Sam Raimi said in an interview about Spider-Man 3, “I think [raising the stakes after Spider-Man 2] was the thinking going into it, and I think that’s what doomed us. I should’ve just stuck with the characters and the relationships and progressed them to the next step and not tried to top the bar.” Spider-Man 2 does exactly that. It sticks with the characters and progresses them logically. It sticks with the relationships and complicates, deepens, and enriches them. It does not try to top the bar, but Spider-Man 2 was not going to fall short of it. I would even say it topped the bar without trying to. It’s one of those sequels that not only out-dos the original, but makes it outright dispensable. Think about it. What would we have really lost had this been the first movie? Uncle Ben even makes an appearance (in dream form) to say his line again!
Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.
Aunt May did not get mentioned in my Spider-Man 1 review simply because she wasn’t important in the screenplay. To the movie’s credit, they did put her in a bunch of scenes, but, understandably so, never with the presence of Uncle Ben, whose scenes are remembered more fondly after his death. Well, Spider-Man 2 sticks with Aunt May and makes her relevant. She delivers the film’s most poignant line, and coupled with a more emotionally subtle performance from Rosemary Harris, this version of Aunt May is my favorite from any of Sony’s Spider-Man films.
Aunt May’s relationship with Peter also thickens, as it is realized that Peter has kept his involvement with Uncle Ben’s death a secret from her. This can be said of basically every relationship with Peter in this movie. It’s obvious with someone like Harry, who finds it difficult to continue being Peter’s friend as he takes pictures of Spider-Man for the Daily Bugle. But even side characters, such as J. J. Jameson, undergoes a change of heart, albeit temporarily, towards Spider-Man. Perhaps the most important relationship also gets a lift, as Mary Jane gets engaged to Jameson’s astronaut son in this movie. MJ gets engaged to someone besides Peter! I mean, these are some intriguing plot points for drama here. And just about everything materializes.
The most interesting relationship that gets explored in Spider-Man 2, however, is with Spider-Man himself. In the first Spider-Man, Peter basically became Spider-Man the instant he decided to live his life by Uncle Ben’s last few words and donned on the Spidey suit, and that was that. Here, Peter Parker basically breaks up with Spider-Man and with Uncle Ben, as he says he is “Spider-Man, no more,” and has to start over and re-bond with the hero inside of him.
Even though this is a very logical and probably expected direction for the movie, considering Peter’s lack of money as depicted in the comic books, this movie makes use of this psychological relationship to refine its definition of a hero as established in the first film. It isn’t just about responsibility. It argues that the hero is inherently sacrificial. They give up even their dreams to salvage yours.
This definition is much more mature and sophisticated, and plays out excellently in its new villain, Doctor Octavius, as played by Alfred Molina. If there is a singular aspect that this sequel improved on, it has to be the villain and subsequent action scenes. For as much as the Academy discriminates against superhero flicks, they had to give Spider-Man 2 the award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. It’s that good.
It’s kind of unrealistic how many punches to the face Doc Ock can take from Spider-Man, since his only superpower lies in his mechanical tentacles, but questionable pain tolerance aside, Doc Ock is by far more cinematic than Goblin. His extra limbs allow him to fight in any environment Spider-Man can handle, including on the side of a running train, without giving him an easy escape route in the form of a glider. However, Doc Ock is resourceful, understanding his opponent’s motives and throwing people off the train in an attempt to flee the scene.
Something else I love about the fight scenes, which deserve this much attention, is the sheer scope of it. You really feel like this battle is taking place across half of New York City, leaving behind a trail of rubble from clock towers and citizens perched in Spidey’s webbing. There is also another excellent action scene in a bank, and once again, the environment is wonderfully utilized, as Doc Ock flings bundles of gold coins at Spider-Man to compete with him in long-ranged combat. Three Spider-Man films later, and Spider-Man 2 still has my favorite action sequences.
Although Raimi’s supervillain in Spider-Man 2 still delivers comic-book one-liners like, “You have a train to catch,” and the occasional monologue (with his arms) to reveal his diabolical plan and other usually internal thoughts to the audience, he can be taken much more seriously than the Goblin for a couple reasons. First and foremost, the arms are very convincing, being mostly amutronics instead of CGI. In other words, he is actually intimidating.
Secondly, he is established as Peter’s mentor, an idol almost. Raimi takes time to develop him as a role-model before he transforms into Doc Ock so that when he makes his transformation back into himself in the final act, it’s believable and real. Given what Aunt May says about being a hero, it’s actually difficult to classify Doctor Octavius as a true villain. For all the mistakes and wrong-doings he commits, is he not redeemed by his final gesture of nobility? Didn’t Peter also kill innocent people by not being responsible with his powers?
It’s these sort of questions which arise from the Spider-Man 2 experience that elevate this sequel above the blockbuster standard. It goes to show that a big budget doesn’t have to translate into senselessness. Spider-Man 2 is the intellectual experience I was looking for in a Spider-Man film with all the action that I always imagined was possible.
As a sequel, however, it does feel a bit redundant. Although every character and their relationships with other characters take their next logical step, it repeated most of the same beats of the original film. Peter has to climb a wall again to see if his powers are still working. Uncle Ben reappears just to say his line again. Aunt May still grieves about Uncle Ben. Mary Jane is still being pursued by many male characters, including Peter. I’m adamant about this film needing to be the origin film. We don’t need to see the actual spider bite or the actual Uncle Ben death. Peter Parker discovers exactly the same identity in this film as in the last, and it sucks a bit of the freshness out of Spider-Man 2.
But still, what we got is a sequel that is superior to the original in practically every way possible. The romance is less cheesy, the friendship more strained, the villain less black and white, the hero more compelling, and a story ultimately worth telling again for the second time.