Looking Back: 'Spider-Man 2' is Still One of the Best Comic Book Movies
by Dan Marcus
June 23, 2017
When it comes to sequels, there an expectation to raise the bar. If you think of some of the best sequels of all time, whether that's The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Aliens (to name a few), each film improved upon the foundation of the first in major ways. In the second part of our weekly Spider-Man retrospective series leading up to the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming on July 7th this summer, we take a look at how Sam Raimi raised the bar for not only Spider-Man movies, but the entire superhero genre itself with Spider-Man 2. The superhero sequel hit theaters on June 30th, 2004 (that's 13 years ago!), just a week before 4th of July, and it once again went on to set records at the box office and beyond.
After Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man movie swung into theaters on May 2nd, 2002 and made movie history, expectations were astronomically high for the webslinger's follow-up adventure. Sony Pictures & Columbia Pictures announced the sequel right away on May 8th, 2002. The film was originally titled The Amazing Spider-Man, later to be changed simply to Spider-Man 2. It was given a 2004 summer release. Sam Raimi was set to return, and he brought on a series of writers, from Smallville scribes Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, to famed novelist Michael Chabon, to help flesh out Spider-Man's sophomore turn.
The main cast Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco and Rosemary Harris were all set to return. However, during negotiating Maguire's contract for the sequel, discussions almost broke down. Maguire wanted more money, citing the difficulties of the stunt work involved. He allegedly injured his back during filming Seabiscuit, using that as leverage for the contract negotiations. However, Raimi wasn't playing around. It took no time for rumors to break out that Raimi was considering re-casting Maguire with Jake Gyllenhaal. To make matters even more awkward, Maguire and Dunst had briefly dated during the filming of Spider-Man and Gyllenhaal and Dunst were dating during prep on Spider-Man 2.
Maguire eventually came to his senses, realizing his tactics were getting nowhere. For a brief time, however, a very different future could have played out where Jake Gyllenhaal would have been Spider-Man. That just wasn't meant to be, and Maguire signed on quickly thereafter. However, there is a small but comical moment in the finished film where Peter Parker injures his back, exclaiming "My back!", which was a nod to the behind-the-scenes drama. It's clear Raimi and Maguire still had a sense of humor about the whole thing. With Maguire back in the suit, Raimi and his writers could return their focus to finishing the screenplay.
The script didn't solidify, however, until Alvin Sargent was brought into the fold. Raimi and Sargent went through all of the drafts by Gough, Miller, Chabon and David Koepp, who did an uncredited rewrite on the script before Chabon was brought on-board. They picked elements they liked from each one, while Sargent finessed them into a cohesive story. Raimi wanted to focus on Peter Parker's personal struggle in the film, exploring his conflict between his desires and his responsibilities as Spider-Man. Raimi said he was partly inspired by Superman II, which features a similar focus on Kal-El's duality as both Clark Kent & Superman.
Raimi and Sargent also took inspiration from The Amazing Spider-Man issue #50, entitled "Spider-Man No More!" In the story, Peter Parker gives up being Spider-Man to instead focus on his personal life. The story had such a big inspiration on the movie that Raimi would later adapt one of the panels directly for the film (as seen above). They also considerably changed Doctor Octopus's backstory. Raimi made Octavius a mentor figure for Peter, someone for him to idolize and look up to. He also made him a more sympathetic character, someone that Peter could save from his inner demons.
It is this approach that helps Spider-Man 2 stand above many of its lackluster sequel predecessors. Raimi understood that the most interesting character in the story had to be Peter Parker, and his struggles in the film drive the narrative. From the film's opening shots featuring Peter talking about his love for Mary Jane Watson, encapsulating the complex conflict between his desires and his responsibilities as both student and superhero, Raimi wisely sets-up the conflict within the film's opening minutes. YouTuber user "Films&Stuff" concisely examines how Raimi establishes and follows through on this conflict in the film, making Spider-Man 2 one of the most tonally and thematically consistent films in Marvel's cinematic repertoire. Watch:
Spider-Man 2 isn't just one of the best Marvel films. Raimi's Spider-Man 2 is the best Spider-Man film, and one of the best superhero films ever, period. It's a comic book masterpiece. It succeeds, primarily but not solely, because the main character is the most important character in the entire film. In so many superhero films, such as the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman films, Bruce Wayne and Batman are often the least interesting - and the least developed. The villains always take center stage, leaving very little breathing room for the main protagonist. Even The Dark Knight, often considered one of the best Batman and superhero films of all time, is more of an ensemble piece than a character study of Bruce Wayne, who is arguably one of the least interesting characters in the entire film.
