COMIC BOOK FLICKS #5: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Nevermind the original. Sam Raimi’s breathtaking sequel is Spidey’s best screen adventure to date. 

Who made it?: Sam Raimi (Director), Alvin Sargent (Writer), Avi Arad (Producer), Sony/Columbia Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Rosemary Harris.

Tagline: “This summer a man will face his destiny. A hero will be revealed.”

IMDb rating: 7.6/10.

Is it unreasonable to say that 2007’s Spider-Man 3 soiled the web-slinger’s cinematic legacy? Sam Raimi’s final spin with the character was a misjudged and self-indulgent mess of a film that thoroughly deserved the critical bile it received. It wasn’t necessarily the emo Peter Parker scenes, the lacklustre plot, or the poor treatment of Venom that rubbed people the wrong way. It was the sharp decline in overall filmmaking skill. In the pantheon of Marvel movies, Spider-Man 2 is near the top of the pile; a close to perfect sequel that only emphasises how dreadful the third film is (and, to a lesser extent, sterile reboot The Amazing Spider-Man). The action scenes are seamless and often spectacular, the effects work is still commendable and the character beats are given real emotional resonance by Raimi. It was everything that web-heads desired in 2004, and while cheesy, awkward moments abound, there’s the sense that no-one will be able to top it. This is the rare sequel that totally eclipses its predecessor.

There’s a lot to love in Spider-Man 2, beginning with a wonderful title sequence designed by comic book artist Alex Ross, which recounts the events of the first movie while Danny Elfman’s thundering theme sets the tone. There’s a sense of foreboding to it that is confirmed by Parker’s gloomy voice-over. If there’s one thing that has always bothered me about Raimi’s trilogy, it’s the ripe romantic bullshit and melodrama. His Parker, as portrayed by Tobey Maguire, spends far too much time whining for a bloke with super-powers. But it’s a formula that can be traced all the way back to the character’s historic debut in comic form. The screenplay was based on Issue #50 of The Amazing Spider-Man, dramatically dubbed “Spider-Man No More.” Forced to question the life he has chosen, Parker throws his iconic costume away (a panel of the book brought to life in the film), and strives for a normal existence. Naturally, a city-wide threat brings him out of retirement.

Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, The Amazing Spider-Man was a highly influential series that provided the basis for Raimi’s pictures. No longer would superheroes have to be invulnerable (Superman) or fleetingly patriotic (Captain America). Instead, Lee had a fallible figure in mind – a teenage vigilante who tackled everyday concerns as well as super villains. It’s a major cliché now, but Peter Parker is the typical Average Joe thrown into atypical situations. This pretty much defines Spider-Man 2, which could be re-titled Peter Parker’s Bad Day. It’s two hours of watching him suffer as he comes to grips with the reality of being a superhero and what that requires. Seeing Parker flounder in the “real world” is amusing but riddled with pathos. He can’t maintain a crappy pizza delivery job (in or out of costume) and has to return to a scum-ridden apartment where rent is always an issue. To make matters worse, he’s reminded of his beloved Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) everyday – a success on Broadway, her face is spread across billboards throughout the city.

Raimi seems to relish his torment, with Peter so consumed by his work and stagnant private life that he forgets his own birthday. This identity crisis is the real heart of the film, with Raimi depicting the character’s duality with subtlety. It’s worth noting that he spends a great deal of time unmasked while in costume; subconsciously he wants people to know his secret. Some of them may already know, including his doting Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). She gives him a rousing speech about the need for a hero that is so overblown that you assume she’s figured it out. Or was it merely a plot device to spark Peter back into action?

The arrival of a new foe only adds to his escalating problems. One of the elements from the comic that Raimi retained is the notion that many of Spider-Man’s enemies are linked to him personally. The sequel continues this six-degree rule with Peter writing a paper on Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who is transformed into the tentacled Dr. Octopus following a failed lab experiment. He is a truly formidable opponent and an undeniable fan favourite, brought to life via a phalanx of effects artists. On screen, Doc Ock is a much cooler visual than Willem Dafoe’s snarling Green Goblin, who bore more of a resemblance to a Power Ranger than his comic book counterpart. He’s also far more sinister than the Lizard seen in the 2012 movie.

The cast bring real gravitas to their roles. This is easily Maguire’s finest performance in the trilogy. His tenure as the character has been derided in some circles, but he brought a range to the part that shouldn’t be overlooked. Maguire is convincing whether depressed, lonely, hurt or heroic. In my opinion, he reflects much of what made Christopher Reeve’s turn as Superman so memorable, mastering the dual personas at the centre of the story and Peter’s overriding sense of responsibility.

