Let’s go back, boys and girls, to a time before 2008 when The Dark Knight nuked the whole cinematic world into a frenzy and remember the last time a comic book movie was close (but not that close) to being as widely acclaimed as the Nolan Batman films. Just four years prior, right on the first rise of the superhero waves, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 came out and had honest-to-God film critics proclaiming it as the second coming of popcorn movie Jesus, most notably when Roger Ebert (who had given the first Spider-Man an unenthusiastic “ok”*) titled it to be the Best Superhero Movie since Superman.
When I saw Spider-Man 2 a little later than the rest of the civilized world in July 2004, I was in Algeria and isolated from all of that noisy celebration. And my response to it was… I didn’t like it. This has changed significantly over the years to which I hold it close if slightly below its predecessor in my esteem, but when I remember the reasons I wasn’t fond of it, I’m not sure I’m entirely ready to dismiss 12-year-old me’s thoughts. The biggest one, as he’d ineloquently put it, is that it “doesn’t have much action”.
As I am now, I’d deviate a bit and say that Spider-Man 2 just doesn’t have that much energy. It still feels like Raimi is happy to return to the web-slinging superhero and help him grow like he’s Richard Linklater and the films are his personal Before trilogy. Spider-Man 2’s script (now by Alvin Sargent) is a lot more grounded in the human drama, expanding beyond the points in which its characters had been left off – namely Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) totally alone of his own volition and his regret for taking up this responsibility so overwhelming that he’s apparently losing his web-slinging and wall-crawling powers alongside his will, struggling actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) tired of waiting for Peter’s call and making decisions on her own terms, and boiling “friend” Harry Osborn (James Franco) who obsesses over revenge against Spider-Man for killing his father Norman (Willem Dafoe) just as their strained relationship was beginning to heal, unaware that Norman was Spider-Man’s foe, the Green Goblin. And while that grounding means the excitement is gone, the drama has more stakes and this allows the cast in on giving fuller performances than they already gave in the original.
This lack of pizzaz is also reflected in the new cinematographer Bill Pope and his attempt to reel back from the original’s comic book color into providing New York City as a working town backdrop to Peter and Mary Jane trying to figure out where they stand in their relationship.
Spidey’s new foe this time around is also anguishing over the death of a loved one, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), seeing red for his wife’s sudden death during an accident gone wrong that left him under influence of his four metal A.I. tentacles** that earn him the nomiker Doctor Octopus. Octavius begins rampaging his way through Manhattan in movie monster sequences (including his awakening after the accident) of big sound and effortlessly breakable sets. Molina doesn’t have half the dizzying frenzy Dafoe had in his round (and that seems a casualty of giving him that tragic background, which prevents Molina from playing Ock as a total mad scientist monster like he clearly wants to), but he compliments the movie’s balance between soap opera drama and gigantic creature feature nicely, working so well with his co-star tentacle effects (puppets provided by Edge FX) to feel physically one with them.
He’s also the best thing about the movie’s sudden adoption to anamorphic aspect ratio, filling out the screen real nicely with the width and length of his evil robotic claws. Raimi and Pope aren’t 100% sure what to do with that screen space when Doc Ock isn’t eating it up, but every once in a while we get some really inspired moments like the unstoppable train being rescued by Spidey’s might with his exhaustion visually portrayed by his stance (though the idea of all these people knowing Spider-Man’s face REALLY put me off as a kid and I still think the Christ imagery is pushing it more than any scene of New Yorkers throwing trash at the Goblin). Or of course the comic book image of Parker walking away from an alley with his Spider-Man costume in the foreground and in the trash.
The concept of Raimi and Pope’s visuals being able to compliment both the action and themes of the film is an aesthetic bilingualism that polishes Spider-Man 2 as possibly the most mature work in Raimi’s whole output, which again turns back to all of the dialed down Raimi-esque silliness (it’s there in teaspoons: Hal Sparks and Joel McHale both have comic cameos – Sparks’ is more farcical in the slightly extended and slightly inferior Spider-Man 2.5 cut, as well as the addition of J.K. Simmons hopping around his office in Spidey’s discarded outfit, and my single favorite bit of acting in Maguire’s turn as the character giving a passenger on the doomed train who’s criticizing his efforts a great big “are you fucking kidding me?” look). But the tonal groundings give more breathing space for Dunst, Franco, and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May to get to tease out their characters’ internal conflicts and have their little subplots as visible as the superheroics. Maguire himself meets up with most of the emotional arcs and stakes of the film, but seems to put up more of an effort than he should have to in this film, which only makes me turn once again to preferring Spider-Man.
At the end of it all, though, Raimi’s still having a ball of a time. The horror movie awakening of Doctor Octopus, the grandiose battle between Ock and Spidey on the Clock Tower followed by the train battle and rescue, these are all inarguably more interesting setpieces than any of the fights in the first movie, full of velocity and impact and opening many opportunities for the CGI Spidey to strike comic book poses like the final shot of the original film. The melodrama feels genuine and sincere, somehow having a few layers too many but propped up by a cast willing to justify all of them. And the saga of Spider-Man himself growing from outsider to big time hero continues to evolve thanks to Raimi’s sense of pace and utter love for the material he gets to hash out.