Raimi also understood that the main theme of the story had to be prevalent throughout. As the above video examines, Peter Parker's desire (to be with Mary Jane) is expressed throughout the film repeatedly in the form of perfume advertisements featuring MJ. It is also there to taunt Peter, to consistently remind him of what he doesn't have. When Peter meets Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) for the first time, he sees that he is happy with his wife, played by Donna Murphy. The very first conversation they have involves a talk about love, and how love is not easy and something you have to fight for. Peter talks about his uncertainty over the love in his life, and how that plagues him.
At one point, Mrs. Octavius flat out tells Peter "You always have a choice," and it is that single line that summarizes the main theme of the film. The theme of the film is about choice, and that theme is shown repeatedly in almost every scene. Peter has to make choices constantly. He can try to deliver pizza on time so he doesn't lose his job, or he can save some children running into traffic. He can choose to be Spider-Man and stop some robbers, or catch Mary Jane's play. Peter is faced with a choice in every aspect of his life, as almost every decision he makes results in people pulling away from him. Mary Jane ends up getting engaged to someone else, and Harry Osborn thinks he's more loyal to Spider-Man than his best friend.
In that sense, Peter doesn't think he has a choice. This bottles up, and results in Peter losing his powers in the film. This is initially set up in the earlier scene with Otto, Peter and Mrs. Octavius. At one point, Octavius tells Peter, "if you bottle up something as important as love, it'll make you sick." That is exactly what Peter does, and that is exactly what happens to him. Now, the concept of choice isn't a new idea to superheroes, or their live-action adaptations. Superman II (which as already mentioned, Raimi took inspiration from) explored this theme, as do many other superhero films.
Spider-Man 2 explores this idea with a bit more nuance and subtlety than most films, which elevates it above the rest. The film features one of the best scenes out of any superhero or comic book movie. It comes about midway through the film, after Peter has quit being Spider-Man. The bank is foreclosing on Aunt May's house, and Peter shows up to help her pack. In an earlier scene, Peter finally mustered up the courage to tell May about what really happened to Uncle Ben. It's a masterful scene, and both Tobey Maguire and Rosemary Harris play it beautifully. May's reaction is exactly how someone would react in that moment. She's stunned, doesn't know what to say and simply leaves the room. It leads to a follow-up scene, which in lesser hands could've been melodramatic or bombastic. Instead, it's one of the most poignant moments.
In the scene, Peter and May discuss Spider-Man's absence. Henry, one of the kids in the neighborhood, asks Peter where Spider-Man went, and if he's coming back. Peter tells him he's not sure, which leads May to talk about the importance of Spider-Man, citing "there's a hero in all of us." It's a beautifully written and acted scene and a testament to letting actors say more with their eyes than just what is on the page. It is left ambiguous if Aunt May knows Peter Parker is actually Spider-Man, but the allusion is certainly there. May knows she doesn't need to tell Peter she knows. The fact that she believes in him is more than enough.
Spider-Man 2, like any good sequel, took the characters, concepts and ideas from the first film and matured them with grace and ease. Even Doctor Octopus, the villain, has a character journey that mirrors Peter's. When the fusion reactor experiment goes wrong, the inhibitor chip keeping the artificial intelligence of the tentacles at bay is destroyed. Octavius is constantly manipulated by the tentacles throughout the film, as they subconsciously twist his thoughts. In the film's climax, it is Peter this time, not Octavius, that teaches Ock about the importance of giving up on your dreams. Raimi and Sargent took extreme care to craft every part of the film's screenplay with layered meaning, and that is why the film still stands the test of time.
The film is visually resplendent, with stunning and memorable action sequences. The train sequence is still one of the best action scenes out of any superhero film. However, if you strip away the gorgeous comic book imagery and the action, you would still have a poignant, affecting story of a young man caught between his desires and his responsibilities. It's a universal concept that anyone can relate to, and it is why Spider-Man is one of the most endearing comic book superheroes of all time. Peter Parker has never been more vulnerable, more accessible and more human than he was in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2.
Even to this day, Spider-Man 2 is still considered the best Spider-Man film, and one of the best in the genre. Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 doesn't quite live up to the high quality of the first two films, and I'll explore next week why it is the first truly disappointing Spider-Man film. That is partly why there's a lot of pressure for Spider-Man: Homecoming to at least match, if not surpass, Spider-Man 2. While surpassing that film may not be possible, hopefully Homecoming remembers Peter Parker is most interesting when he's explored as a character always caught between doing what he really wants and doing the right thing. What do you think? Do you believe Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 is still a comic book movie masterpiece?