The pinnacle of the super-hero genre. While certainly not overlooked on release, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 now looks better than ever when compared to the comic book movies of today. Every year we are now seeing several high profile super-hero films released. Some are great, but most fail to compare to 2004’s spidey flick. It simply feels like a completely different film, a personal tale of one young man’s struggle to balance what he should do and what he wants to do. It is the story of pure heroism with relatively small stakes, a tragic villain, and a touching romance.
Tobey Maguire returns as Peter Parker, a burned-out student struggling to cope with the demands of university, multiple part time jobs, paying rent, heartache, and the fact that he’s a masked vigilante who feels responsible for the safety of New York. The role of Spider-Man is getting in the way of Peter’s life, breaking down his relationships with the people he cares most about and generally making life pretty miserable for him. The main source of Peter’s problems is his love for MJ (Kirsten Dunst). The romantic subplot feels far more polished than its predecessor and maintains the awkwardness without even appearing unrealistic.
The film is a great extension on the first’s themes of responsibility and power and serves as a further in depth look at its complex lead character. Despite this, Spider-Man 2 manages to be its own stand-alone film; subplots set up in the first (Peter’s guilt for his uncle’s death, the tension between him and his best friend Harry) are hinted at and later revealed in such a way that it would still be a rewarding experience for any who hadn’t seen the first film.
As Peter is going through his identity crisis a new villain rises in the form of Doc Ock (Alfred Molina). A monstrous sequence that could be straight out of a horror film marks the moment he turns to evil. Doc Ock, like Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin before him, is a sinister reflection of Spider-Man. He is a passionate scientist who has been given a great power and has been deeply affected by the death of a loved one. When the two do battle it feels very personal and it is more a battle of ideals, of selflessness versus selfishness, than just good versus evil. It helps that the action sequences really pack a punch. The iconic train sequence still manages to be both breathtakingly thrilling and ends in a surprisingly touching manner.
It is always worth noting that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released in 2002 to a world still reeling from 9/11. Spider-Man 2 continues to touch on the powerful New York spirit that its predecessor highlighted. Not only are the stunning skyline shots that show off the city’s modern beauty still present, but also scenes of the diverse citizens acting in unison to protect their city. The film’s themes of heroism are not about how being a hero could be dangerous, and its not the fact that Spider-Man is risking his life that it is important. The message is that sometimes to do the right thing you have to do something you don’t want to do, that Peter must give up his dreams and relationships and pursue a life he doesn’t want because it is the right thing to do. The film does such an excellent job with the character that he becomes someone you can truly empathise with, which makes his journey during the film incredibly rewarding.
Sam Raimi’s direction throughout is brilliant, the film has a great tongue in cheek feel to its exaggerated world but still manages to be serious when it needs to be. There are several cameos and comic moments that genuinely add to the story and never take away from the dramatic moments. J.K. Simmons is, yet again, consistently hilarious. As mentioned earlier, there is even a scene of pure horror which doesn’t feel out of place in any way. Despite the influence of other genres, this is still very much a comic book movie which uses its fantasy elements to tell a real-world story.
As well as its light-hearted moments, Spider-Man 2 contains some powerful dramatic scenes, most of which revolve around Rosemary Harris’ sublime performance as Peter’s heartbroken aunt. One moment always stuck with me; when Aunt May refuses to let Peter leave without giving him $20 for his birthday, despite her own struggles with money.
When the action kicks in and Danny Elfman’s stirring score swells the film begins to look like any normal super-hero movie, but it is so much more than that. We root for this hero because we root for the person behind the mask. Spider-Man might be a work of fantasy, but Peter Parker feels real.