Stillanerd’s Retrospective: Spider-Man 2 (2004) review


Hailed one of the best superhero movies of all time, does the second installment of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy still measure up?

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Before The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Solider, Logan, and Wonder Woman, the world declared Spider-Man 2 one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. Despite making less money at the box office than it’s predecessor, critics and audiences in 2004 couldn’t give it enough praise. Nearly every major publication gave it a four-star review. It scored a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, the same score as Richard Donner’s Superman. And today, you can find it on almost any “Top Ten Best Comic Book Movies” list.

Yet comic book movies have evolved over these past thirteen years. Actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers treat them with seriousness and reverence. They’ve found appeal beyond it’s core audience of comic book lovers and are now part of the mainstream. Today, the mentioning of these films alongside Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or The Godfather doesn’t sound so absurd. But Spider-Man 2? That movie is the best of the bunch? Surely that’s an exaggeration today, isn’t it?

RELATED > See where Spider-Man 2 ranks in our list of greatest superhero stories

True that in this post-Christopher Nolan, post-Cinematic Universe world, Spider-Man 2 may no longer be the best comic book movie ever made. But it is still one of the best, and—dare I say it—a great film in its own right.

Why, you may ask? For starters, it does what sequels should do. Like The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2 uses the first movie as a foundation and builds itself upon it without rehashing the first movie’s story.  Thus, Spider-Man 2, set almost two years after Uncle Ben’s death, can completely stand on its own. Granted, there are lots of call backs and references to Spider-Man—far more than I realized while re-watching it. Only they’re not mere winks and nods to the fans; they’re in service to the larger story director Sam Raimi and company are telling.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Spider-Man 2 is a prime example of what a gifted actor [like Tobey Maguire] can do with a well-written script.

That story is another reason Spider-Man 2 succeeds. Instead of once again relying upon David Koepp, Raimi turned to Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon to edit the first draft, and then Academy Award winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent to write the final script. Just the dialogue alone is a noticeable improvement.

Even so, Raimi’s Spider-Man, especially in this movie, isn’t the constant motormouth or wisecracker like he is in the comics. But I bet if we had to put up with half of what Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker endures over the course of this movie, we would be hard-pressed to come up with the single zinger that he does make.

For instance, just look at what we learn about Peter’s life within the first fifteen minutes. He’s barely holding down two jobs (and gets fired from one). His efforts, as both Spider-Man and a photographer, go unappreciated. He’s close to flunking out of college. His best friend resents him. The woman he secretly loves is seeing someone else. He learns his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is facing foreclosure on her home. And he lives in a rundown, one bedroom apartment he can’t even pay rent for.

Things only get worse when Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) appears on the scene, just as Peter’s powers start randomly failing. Couple this with the guilt he still feels over Uncle Ben’s (Cliff Robertson) murder. Is it any wonder why he later quits being Spider-Man? And yet, Spider-Man 2 is also very funny. We can laugh at Peter’s misfortunes because they’re exaggerations of what everyone (minus the superheroics) faces at some point in their lives. But not once does the comedy ever overwhelm the film’s pathos.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from Spider-Man 2 (2004)

[Spider-Man 2] is also the film where….Rosemary Harris truly becomes Aunt May.

Once again, Maguire deserves loads of credit. He continues playing Peter as the charming, nerdy goofball from the first movie, while still showing how much life is wearing him down. More impressive, he conveys without needing to say a word. The simple act of sitting on a bed, dragging his damaged moped, or eating a piece of chocolate cake tells you everything.  And when Maguire does speak, you can hear what’s really in his heart under his lines. Spider-Man 2 is a prime example of what a gifted actor can do with a well-written script.

In fact, all the players carried over from the last movie up their game. Kirsten Dunst still shows why her Mary Jane Watson is someone Peter is still head-over-heels for. J.K. Simmons once again makes the case why no one can top his J. Jonah Jameson. Even James Franco’s performance improves, probably because Harry Osborn plays such a key role, giving Franco a lot more material to work with.

This is also the film where, for me, Rosemary Harris truly becomes Aunt May. Just watch her reaction after Peter confesses to her what really happened the night Uncle Ben died, arguably the single most powerful scene in the entire film. Plus, her motivational speech about how she “believes there’s a hero in all of us” still resonates, and is arguably as important, if not more so, than “with great power must also come great responsibility.”

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from Spider-Man 2 (2004)

…if you thought the first Spider-Man film made bold, directorial choices, it’s nothing compared to this.

As for Molina, his Otto Octavious / Doctor Octopus kind of grows on you. Spider-Man purists will note how he’s essentially playing Curt Connors during the first act (which is strange since Dylan Baker plays Connors in the movie). But once Otto gets his mechanical arms grafted to his body, I couldn’t envision anyone else in the role as the egotistical mad scientist. Like Willem Dafoe, you can tell Molina is having a blast as he apologetically hams it up with conviction.

Yet, Doc Ock as the main antagonist (and an appropriate one given the movie’s themes) wouldn’t work half as well if not also for the mechanical arms themselves. A seamless combination of digital effects and puppetry, they’re genuine characters in their own right, especially when they first “persuade” Otto in continuing his fusion experiments. Little wonder then why Spider-Man 2 won a well-deserved Oscar for best visual effects for that year.

As for Raimi, if you thought the first Spider-Man film made bold, directorial choices, it’s nothing compared to this. The hospital scene is sublime, unapologetic B-grade level horror minus the blood and gore. The “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” montage is so unabashedly absurd it’s poetry.  All the fight sequences, especially the entire elevated train sequence, still looks breathtaking as it did in the theaters.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from Spider-Man 2 (2004)

…to this day, Spider-Man 2 remains [Sam Raimi’s] crowning achievement as a filmmaker, storyteller, and artist.

However, Raimi isn’t all bombast and spectacle. At times, you feel like you’re watching a silent film—Peter struggling with a janitorial closet; the recreation of Amazing Spider-Man #50; or the train passengers lifting an unconscious, unmasked Spider-Man. The planetarium gala is the perfect mix of laughter and tears of what is, undoubtedly, the worst night of Peter’s life. Raimi’s ability of knowing when and when not to restrain himself is why, to this day, Spider-Man 2 remains his crowning achievement as a filmmaker, storyteller, and artist.

A few spots do rankle, however, like Joy Bryant yelling “Go Spidey, go!” You could play a drinking game out of the times an American flag appears on-screen. I totally understand why some viewers objected towards MJ becoming a runaway bride. There’s even, in hindsight, a very strong case that the ending is the end of the Spider-Man trilogy just two movies in. Even so, the flaws were too minuscule to curb my overall enjoyment.

Next: Stillanerd's Retrospective: Spider-Man (2002) review

I can go on and on about the hilarity of Bruce Campbell’s smug theater usher; or Elyse Dinh’s violinist; or the fantastic set-design of Doc Ock’s abandoned warehouse; or the brilliant addition of Elya Baskin as Peter’s landlord, Mr. Ditkovich; or, of course, the fantastic opening credits courtesy of artist Alex Ross. But I’ve gabbed enough. Besides, you can only really appreciate Spider-Man 2 (and it’s impact on all the comic book movies that followed) after viewing it.