Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time and naturally, this means that his story has been adapted several times over the years. Whether its film, animation, or gaming, we have seen the webslinger across almost every platform. The first film adaptation came courtesy of Sam Raimi (Darkman, The Evil Dead) and it is the film that arguably helped cement the superhero genre’s prominence in Hollywood. In addition to that, Raimi cemented himself as one of the premier architects of the genre with Spider-Man 2, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in June of this year.
Raimi’s first Spider-Man film was both a critical and commercial success, and work on a sequel began immediately. In April 2002, Sony hired Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville, Into The Badlands) to pen the script, later hiring David Koepp, who had worked on the first movie, to help with additional material. Novelist Michael Chabon was hired in September to rewrite the script, and Raimi ended up picking several storylines from the resulting drafts and merging them into one cohesive script for the sequel.
Set two years after the events of the first film, Spider-Man 2 finds Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) at a crossroads: his duties as Spider-Man are interfering with his work and college, and he still harbors feelings for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Further complications arrive, including Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) becoming increasingly consumed with a hatred of the web-slinger, his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) facing eviction, and his powers fluctuating as a lab accident transforms brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) into the supervillain Doctor Octopus.
Spider-Man 2, like any good sequel, expands on what people loved about the first film while coming up with new ways to challenge the titular hero. In the first film, Raimi embraced the larger than life aspects of the Spider-Man mythos, including the costume, the origin, and the antagonist, while managing to update it. Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically engineered spider in the first movie, instead of a radioactive one, and the second one features an update to Octavius’ origin. For the iconic Doc Ock, his accident occurs when he is trying to create a stable fusion reaction.
Raimi also understood that a little heart goes a long way, and many performers, especially Maguire and Dunst, wear their hearts on their sleeves. The reason people love superheroes is that behind the masks and powers, they are just as human as the rest of us. Very few directors manage to get that, but Raimi is one of the few exceptions. Early in the movie, after an impromptu birthday party Peter discovers Aunt May’s stack of bills. When he tries to talk to her about it, she brushes it off and gives him twenty dollars, saying “you need it more than I do.” It’s a heartfelt gesture that not only shows where Peter inherits his sense of selflessness from, but also reinforces how important May is in his life.
In addition, the action sequences are one of the biggest draws of the film, the train sequence being a standout in particular. Most modern superhero films usually crank up the confrontation between hero and villain to apocalyptic levels, so it’s refreshing to see a smaller scaled sequence with Spidey battling Ock on a train. Plus, Raimi manages to make it compelling, as well as kinetic. Spider-Man gets slammed into an oncoming train, his mask is burnt, and he is pushed to his limits trying to stop the train after Ock rips out the accelerator.
I remember seeing it for the first time and being on the edge of my seat as Spidey hung on for dear life to his weblines, and my heart swelled when the passengers brought him back into the train and gave him back his mask. Spider-Man is the everyman among heroes, and this sequence is a key example of that.
Another thing that helps Spider-Man 2 stand out from the pack is its take on Doctor Octopus. Octopus is an arrogant megalomaniac in the comics, but Raimi and the screenwriters reworked him into a more sympathetic figure for the film. Otto in the film is a loving husband as well as a brilliant scientist, and thus the audience is hit with a blow to the gut when his wife Rosie perishes in the accident that bonds his mechanical arms to his spine. Coupled with Molina’s stellar performance, this results in a layered, tragic antagonist.
This treatment is also extended to Franco’s performance as Harry. The younger Osborn is struggling to live up to his father’s legacy, and when the Octavius incident goes south his company stands to lose a fortune. This, combined with his growing obsession with killing Spider-Man, leads to a Faustian pact with Octavius. And yet again this blows up in Harry’s face when he learns that the man who he thinks killed his father also happens to be his best friend. Franco goes through a wealth of emotions in this movie, from sadness to rage to confusion, and he sells each and every one of them.
But the driving force of this film is love. Peter Parker became Spider-Man to honor the love he had for his Uncle Ben, and in the sequel, his unrequited love for Mary Jane is tearing him apart, emotionally as well as physically due to his failing powers. This comes to a head in a dream sequence where Peter tells his Uncle that he is Spider-Man, no more, and dumps his costume in the trash in a brilliant nod to Amazing Spider-Man #50.
MJ is also struggling with her emotions. Deep down, she still loves Peter, but she wants him to admit it. Spider-Man 2 revolves around them finally confronting their feelings, and it’s all underpinned by Maguire and Dunst’s chemistry. Romance in superhero movies is tricky, and more often than not feels tacked on. Raimi avoided that trap by making Peter and MJ’s relationship the core of his trilogy.
Even though the superhero genre has grown and evolved over the years, Spider-Man 2 is still a masterpiece 15 years later. Sam Raimi managed to put his stamp on one of the greatest superheroes of all time, and fans owe a lot to his films.
Collier “CJ” Jennings is a freelance reporter and film critic living in Seattle. He uses his love of comics and film/TV to craft reviews and essays on genre projects. He is also a host on Into the Spider-Cast.