Now comes the difficult part: you’ve done the story that everyone sort of knows, and made people believe in a version of reality where this sort of thing makes sense. Now you have to continue the story with an increased level of expectation.
Spider-Man 2 manages to achieve this, and takes note of the (few) faults of the first film. It makes the villain more interesting, after a thinly sketched Green Goblin, Mary Jane actually takes people on instead of just screaming (but still screams and gets put in as moist a perilous situation as decency allows), and its set-pieces are more confidently handled.
They aren’t necessarily bigger than those in the first film, but the main action sequence in Spider-Man 2 manages not only to up the peril stakes from “Mild”, to “Aaaaaaaaaaaaah”, but is also used as a storytelling device, rather than just being there to look cool.
They do, by the by, look cool anyway.
The middle act of a film traditionally involves things going wrong, obstacles to be overcome, friends become enemies, enemies become worse enemies, and so on.
Spider-Man 2 starts on the assumption that, having won at the end of the last film, everything would be just peachy for our hero. However, the sequel goes out of its way to show just how utterly rubbish everything is instead. He’s broke, he’s lost his job, his alter-ego is publicly vilified, and the love of his life has a new boyfriend and has started spouting dialogue one veneer above parody. You half expect Mary-Jane Watson to gaze admiringly at Peter Parker and gibber, “He’s so complex”. When she’s angry at Peter she talks normally. When she’s in love with him, she talks moon-eyed nonsense. If you value your utterances, never fall in love. And avoid standing in doorways.
Harry Osborn’s busy building his character arc for the next film, so we see him becoming more like his father as people reject him for becoming more like his father. Aunt May is still a bit annoying, meanwhile, but occasionally understandably so. How dare she make me feel bad for her loss when I don’t really like her character? I’m so full of doubt.
Peter is, at least, still several everymen. Poverty, family, romance, education and struggle are things that have broad appeal (as, of course, are Bruce Campbell cameos). Doing the right thing and getting nothing in return – we’ve all felt like that at some point. It’s like the opposite of being a Premiership footballer.
Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), meanwhile, is another surrogate father figure for Peter, and is therefore really doomed, even by doomed standards. Showing him having a happy domestic life before the carnage ensues is a simple way of ensuring sympathy, maybe even empathy (you never know who’s watching) from the audience. Norman Osborn was initially shown as a brilliant man, but not a good father. He was hard to like. Octavius’ wife is killed, horribly, by his own hubris, and we know what he’s lost: a slightly smug but basically happy marriage.
Getting the audience to understand the villain is just basic storytelling. Getting them to like him is rarely deployed, lest it lose its potency. The Sandman in Spider-Man 3 was an attempt to do a similar thing, albeit less successfully. That it achieves this with relatively bloodless but still horrific death scenes is all the more impressive in a PG-rated movie. Octavius’ murder of the medical team is brutal. Raimi realises that the innately unrealistic world allows him to be unrealistic in his portrayal of violence and science, so he renders scenes straight from a horror film, except without blood.
Then he shows Doc Ock being horrified by what he’s done. In the space of seconds, we’ve gone from chilling and violent murder to a man devastated by his actions. He then goes mad, his tentacles goading him into insanity, his gleeful offing of villainous one-liners suggesting that, subconsciously, he’s been wanting to do some bad violence for ages. Once he becomes a villain, he becomes merely another one-dimensional quipping machine, albeit a very good one-dimensional quipping machine. Otto Octavius, the man, doing horrible things is more interesting than Doc Ock, the weird cyber-crab thing, doing horrible things. As well as father figures, both the villains picked for the films are warnings to Peter Parker about what he could become; scientists who abuse their power.
Tom And Jerry laws of physics apply (how many times does Peter fall from a great height and smash his head on a solid object without any noticeable injuries?), with Raimi again blending a matinee feel into the background. That the film manages this in the middle of CG enhanced smack-downs, it’s a miracle that these tonal shifts don’t jar. These films manage to be screwball comedy, violent horror, action and romantic drama movies all at once.
Then, in the middle act of the film, where things traditionally get worse, things get worse. Considering they were already terrible, this is pretty low. At few points during Spider-Man 2 does it look fun to be a superhero, culminating in Peter Parker abandoning his role as Spider-Man at the end of the second act. All this does is make him feel guilty and miserable in a different way. Peter is excellent at effortlessly making things much, much worse. He’s like Ford Prefect in that respect, but without the one-liners. Yet again, Spider-Man is not quipping. If Amazing Spider-Man isn’t laden with these, I will huff on the Internet to no great effect.
Despite this, and despite Aunt May laying things out in the broadest possible terms, Spider-Man 2 is a tentatively optimistic movie. This version of New York, post 9/11, is almost a love letter to the city, as exemplified by the train fight sequence. A spider and an octopus having a fight, created with the budget of a small country: just let the potential of that one sink in for a second. Multiple limbs, action veering into every dimension, kinetic camera-work, and a huge city-scape. It’s a classic train-falling-off-a-bridge scenario, relocated from a western, a wooden viaduct, and plonked right into the city, and bingo: Jesus parallels ahoy. Then, everyone is really nice to him, and it’s either terrible of brilliant depending on your mood.
Of course, because Sam Raimi is an evil man, he then immediately puts Peter Parker in another horrible situation, before getting to the final showdown. Raimi leads you into thinking that everything is going to be, at best, bittersweet and melancholy, but the film has especially contrasting emotional dynamics, veering from victory celebrations to the knowledge that the future is going to suck for Peter Parker in the space of a minute, and then to him getting the girl anyway, whereupon the dizzying camera movements give us a moment’s triumph before ending on an ominous music cue and Kirsten Dunst looking worried, and it turns out things are bittersweet and melancholy after all.
The second film is considered the darker, most popular instalment of the franchise, and it is certainly a more morose take on Spider-Man, providing as it does a few brief moments of hope amid the generally gloomy tone and pessimistic ending. It is technically, I think, a better film that the first, but less enjoyable. It manages to both be realistic and cartoonish, to have depth and superficiality, but unless you’re in the mood for bleak but rewarding, it’s a hard film to love.
You can read our look back at Spider-Man here.