Molina’s antagonist is appropriately broad and perfectly in-tune with the material. A fitting choice for the role, he imbues Octavius with a fully rounded personality and he remains the best villain in the films to date. There’s a hint of Jekyll and Hyde about the character – a victim controlled by his fused tentacles, which feed on his darker instincts. Like Peter he is battling opposing emotions, and screenwriter Alvin Sargent effectively contrasts their similarities. Rather than a fist-fight it is their shared love of science that ultimately saves the day.

Out of the main cast, Dunst has the least to play with. Mary Jane is the stock damsel in distress, and for much of Spider-Man 2’s running time, she fits snugly into that archetype. Despite clear chemistry with Maguire, her soap opera-style bitching makes her scenes a chore to sit through. The character feels like a unnecessary complication. It’s Peter’s conflict with Harry Osborn (James Franco) that deserved more screen-time. His slow transition from close friend to mortal enemy is an intriguing thread that the third film wasted entirely. Harry’s discoveries in the last act leave more of an impression on the viewer than Mary Jane’s insipid love life.

Stealing the film is J.K. Simmons as Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. This is a prime example of an actor making the most of very little. He doesn’t just chew the scenery, he decimates it. The character’s omission from the reboot seemed entirely justified considering how good Simmons is in this role. In a script peppered with great lines, he bags the best.

While Spider-Man 2‘s reliance on character is what separates it from most comic book films, it wouldn’t be much without spectacle. This is action filmmaking at its most expansive and grandiose. Raimi has developed light years beyond the crude trappings of his low-budget debut, The Evil Dead. In most respects, Spider-Man 2 is his most sure-footed film – his confidence really does power the picture, and his handling of myriad storylines has never been stronger. The director puts the titanic budget on-screen (estimated at $200 million), and with help from veteran cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix), his compositions are the definition of eye candy. The movie still looks and sounds incredible.

The numerous set-pieces blow the original and the reboot out of the water. The initial fight between Spider-Man and Doc Ock is one such sequence, with the opponents grappling up skyscrapers and launching attacks in mid-air. The camera follows them everywhere – around buildings, through alleyways – and Raimi orchestrates the whole affair with assured coherence, bringing a weight to images that are obviously artificial.

The climactic tussle aboard a New York train is easily the action highlight. Raimi planned the scenario in advance before a script had been written, and the preparation paid off in spades. It’s a relentless scene that continually ups the ante, managing to nail the tone and spirit of the source material effortlessly. Doc Ock grabbing innocent people from the train and tossing them like rag dolls is a wonderfully perverse moment in a sequence that highlights the absolute pinnacle of visual effects craftsmanship. Nearly a decade later, the CGI wizardry is still jaw-droppingly good.

The success of Spider-Man 2 is all the more impressive when you consider that it was written, produced and released only two years after the original. In an industry known for making lazy, cookie-cutter sequels, it is the exception to the rule. As far as blockbuster entertainments go you could do a lot worse. The years have been kind to it and it remains to be seen if Sony’s forthcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is even close to its greatness. Don’t be surprised if this remains the best cinematic venture into the wall-crawler’s world.

Superhero Supremacy

One of my favourite action scenes of all time.

I’ve also gotta include Doc Ock’s amazing hospital freak-out. Tipping his hat to The Evil Dead, Raimi delivers a scene that would be more at home in a horror movie than a family blockbuster. It’s a lot creepier than anything in Drag Me to Hell, that’s for sure.

Trivial Issues

(Via IMDb)
  • Early drafts of the screenplay featured the Black Cat, the Lizard and Harry as the new Green Goblin.
  • Tobey Maguire suffered a back injury during pre-production, leading to doubt over his ability to return to the role. Jake Gyllenhaal was rumoured to be Sony’s back-up choice.
  • Dr. Octopus first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #3 (July, 1963).
  • $54 million was spent on the visual effects alone.
  • 35 Spidey suits were used during the production.
  • Raimi signed on to direct a month before the first film opened.
  • Filming began before a script was completed.
  • Composer Danny Elfman had a falling-out with Raimi and is quoted as saying: “To see such a profound negative change in a human being was almost enough to make me feel like I didn’t want to make films anymore.” He declined to score Spider-Man 3 and was replaced by Christopher Young.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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