Superhero films have been around for a long time now, and there’s little sign of them going away anytime soon (for better or worse). But when their time is up and the genre goes the way of the spaghetti western or the Hollywood musical, an elite few may very well be spared the brush of audience fatigue for the fundamental reason that they transcend the genre. The Dark Knight (2008). Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Wonder Woman (2017). The mere mention of any one of these titles is a hallowed reference in film-goer circles, and Spider-Man 2 (2004) has had a seat at this illustrious table from day one.
With two jobs, his university studies, rent, and taking on all of New York’s criminals as the masked vigilante Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has never had a fuller plate. To add to his worries, his beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is in financial difficulty, his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) wants revenge for the death of his father, and the love of his life – Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) – has found another man. Stretched to his limit, Peter may have to decide whether being Spider-Man can be a part of his life at all, a decision complicated with the emergence of New York’s greatest menace yet: Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)
It’s all-too rare for a sequel to better its predecessor, and Spider-Man 2 also adds this exclusive club card to its hands. Director Sam Raimi takes literally everything that was great about the character’s 2002 debut, ups the ante, gives us more, and continuously plays with our expectations. The balancing act the film pulls off in showcasing each and every one of Peter’s struggles is nothing short of remarkable, even just in terms of storytelling clarity. Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee has always emphasised how the central idea was a superhero with actual, relatable problems, and Raimi demonstrates his understanding of this from the very first scene. Peter loses his pizza delivery job for lateness, even after delivering the pizza via webswinging (a minor, but no less glorious sequence). J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons in a now-iconic performance), editor of The Daily Bugle, pays Peter peanuts for Spider-Man photos which Jameson uses for his wallcrawler witch-hunt front pages. Even his birthday money from Aunt May is quickly snatched away by his grubby landlord.
The film meticulously lays out everything Peter grapples with throughout the film, gradually building up the mountain of grievances for which Peter has his alter-ego to thank, until it’s big decision time. Can Peter Parker and Spider-Man truly coexist? Like the film’s predecessor and its contemporaries, Spider-Man 2 could have easily been overly angst-ridden, but even the ‘angst’ here isn’t so much angst as legitimately adult problems, and the execution of these dilemmas is done with just as much humour as gravitas. Raimi knows precisely where to sprinkle the jokes at Peter’s expense, and likewise at Spider-Man’s. How the film deals with Peter and MJ’s scenes together especially highlights a more mature take on the proceedings than the first film, with the script shedding much of its former corniness in favour of dialogue that actually sounds like two adults talking.
Spider-Man 2 crafts for itself a superb antagonist in the form of Molina’s brilliant, tragedy-struck Dr. Otto Octavius. It’s surprising that truly great villains in superhero cinema are few and far between, when the solution seems so often to be simply allowing them some substantial non-evildoing screen time. Our main villain here spends over half an hour of the film as a normal man, a brilliant and virtuous scientist who Peter sees as a mentor, and whose downfall and manipulation by artificial intelligence ‘tentacles’ of his own creation packs an extra emotional punch into Spider-Man’s already-spectacular battles with him. The Green Goblin’s brand of evil may have been deliciously wicked, but Doctor Octopus’ twisted morality and obsession is ultimately more nourishing, and Molina carries the role with hypnotic flair and true gravitas.
Perhaps Spider-Man 2’s greatest feat is the fact that whilst it’s Peter’s story first, every one of its main characters is given a journey, and the film follows their journeys from beginning to end in effortless fashion. Whether its Aunt May’s money worries, or MJ pursuit of love and success, worlds collide, circle each other, break apart, and it all makes complete and cohesive emotional sense. Harry’s slide into his obsession with vengeance makes for a dark reflection of the film’s central theme of choices and consequences, and by the film’s cliff-hanger end to his arc our appetite is thoroughly whetted for his personal resolution.
Brimming with unmistakeable adoration for the source material, Raimi delivered a sequel that’s just as much emotional drama as superhero, defying all expectations and continuing to stand the test of time as an intelligent, insightful, masterful blockbuster.
Final Score: 5/5