willing to let it show in the second movie. Doc Ock's monstrous surgery-room freakout is highly reminiscent of the Evil Dead movies, complete with chainsaw. I loved it. Sometimes I wish that Raimi wasn't such a big deal anymore, so's he could keep making trashy, pulpy, great crap like Darkman and The Quick and the Dead. But, at least we get decent blockbusters like Spiderman 2 in return.
The CGI is much less distracting. The fight scenes are organic, they flow, and they rocket along in a way that got me excited. It's rare that action scenes do that for me any more - I'm starting to get a bit insensitate to that sort of twelve-year-old enthusiasm for flying fists, I fear. The script is absolutely beautiful. I had heard that Michael Chabon wrote the script, but when I saw that Gough and Millar (of Smallville infamy) were co-writers, I was kind of uneasy. I shouldn't have been so skittish. It works. It works like a sonofabitch. It's at least twice as good as a superhero movie ought to be.
It's better than either of the X-Men movies, but then, so was the original Spiderman. The X-Men franchise has a certain structural problem, that guarantees mediocre movies - diffusion of focus. There's just too many people in these enormous superhero-team stories. Movies have to have a rock-solid, streamlined structure. You just don't have enough space in a two or three hour film to have a dozen protagonists. I'm not entirely convinced that there's enough room in a TV series for that many primary figures.
Anyways, what I'm getting at is that the best superhero movies have been singular lone-hero films. The Eighties, Robinless Batman. The Seventies Superman. Hell, even the early, lone-wolf Paul Dini Batman cartoons were better than the later seasons, crowded with sidekicks.
King Arthur is a superhero movie of a different calibre. I do wish they hadn't pretended that it was archeologically supported history - it certainly is not. But as historically-inspired fantasy, you could do a hell of a lot worse than King Arthur. Everything is compressed down into an area around Hadrian's Wall, and telescoped temporally, so that the second-century Artorus Castor and his Samaritans end up fighting the fifth-century battle of Baden's Hill some three hundred miles north of where it occurred, while Artorus is enraged to find out that his good friend and religious mentor, the heretic Pelegius, has been killed by the Roman Church - some forty years after his actual death. So don't take your history from the movie, but I suppose that's something of a truism. Filmmakers aren't historians, a fact of which I have to remind myself constantly, when confronted with propagandists like Michael Moore.
Anyways, King Arthur is a solid goddamn movie. It's essentially a remake of Fuqua's last movie, Tears of the Sun, transposed into the fifth century, with Saxons and Celts instead of rampaging soldiers and Nigerian peasants. The anti-Christian tone is somewhat off-putting - there are some torture-happy priests who are walled up in a prison three times by three different warlords - but expected given the time-frame, and the usual Hollywood set of biases. Arthur himself is portrayed as a pious but heretical follower of Pelegius, an advocate of free-will, equality, and the denial of original sin whose doctrines are palatable to modern politically-correct sensibilities.
The central set-piece that really resonated with me was an elaborate skirmish on the uncertain ice of a frozen lake in mountains north of Hadrian's Wall, a delaying-action covering a retreating column of refugees from rampaging Saxons. The premise is faintly ludicrous - why is a road interrupted by a lake? How do people cross the lake in the summer? (Since it seems to become summer again once they descend out of the mountains, I suppose the answer is "it's always winter in that part of the country".) But, failures of logic aside, it's a striking scene, archers goading a small army into charging across weakened and treacherous ice, until a berserk knight charges forth to literally start chopping the ice out from under the advancing Saxons with an axe.
Update: great set of links and thoughts on Spiderman 2, considered as the second part of a trilogy from Jim Henley.