The massive pop culture phenomenon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has undoubtedly become a fixture of 21st-century filmmaking as we approach the two-decade mark; yet before the MCU debuted, some of Marvel’s most beloved characters had already left quite an impact on movie screens. In the early 2000s, audiences had finally (after years of anticipation) seen the likes of the X-Men, Hulk and of course Spider-Man get the Hollywood treatment in films that are generally underappreciated (and perhaps even ruefully forgotten) by those caught up in the MCU powerhouse.
But if there is one film from this period that most definitely deserves to be continually remembered and lauded, it must surely be Spider-Man 2, released in theatres 15 years ago this June. The word great may be tossed around too easily, but it is unquestionably the only appropriate word to define this second chapter of director Sam Raimi’s trilogy on everyone’s favorite web-slinger.
Unfortunately, Raimi’s trilogy as a whole has most regretfully been sidelined it seems, despite the fact that nearly 20 years after the release of the first film in 2002, the series remains as wondrous and moving as some of the very best of the MCU. 2004’s Spider-Man 2 easily rivals any MCU film, and it should not be considered a stretch to call it one of the best superhero films ever made. But here we are in 2019 where the original set of Spider-Man films continue to struggle to be adequately appreciated (at least by fans born after their release).
Perhaps the villain bloated Spider-Man 3 is easy to forget, but Spider-Man 2 and its perfect blend of thrilling action and genuinely affecting pathos, will continue to live on as one of the most thoughtful and well-rounded comic book films that have ever been crafted.
Beyond the battles, villains and exciting superpowers, Raimi’s films openly embraced the humanity of Spider-Man and his universe through timeless storytelling; in Spider-Man 2 audiences are treated to a rich exploration of Peter Parker’s struggles and the need to fulfill one’s responsibilities and duties in an incisive and emotionally mature fashion.
Written by two time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent, this is a movie that confidently builds itself up with an affecting and thought-provoking narrative, that never takes second place to action pieces or special effects. It is easy to rely solely on visuals for a superhero movie, but the best filmmakers have always understood that the tandem with heart is sure to make the most unforgettable impressions. Sam Raimi and Alvin Sargent masterfully grasped this very important partnership between story and spectacle, and its why Spider-Man 2 continues to have resonance; because no matter how much special effects may age or memories of the film may dwindle after the MCU barrage, the humanity at the core of the film will never grow old revealing itself to be perpetually relevant. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, regret, the lust for power and the need for redemption form a wonderful canvas in which Peter Parker, Otto Octavius, Aunt May, Harry Osborne, and Mary Jane may express themselves. We don’t have two-dimensional characters here, but striking personifications of real flesh and bone.
“The movie demonstrates what’s wrong with a lot of other superhero epics: they focus on the superpowers, and short-change the humans behind them. It wasn’t that Spider-Man could swing from skyscrapers that won over his readers; it was that he fretted about personal problems in the thought balloons above his Spidey face mask. “
ROGER EBERT ON SPIDER-MAN 2
Stan Lee’s literary creations were all well rounded, vulnerable and ultimately relatable in many respects, especially Spidey and his other half Peter Parker. And this vulnerability and relatability are none more evident than in this film.
Plagued by his inability to proclaim his true love for Mary Jane, while filled with guilt by Aunt May’s constant assertion she was to blame for the death of Uncle Ben, Peter Parker now finds himself losing the will to continue fighting as Spider-Man; alongside his best friend Harry Osborne’s hatred for the wall-crawler for his perceived role in the demise of Harry’s father (the Green Goblin), there seems to be little incentive for Peter to continue putting on his mask. Who has really benefited from Spidey? Sure criminals have been caught and innocent citizens rescued, but what cost has the Spider-Man persona had on Peter’s personal life?
This examination of the personal struggles of the characters is brilliantly brought to the screen with an honesty that is totally refreshing, especially when one considers how simple it would be to just focus on prolonged battle scenes and violence. By rounding out and allowing us to be emotionally invested in our protagonists when the battle scenes arrive they become that much more thrilling and important. Rather than viewing Spider-Man simply dispatch Doc Ock, we are treated to not just physical fights but battles for the true meaning of right and wrong.
