Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Directed by Sam Raimi – Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn, Elizabeth Banks, Daniel Gillies, Cliff Robertson, Stan Lee, Emily Deschanel, Bruce Campbell, Aasif Mandvi, John Landis, Joel McHale, and Willem Dafoe.
SPIDER-MAN 2 is as good as superhero movies get.
I’m not a big fan of lists so you’re not going to hear me argue about the merits of SPIDER-MAN 2 vs. Avengers vs. The Dark Knight and finding the poorest parts of excellent movies to justify claiming one is better than the others. For me, I’ll take the fun of Avengers over the other two movies, but I don’t think that’s a matter of being better as much as it is simply being different. There’s enough room at the Round Table for superhero films that do different things and SPIDER-MAN 2 deserves a seat at that exclusive sit down.
Of all the superhero movies that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen just about all of them), none of them creates a more honest emotional reaction in me that SPIDER-MAN 2. There are multiple moments in this film that make me weepy, and there’s no film that better displays the downside of being a superhero than Sam Raimi’s masterpiece.
Of course, I really don’t want to watch movies or read stories about superheroes who don’t want to be superheroes, so it’s interesting that both SPIDER-MAN 2 and The Dark Knight cover this same ground. I’ll get around to Dark Knight later this month, but when it comes to SPIDER-MAN 2, what I like about the movie is that Raimi uses Peter’s woe-is-me attitude to eventually reaffirm the importance of what he’s doing. It’s crushing when, near the mid-point of the film, Peter fantasizes a conversation with Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) in which he rejects his uncle’s plea to “take my hand.” Symbolically, this is Peter rejecting the “with great power comes great responsibility” philosophy. It’s a gut-wrenching moment, but it does reaffirm that Peter’s a kid, and kids sometimes have to learn about things like duty and responsibility.
Much of SPIDER-MAN 2 is about people trying to find their place in the world. For Peter, it’s balancing being a superhero with being a bright college kid who’s in love with the girl of his dreams, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). He’s understandably bummed about having to give up both his intellectual and social development, and when you factor in the loss of his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), the constant drubbing Spidey gets in the press from J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) and The Daily Bugle, and the lingering guilt over his role in Ben’s death … it’s not hard to understand that when his powers start flaking, Peter doesn’t mind so much.
Mary Jane is having a successful go at being a working actress, but she still partly defines herself by the men in her life. She’s clearly in love with Peter but isn’t willing to wait for him (despite Harry’s assertions) as she’s fallen into a relationship with John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), son of J. Jonah and national astronaut hero.
It’s easy to bag on MJ, of course, for jumping from relationship to relationship (in two films, she’s dated Flash Thompson, Harry, and now John, all the while falling in love with Peter and Spider-Man), but for me it this need to validate herself in the arms of others speaks to the truly tragic nature of her character. MJ has been blessed with looks and cursed with a bad family situation, and I’m sure her looks helped fuel her popularity at school. When things get tough at home, her looks and personality have long provided an oasis for MJ, and now that she’s growing up (the film notes that it’s been two years since Ben’s death, so we’re talking about 20 year olds, here) and is having a bit of success, it’s not surprising that she wants to share that with someone. Blessedly, the film does not make John Jameson a jerk, so when MJ decides to leave him at the altar, it’s a conflicted moment. Yes, her heart belongs to Peter, but yes, it’s also a dick thing to do to wait until your wedding day to run to the man you’d rather be with.
Harry is having struggles of a different kind. After his father’s death, he’s somehow gained a position of power at Oscorp. He’s determined to outstrip his father’s accomplishments, and he’s relying on Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) to elevate the company to new heights. Harry still hates Spider-Man (blaming him for his father’s death) and a wedge has grown between him and Peter on the matter. Harry wants Peter’s help to track Spidey down, but Peter refuses.
SPIDER-MAN 2 does an outstanding job at showing the weight of a secret identity. Peter refuses to tell anyone he’s Spider-Man and that leads to all of his problems growing unchecked. During a fantastic conversation between Peter and Octavius, Otto tells him that he can’t keep something as powerful as love bottled up inside of him. It’s a really nice, heartfelt moment, and the film uses this speech as the symbolic stand-in for every emotion that we keep trapped inside of ourselves. It’s no surprise that by the end of the film, when Peter has embraced his role as Spider-Man, that his identity has been revealed to Mary Jane, Doc Ock, Harry, a train full of New Yorkers, and while it’s not outright stated, it’s pretty clear that Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) knows it, too.
Much like Cliff Robertson was the quiet MVP of SPIDER-MAN, Rosemary Harris is the rock on which SPIDER-MAN 2 is built. She’s phenomenal all over this film, gently offering praise for Harry, subtly pulling MJ into the kitchen so Peter and Harry can talk, refusing to let Peter get down about her house being foreclosed, and smashing Doc Ock upside the head after he’s kidnapped her to use against Spider-Man (a random act, not a personal one).
