I might be biased because it came out a few days after my 16th birthday, but Spider-Man 2 is perhaps my favorite popcorn movie of the 21st-century (give or take another comic book movie from four years later). I’ll go even further: this is one of the most blissfully entertaining movies I’ve seen, period.
For starters, the movie has the visual appeal of a comic come to life. Sam Raimi’s prodigious flair is all over the movie: The big set pieces, yes, but also the quieter moments and functional narrative scenes. It’s so refreshing to watch a big-budget, four-quadrant, comic book tentpole that is so obviously hand-crafted and full of passion.
And yet, to say that a movie like this is “hand-crafted” suggests an idiosyncratic product, as if something must be bespoke to have a clear voice and vision. Not so — Spider-Man 2 is nothing if not huge and crowd-pleasing, filled with humor, romance, scares, and one set piece after another. No iota of scope is lost in the name of personality.
Let’s use a specific scene as a microcosm. There’s no shortage of great scenes, but we can use my favorite: the fight on top of a train. This might be my favorite action scene in comic book movie history. It’s heart-racing, well-blocked and easy to follow, and never too repetitive or predictable. It’s simply a master class of action choreographym with amazing use of space and superpower spectacle. A high water-mark for the film and mid-00’s blockbusters.
The action is great, but what really separates Spider-Man 2 from the pack is its storytelling. The movie gives Peter Parker a rich character arc that informs every plot point and set piece, raising the stakes. Every piece of the film works in unison to tell this specific story: the acting, look, effects, editing, and Danny Elfman’s score. Certainly the script, too, which is still seasoned with quips, monologues, and just a little cheese.
With the origin story behind us, this movie dives right into Parker’s daily routine as Spider-Man a few months in the future, on the verge of the worst kind of burnout. He’s staring down a deep existential exhaustion and depression. His identity as Spider-Man is costing him everything that matters to him personally: a potential relationship with MJ, peace with Aunt May, his friendship with Harry, even his own professional future.
There’s a soul at stake as Parker wrestles the his competing desires and values: to serve himself or serve the greater good? That’s what really makes the aforementioned train scene so memorable: Not just the terrific stunts, but the moment afterward when a crowd of people save and thank him. We know the cost of the self-sacrifice of being Spider-Man, and now we see the salvation that it creates. (It is no surprise that scene is full of Christ and Heaven imagery.)
The returning cast is as great as last time, possibly better: Maguire isn’t quite as gawky as in the first, and he’s better at conveying huge emotions in simple expressions and gestures. Meanwhile, James Franco gets to lean into his angst and Kirsten Dunst matches Maguire’s capacity for capturing broad emotional strokes.
Alfred Molina is no Willem Dafoe, and that is, indeed, the main advantage the original has over the sequel: Doctor Octopus is simply not as iconic or cinematic as Dafoe’s Green Goblin. He also doesn’t feel quite as bound to Spider-Man: While the movie leans on some of the parallels — both face a separation from the loves of their lives due to their own choices, and both ponder the waste of their potential — it’s not quite as strong a hero-villain reflection as in Spider-Man 1. Thankfully, Molina does his best to capture in equal parts the danger and the fierce intelligence of Octavius.
Spider-Man 2 is a nostalgic film for me in 2022 for so many reasons. It’s overflowing with earnestness and idealism, two concepts in short supply these days. But, rather than dated, those exact traits make this film feel fresher than ever. We are so oversaturated with superheroes in the 2020s that comic book movies aren’t just lacking novelty, they are bordering on trite; the majority are excessively glossy or grim. “Comic book movie” has become shorthand for soulless moneymaking blockbuster.
But Sam Raimi proved it doesn’t have to be that way. Great filmmaking endures, and in the realm of mainstream blockbusters, it doesn’t get much greater than this.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100