Instead of seeing a man in a spider costume go head to head with a man with artificial tentacles welded to his back in a nameless and mindless manner, we are seeing the emotional, intellectual and soulful battle between a young man with so many doubts (Peter Parker) and a man broken and demented by the loss of his dream and way of life (Otto Octavius).
Even the villain here is not simply a caricature of a mad scientist, but an affecting character that leads us to feelings of sympathy. Driven to crime by a mental breakdown following the collapse of his nuclear experiment, the death of his wife and his permanent disfigurement in the form of four mechanical (and tyrannical) arms, Doctor Octopus is once more an example of a figure where not all is what it seems. Like Peter he is brilliant, and yet their choices could not be any different.
Brought together by a common love of science the two form a paternal bond, until the lab accident that changes everything. At the end when Peter reminds him of the responsibility to use intelligence for the benefit of all mankind we see his transformation back to the man he once was, in what is a rewarding crown to the superb fight sequences the two have had throughout the film.
We care about these figures and are rightfully concerned about the outcome; while this formula of great human storytelling in conjunction with stupendous special effects has certainly been executed in films before and after Spider-Man 2, the abundance of mind-numbing action-packed superhero/monster movies still seems greater then the output of thoughtful and intelligent scripts like this movie has.
For those audiences who are only casually interested in the comic book genre, it is a shame that many of the other films in the genre sidestep the humanity that fills the pages of the comics and does not bring it to the screen. But like the best editions of the Spider-Man comics, Spider-Man 2 brings together that humanity in full force with all the thrilling and exciting bits of fantasy.
And what a thrilling showcase it is of Spider-Man’s high flying web-slinging abilities, along with the tentacled menace of Doc Ock scaling buildings and hurling objects and cars as if they were toys! From an exciting brawl in a bank to a highly suspenseful and visceral fight on a clock tower and atop a speeding train (complete with screaming passengers), the design, choreography, special effects and quick pace of these sequences are a wonder to truly behold.
Using CG imagery, practical effects (Doc Ock’s tentacles were impressively controlled and designed by puppeteers for the close-up shots for instance) and an infectiously catchy soundtrack, the look, and feel of Spider-Man 2 is innovative yet traditional. And who could forget the utterly terrifying moments where Doc Ock’s ‘arms’ murder a team of surgeons, in an absolutely horrifying yet awesome moment of filmmaking.
But in between these fast-paced and gripping scenes, we never lose sight of the human heart at the center of this story; supported by wonderful performances from Tobey Maguire, Rosemary Harris and Alfred Molina particularly, the room is found for the tender moments. Whether it be an afternoon tea between aunt and nephew, or a meeting of seemingly unrequited love between Mary Jane and Peter, Spider-Man 2 never rushes these occasions just to get back to the next action piece.
Harris’ Aunt May remains the best cinematic adaptation of the character, and infuses the film with plenty of philosophical wisdom, while Molina’s descent into madness is both frightening and saddening. Motivated by what he learns from each of them, Peter gains new purpose into why he must continue donning the mask. In fact, it could be said this movie isn’t really about Spider-Man at all, but rather Peter Parker; ultimately it’s not Spidey that saves the day, it is Peter and his newfound will to continue fighting that good fight and using his great power for his great responsibility.
There can never be a substitute for good storytelling and it’s why the best classic films are labeled as such; titles like Casablanca or The Godfather continue to resonate precisely because they have captured the eternal power of human emotion, while others like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings have successfully melded humanity with astounding fantasy and movie-making wizardry. Spider-Man 2 then should be seen as amongst the best of both worlds, with an immense amount of heart and mind, and a stunning array of action and visual effects. With the seeming conclusion of the 22 film MCU now upon us and the constant flooding of social media to remind us of them, earlier cinematic versions of the Marvel catalog have been put on the backburner. But Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy should absolutely not be among them, especially Spider-Man 2. To return to the words of Roger Ebert: It’s a real movie, full-blooded and smart, with qualities even for those who have no idea who Stan Lee is. It’s a superhero movie for people who don’t go to superhero movies, and for those who do, it’s the one they’ve been yearning for.”
Brimming with an exceptional and mature grasp of human emotion, spectacular visual effects, and a delightful musical score from Danny Elfman, Spider-Man 2 is not a film that can be simply left to be forgotten; with its ageless themes it will always attract us and returning to it will never fall short of being a truly moving and phenomenal movie viewing experience.