Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Written by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Michael Chabon
Directed by Sam Raimi
How do you follow up Spider-Man? With what is undoubtedly one of the best superhero films ever made. So many unplanned franchises/trilogies often suffer in their second installments. They seem to follow a playbook that bloats their cast and overcomplicates their plot. The result ranges from disappointing to middling. Even Superman 2, a sequel that was planned at the same time as the first movie, is a mess both in its theatrical and director’s cut forms. I think the key to Spider-Man 2’s success is Sam Raimi and Sony Pictures choosing to step away and let the filmmaker continue his love letters to the comic books he grew up with.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has struck on rough times. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is facing eviction, and the young man struggles to make ends meet for himself. Peter’s power appears to be on the fritz linked, so some of his anxieties and neuroses make him a very unreliable Spider-Man. He shows up at a science event being run by his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), to watch the brilliant Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) show his methods for creating renewable energy. Unfortunately, something goes wrong, and Otto becomes fused with the unique mechanical arms he used to conduct the experiment safely. Otto’s wife is killed, and the special chip that lets Otto control the arms breaks, putting their cold AI in the driver’s seat. Now Peter has to balance the everyday problems of the people around him, discovers that his estranged love Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), is engaged to another man, and tussle with the deadly Doctor Octopus.
One thing that continues to stick with me as I rewatch the Raimi trilogy is the tremendous amount of heart these movies have. The sequel continues that, and it feels like Raimi was allowed to lean into the very human portrayal of Spider-Man he had dreamt about. So much of this movie is Peter navigating life, and I think it’s much more relatable now that I am 40 and able to look back on my own struggles during my 20s. Even better is that Raimi doesn’t pretend Peter is a saint; he can choose the wrong words when confronted, even if he may be in the right. He must learn other people feel things too; other people are struggling. As much as he loves Mary Jane, he knows it’s not his place to interfere in her life.
I had forgotten the incredibly emotionally powerful subplot with Aunt May in this movie. It easily gets overshadowed by the spectacle and the other subplots running through the script. Peter reveals to her while hiding the details of his powers that he was partially responsible for Uncle Ben’s death. Instead of immediately showing May to forgive Peter, she is visibly distraught and wants him to go away. I rewatched these with my niece and nephew, and this scene really got to them. If superheroes exist as a modernization of parables, then this is an important life lesson, that sometimes people can love you but be very, very mad at you. We need time to work through tough stuff, but if that love is real, it is never going away. And by the end of the film, the resolution between May and Peter is earned. The pain of her husband’s death is still raw, but she understands what happened and that Peter made a mistake; he was a child.
The script also throws a 180 our way by not portraying Doctor Octopus as a one-dimensional villain. The Green Goblin did have some character complexity in the first film, but it’s nothing compared to the presentation of Octavius here. He is incredibly layered for a comic book movie villain, once again a character who can be redeemed. His redemption is paralleled through Peter’s own arc with May. When Peter sees that he can be forgiven, it imbues him with a sense that he can do something to help Octavius, that some part of the good man he once was is still in there. At the end of the film, you don’t dislike Octavius; it is a testament to the writing and Alfred Molina’s performance.
And then there’s the superhero spectacle. Raimi is immensely talented at directing these wonderful set pieces. There’s the nightmarish operating room scene where the director makes visual callbacks to The Evil Dead via the perspective of the arm tentacles. It is a gruesome scene where a lot of horrible things are implied. The battles scaling building between Spidey and Ock look like comics come to life. The train sequence is one of those iconic superhero moments. Yes, it’s cheesy, but it’s exactly what a superhero movie should do, be all heart and appeal to children. Raimi walks the tightrope better than any director since him when it comes to the action we want from a Spider-Man story and the daily woes of Peter Parker. That latter element is the secret ingredient to why the character endures. He’s about as everyman as a superhero can get when written by people who understand him. But Raimi had one more film left, and that one would leave a slight stain on the franchise, enough to force a reboot.