It’s Aunt May who delivers the film’s signature line: “I believe there’s a hero in all of us.” It comes when Peter has turned his back on Spider-Man and is finding a bit of happiness being a regular college kid. He’s even starting to make his move on MJ, even though she’s already engaged to John. Aunt May is having none of it, though, but she’s not the kind of woman who will confront Peter directly, so instead she plays along with the idea that Pete knows Spider-Man personally. She uses a neighborhood kid as the launching point for her monologue. With the bank foreclosure coming, May is already packing her things up to move into a small apartment. She’s got a local kid to help her out, and this kid just so happens to idolize Spider-Man, and tells Peter that he wants to see Spidey come back. When Peter wonders why, May tells him that kids need heroes to look up to. She adds that she believes there’s “a hero in all of us,” but she really means, “in you, Peter,” and this whole, wonderfully touching scene is May’s way of giving Peter her blessing to be Spider-Man, and quietly admonishing him for ever giving it up.
So Peter jumps back in. His first stop is to hit The Daily Bugle, where he steals back his Spider-Man outfit. When he’d decided to stop being Spidey, he tossed it in the garbage, and every comic book fan everywhere thrilled to see Amazing Spider-Man 50 recreated on the big screen.
SPIDER-MAN 2 has a lot going on, and the various subplots and quick sequences help to offset the rather dreary nature of the narrative. Peter, Harry, and MJ are taking their first steps into adulthood and all of them are experiencing some level of success, but they’ve also got stumbles to deal with, and how they deal with them speaks to how they bounce back.
The adults have to do a fair amount of bouncing back, too, as everyone sees their world slightly upturned. For May, it’s the double whammy of having her house foreclosed and Peter admitting that he was responsible for Ben’s death. For Octavius, it’s his failed experiment and the death of his wife when Otto’s experiment goes all wonky. For JJJ, it’s the realization that Spider-Man was a positive force in the city.
Alfred Molina’s performance as Doctor Octopus is every bit as good as any other actor’s turn in the villain’s chair. While not as flashy or memorable as Heath Ledger’s Joker or as coolly manipulative as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Molina’s Otto Octavius is a completely realized and unique character, the most human feeling of all villains. Where villains often feel like they’re in the film just to give the good guys something to punch, I feel as if this is every bit as much Otto’s movie as it is Peter’s from the moment Molina appears on the screen. Molina makes Octavius a brilliant, well-meaning scientist. He meets Peter when Harry forces him to give Peter some time to conduct an interview for a school project. Reluctant as he is, Otto is clearly taken by Peter’s intellect and interest in his project, and Peter’s brief stay is extended to him sharing a dinner with Otto and his wife. I can feel the love Otto and his wife (Donna Murphy) have for one another, and his enthusiasm for his work. He also clearly enjoys sharing his time with Peter, and after a day spent talking science, the conversation turns personal.
When Otto’s experiment fails and his four “octopus arms” become a permanent part of him, Otto slowly succumbs to their influence and sets about setting up his experiment for a second try. This leads him to a life of crime, and eventually back to Harry to get some precious tridium. Harry makes a deal – bring me Spider-Man and you can have all the tridium you want.
The action sequences in SPIDER-MAN 2 are a huge improvement over the first movie, and represent some of the best superhero action committed to the screen. The battles between Spider-Man and Doc Ock up and down buildings across New York are just awesome to watch. If anything, they move so fast that you need to watch them a couple times just to see how much is going on between Spidey, Ock, and his four snapping tendrils. It’s good stuff.
The general realization – from Peter, from May, from Jameson, from the riders of the elevated train he saves – that Spider-Man is worth having around really makes all the woe-is-me melodrama pay off. Every time I’ve had it with Peter’s whining, the film delivers a counter punch that lifts the spirits of the film. If sitting through a bit of melodrama is the price we have to pay for May’s wonderful speech, or MJ’s wonderful “let me save you” monologue at the end, it’s well worth it.
There’s plenty of cameos all over SPIDER-MAN 2, as well: Bruce Campbell, Elizabeth Banks, Emily Deschanel, John Landis, Aasif Mandvi, Joel McHale, Dylan Baker, and, right at the end, the return of Willem Dafoe to haunt Harry one final time, and trick his son into finding the hidden Goblin materials, beautifully setting up the third film.
SPIDER-MAN 2 stands as one of the finest achievements of the cinematic superhero genre. It’s an outstanding film from start to finish, and it’s nice to see Raimi interject more of his personality into this film than the first film, where he seemed to play everything straight. Throughout SPIDER-MAN 2, there’s all sorts of nods to Raimi’s horror roots and dynamic camera work. Thankfully, the film even ends on a high note, as MJ chooses Peter and tells him, “Go get ‘em, Tiger,” when they hear police sirens in the distance. Peter’s webslinging becomes joyous at this point, and it is made clear that this was a movie about a boy becoming a man. Peter’s life might not turn out to be the one he dreamed of having, but he’s realizing that the life he will have has all sorts of opportunities, too.
Entertaining, engaging, satisfying, and emotional, SPIDER-MAN 2 is superhero cinema at its best.