The first Spider-Man, released to record-breaking success and critical acclaim in 2002, is a wonderful film: hugely enjoyable, great fun and with a feeling of pure joy that emanates while watching it because it’s a Spider-Man film that actually exists, filmed on a large budget, and bringing a beloved character to the screen in a way that for a long time felt like impossible.
Its sequel was released in 2004 and amazingly managed to be even better than the first film. At the time of its release it was considered by many to be one of the best comic book-inspired films ever made, with some even considering to be the actual best, a reputation that has not dissipated in the fifteen years since its premiere.
While the genre has expanded in ways that many might have thought impossible in 2004, with Marvel going into producing their own movies, buying the rights back to many of their properties that were languishing in development hell at other studios and turning them into billion-dollar grossing blockbusters that have dominated multiplexes since 2008 with the premiere of Iron Man, it’s hard not to still be swept along by Raimi’s second Spider-Man film.
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While the first film was well directed, there was still an element of surprise that Raimi had been the one calling the shots. The sequel, if anything, feels more like a Raimi-helmed project. Where the first film reigned in some of the crazier camera work and heightened feelings that audiences had gotten from the Evil Dead trilogy and Darkman, here Raimi brings a mixture of more intricate staging to certain scenes, and a sense of tragedy to its central villain, Doctor Octopus, played to perfection here by Alfred Molina.
Willem Dafoe is a very fine actor, but his performance and interpretation of Norman Osborne was very over the top. Molina as Octavius is nuanced, but with a charisma that is very entertaining and with an air of tragedy that is undeniably powerful. Every scene he is in is memorable, and we get the sense of a well-intentioned character before he is consumed by his antagonism, manifesting itself in a scene that is as close to Evil Dead levels of horror and crazy camera work as one can get in a family-friendly blockbuster, but which still feels intense for a PG-rated film.
What’s best about this is that the character never once overshadows Maguire as Peter Parker. A back injury had the potential to cause Maguire to be recast, with Jake Gyllenhaal in strong consideration (ironically), but thankfully Maguire was able to keep going and with it came one of the most down to earth and relatable performances from an actor as a mainstream superhero.
Taking as an inspiration for its story issue 50 of The Amazing Spider-Man comic book, ‘Spider-Man No More’, the film focuses on Peter trying to figure out how to combine his responsibilities as Spider-Man with trying to navigate his education and personal life, eventually deciding to leave his Spider-Man duties behind. It’s unafraid to revel in wonderfully portrayed emotional angst combined with some brilliantly staged action utilising some of the best CGI of the time.
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None of the action would work if the character work here wasn’t as powerful as it is, but the script – brought together by Alvin Sargent using story elements that had been developed in other drafts by Smallville’s Al Gough and Miles Millar, the first film’s David Koepp, and novelist Michael Chabon – is so good. The late Alvin Sargent had written the Academy Award-winning Ordinary People, while Gough and Millar had won acclaim for their Superman origin series on television, with its focus on Clark Kent’s teen years and its ability to mix character and action.
Combining a similar mix here, coupled with Sargent’s ability to craft great character drama, meant that when the action stops to focus on Peter and his inability to make his personal life work with his superhero one, along with Octavius’ descent into madness, it’s almost as interesting and enthralling as when it’s focusing on action – although its famous set piece centred on a battle between hero and villain on a subway train is an absolute classic for the ages.
With its complex villain and genuinely sympathetic depiction of Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 was deservedly another massive success at the box office and gained even better reviews than the first film. Fifteen years after its release, it’s still regarded very highly as not only a Spider-Man film, but as a high water mark of the genre. Yes, it does take liberties with the source material in a way that the genre is sometimes seemingly afraid to do so nowadays, but it makes the story work superbly and the film still ranks highly with critics and audiences.
Its success at the time meant that a third film was put into development almost immediately and would be released into cinemas for the summer of 2007. It would also prove that the third time is not always a charm.