The two years since Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) has become Spider-Man have been rather rough for the young hero. The photos that he takes of his alter ego in action are used by newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) in his ongoing crusade to get the superhero arrested. His best friend Harry (James Franco) still holds Spider-Man responsible for the death of his father, who was secretly the villainous Green Goblin. The love of his life Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is mad with him for keeping secrets from her, while his aunt (Rosemary Harris) is facing foreclosure on her home. All the while, Peter feels guilty for his own inadvertent part in his uncle’s death.
It’s this complex web of relationships and how they play out against Spider-Man’s battle against his latest foe, Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina), a scientist who goes becomes unhinged after a lab accident kills his wife and permanently affixes four robotic manipulator arms to his body, that truly elevates Spider-Man 2 above not only most sequels but most other comic book based movies as well. Here, rather than just continue the characterizations set up in the first film, the screenplay further develops things, allowing situations set up in the first Spider-Man (2002) film to grow and evolve.
There are several moments that echo scenes from the first film, but rather than feeling like repetition, they help create a deeper resonance for what is transpiring between the characters. There’s a moment early in the film between Peter and Mary Jane that’s made even more heart wrenching when you factor in that it takes place in the same spot where the two really started their relationship in the first film.
For all the darker emotional territory that the film walks in, the script manages several lighter moments that serve as counterbalance. Simmons earns laughs with every appearance as the cigar-chomping boss at the Daily Bugle. There are other moments of comedy pulled from various New Yorkers reactions to Spider-Man and from Peter’s occasionally disastrous luck. But while it comes close to the borderline, the comic relief moments never overwhelm the reality of the film.
A classic scene from Amazing Spider-Man #50 and a similar moment in Spider-Man 2.
The real key to what makes this work is the filmmakers’ respect for the source material. As created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Peter Parker was always a hard luck case, someone who life seemed to delight in knocking down, but who would always get back up and keep fighting because it was the right thing to do. Here, they definitely pile on the problems, but it’s of the type that most audience members can relate to. Having the power to shoot webs and crawl up walls isn’t the totality of Peter Parker’s character; it’s just one small part of him. Parts of Spider-Man 2’s storyline are inspired by various classic issues of the comic, and director Sam Raimi even acknowledges this with at least one shot’s composition.
But Spider-Man 2 isn’t all character exploration. There are plenty of great action sequences. Raimi has remarkably surpassed his work on the first film, giving us superheroics that feel lifted from a comics page but still carry an air of verisimilitude. (Something Richard Donner remembered when crafting the first Superman movie back in 1977.) There’s such naturalness to the look of Spider-Man swinging through the concrete canyons of Manhattan that I suspect I may be a little disappointed on my next trip to the Big Apple if I look up and don’t see him there. Raimi hasn’t forgotten his roots in low budget horror films (The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2) though, as witnessed in the scene where Octavious is brought to a hospital after his tragic accident. Fans of Raimi’s films will also notice several other of the director’s trademarks as well as numerous mentions of bits of Spider-Man lore scattered through the film.
Is Spider-Man 2 the best superhero film ever made? Quite possibly. It far outdoes its predecessor, a quite good film in its own right, in both action and characterization. It also ends with two scenes that, though they provide some resolution to the current film, are going to make the three-year wait to the already announced Spider-Man 3 a very agonizing one.