Like clockwork, every few months I go on a Spider-Man binge. This most recent bout of Spidey-mania comes courtesy of a new story arc in The Amazing Spider-Man comic, now that the bloated Spider-Verse event is now over, that will hopefully get the new series back on track. So in order to satisfy my cravings for more Spider-Man I’ve dived back into the Spider-Man movies, and since I watched the first of Sam Raimi’s trilogy fairly recently (last spring), I figured I would start with its sequel, Spider-Man 2.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy exists in a stylistic middle ground between retro 60s and modern-day realism. Peter Parker lives in 21st-century New York City but he’s still a Silver Age nerd going to a classic 60s style school, complete with bullying football jocks. Raimi’s camera swings and zooms in ways most modern blockbusters stopped doing years ago and his edits are artificial and obvious in a fun and campy way. And while the first film in the trilogy probably leans a little too heavily into its goofy 60s style, Spider-Man 2 finds the perfect balance between the two.
Spider-Man 2 doesn’t completely abandon the retro vibe begun in the original but it does tone it back. Peter is no longer in high school dealing with his cliche high school bullies or being his classic nerd self. He’s now an adult living trying to make it on his own in New York City. The cliche trappings of his high school life are gone and are instead replaced with more grounded drama revolving around his adult life. Raimi has also toned down on his camera work and editing, while cutting back on the number of cheesy montages. Those elements aren’t gone but they are done in smaller, less notable ways. It’s this perfect measure of his 60s/21st-century mix that maintains the movie’s distinct feel while still making quality, engaging, modern entertainment.
And Spider-Man 2 is just boundlessly entertaining. Peter spends nearly half the film having given up his responsibility as Spider-Man so the film doesn’t really contain that many action sequences, but what it does have are consistently top-notch. Spidey’s first two fights with Doc Ock (the bank heist and the train fight) rank among some of the best action sequences in any superhero movies. They create and build the stakes of the fight gradually and organically, ramping up the tension while also using the characters’ powers in unique and varied ways. The only action scene that feels like a letdown is the climax which is unfortunate considering the strength of the previous encounters.
Even though the movie doesn’t have that much Spider-Manning, it doesn’t suffer as a result thanks to just how compelling it makes Peter’s own personal drama. The strength of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies are their intense focus on Peter Parker as a person dealing with his responsibility as Spider-Man, as opposed to being about Spider-Man. It’s a subtle distinction but Raimi and his screenwriters are smart to lean more heavily on Peter than they do on Spidey. Peter is torn between fulfilling his responsibilities as Spider-Man and leading a full life as Peter Parker. It’s an interesting area to explore for a superhero and the movie moves takes it to interesting places. Aunt May learns about Peter’s involvement on the night of Uncle Ben’s murder, Harry confronts Peter about his relationship with Spider-Man and eventually learns Peter’s secret, and MJ decides to be with Peter even at the risk his being Spider-Man brings. All of these relationships grow and change in genuine and real ways creating consequences for this film and the series’s future installments.
Tobey Maguire, though hit and miss in the first film, is more consistent here. He admirably plays all of Peter’s troubles without making Pete an annoying mope. Though he doesn’t always look the part of Spider-Man, he always plays Peter superbly. The Uncle Ben dream sequence, in particular, shows off his talents as an actor and would be genuinely moving in any movie, let alone one that features a man who swings from webs.
Honestly, the movie’s biggest narrative weakness is Doc Ock. His character arc is basically the same as Norman Osborn’s from the first (a father figure of Peter’s tries out an experiment, screws it up, goes crazy, and tries to fix his failures despite the havoc he’s causing) and his motivations mostly stem from an AI controlling his brain. He bares essentially no resemblance to his superior comic counterpart who is a stuck-up, smug, self-loving, evil genius and jerk. That being said Alfred Molina is an incredible actor and he sells his one-way dialogues with his sentient robot arms like nobody else could.
Spider-Man 2 feels like a genuine evolution of Raimi’s series. Peter is in a new place in his life facing new problems and by the end of the film, him and his relationships have grown and changed in significant ways. Raimi’s own work behind the camera is more measured and confident and as a result he achieves more with both his unique style and the movie’s overall level of entertainment. It’s not exactly the Spider-Man I know from the comic books but Spider-Man 2 is a fantastically well-made film in its own right providing great action and compelling drama that few superhero movies have matched to date.