Contains spoilers for Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
These days, it’s hard to talk about Spider-Man movies without conversation soon turning to the disappointment of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and speculation surrounding Sony’s new collaboration with Marvel Studios, and whether it might finally enable the superb cinematic representation that the webslinger deserves.
However, this writer would argue that we’ve already had a near-perfect Spidey film – Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Thanks to the over-stuffed-ness of Spider-Man 3, the Raimi trilogy often gets overlooked these days, which is more than a little unfair on the director’s earlier efforts. But what is so special about Spider-Man 2? Here’s why it works for me…
Second-in-the-series superhero sequels are sometimes a stumbling block. While Iron Man 2 and Thor 2 have their supporters, you’d struggle to conduct a hundred-person survey that put them among Marvel Studios’ best efforts. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is in a similar position – some people love it, but it would never come up on top in a Family Fortunes round entitled ‘best superhero films.’
Arguably, all those films have problems with their story. Having bashed through all the origin details in the first instalment, it can be difficult to decide what to do in part two. The formula for all three films mentioned in the paragraph above seems to be ‘introduce a handful of new villains alongside some familiar faces, and see what sticks’.
Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 doesn’t employ this chucking-spaghetti-at-the-wall scripting tactic, though – it knows exactly what it wants to say. Therein lies the central strength to the film – its confidence. You can imagine an early Sony memo reading ‘In Spider-Man 2 we’re going to probe Peter’s commitment to superheroics, push his personal life to the limits, introduce Doc Ock, and continue to develop Harry as the future Green Goblin heir.’ Actually, you probably wouldn’t get a memo like that out of a studio, but it sums up Spider-Man 2 nicely.
Granted, it’s a busy sentence, but it’s easy to make sense of. Much more so than the plot of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which goes something like ‘introduce Max and Harry as normal-ish people, turn Harry and Max into villains, also include Rhino bookends as well. Oh, and do some cute will-they-won’t-they with Peter and Gwen. Then kill Gwen. OH! Don’t forget to tease the Sinister Six!’
Compared to Webb’s Spidey sequel, Raimi’s second effort is streamlined and simple, and that’s why it works. The whole film hinges around Peter’s inability to balance being Spider-Man with his normal life. The opening scene isn’t a battle with a potential villain, it’s about Peter trying to balance his life. Even with web-swinging powers he can’t get to work early enough to deliver a stack of pizzas on time. He tries his hardest, but when he sees people’s lives endangered, he simply has to help them. This sets up the entire thematic arc of the movie, the ‘Spider-Man no more’ stuff that will pull on our heartstrings later.
Otto Octavius is weaved in when the script is good and ready, and without the heavy-handedness that can sometimes come with shoehorning in a second-film adversary. He’s a scientist that Peter is writing a paper about (as mentioned when Peter turns up late to college, and gets a telling off from Lizard-to-sadly-never-be Dylan Baker), and so Harry (who does own a giant science-y company, after all) sets up a meeting. It feels organic to Peter’s story, given that Peter having a rich friend who works at a huge corporation was established in the first film.
Nothing in the story feels like too far of a step from the central theme of ‘Peter versus Spidey’. This dilemma plays havoc with Peter’s non-existent love life and Peter constantly has to run away from his endangered friends and family to change into Spider-Man and run back to save them. As the film ramps up to its conclusion, a desperate-to-kill-Spidey Harry send a desperate-for-Iridium Ock to use Peter as a means to get close to him. Chaos breaks loose and MJ is put in danger again, further reinforcing Peter’s worries that he really shouldn’t have a girlfriend if he’s going to keep being a superhero.
This being Hollywood, there’s eventually a happy ending for everyone except Harry (even Ock has his redemption, after all), leaving the way neatly paved for a sequel. It’s worth noting that Peter only gets a happy romantic ending because MJ takes matters into her own hands, leaving Peter’s angst unresolved for future exploration. Sadly, Spider-Man 3 didn’t utilise this leftover storytelling potential as well as it could, but Spider-Man 2’s intricate webbing of plot around Peter’s crumbling personal life works marvellously as a two hour action adventure with a lot of heart at its centre. Actually, that’s my next point…
A brief point here, but an important one – Spider-Man 2 has heart. Lots of it. In watching it again to prepare for this article, I was moved emotionally on a few occasions. Although watching Peter’s life crumble in the first act is all heart-wrenching stuff, it was really what came next that got my tear glands going.
When Peter has a dream/vision thingie in which he imagines turning his back on Uncle Ben’s ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ spiel (which was mangled through a thesaurus come The Amazing Spider-Man), it’s genuinely heart-breaking to watch. Tobey Maguire and Cliff Robertson play this exchange incredibly well, in a terrific call-back to the first film. It’s sort of a flashback, in a sense, but this time Peter takes control of his life and decides to follow his own path, not that of his heroic responsibility.
After that, it’s also hugely resonant to see Peter happy. Anyone with a wide-enough knowledge of the infamous ‘Parker luck’ from the comics knew that this everything’s-alright-now stage simply couldn’t work out well in the end. Watching Peter adorably fall over during Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head is a sweet but ultimately tragic moment. It’s a foreshadowing scene for fans of the Parker character, even though it was probably intended just as a funny sequence.
The worst part, for me, is when Peter walks past a mugging. He stops for a moment, and clearly weighs up his options, before walking off again. The second time this happens, when a child is trapped in a burning building – another effortless call-back to the first film – Peter can’t say no. He runs in and tries his best, even though his acrobatic abilities seem to have completely abandoned him at this stage. He succeeds, only to find that someone was trapped on the fourth floor without his knowing. If he’d been on full superhero form, maybe he could have saved them, too.
It’s ultimately Aunt May who puts Peter back on track, with her ‘I think there’s a hero in all of us’ speech. I’ve always loved this scene, because it plays with the idea that May clearly knows Peter’s secret identity. This time around, though, the heartfelt ramifications of the scene were a little more obvious to this writer. Only a few scenes prior, Peter admitted to May that Uncle Ben’s death was his fault. Here, May essentially gives him the ‘power and responsibility’ speech again, pepping him up and telling him to do the right thing regardless of his previous mistakes.
All these scenes serve one core purpose – to examine the character of Peter. If the first film was all about a boy turning into a superhero, this film is all about a superhero trying to become a man (to find a job, to find love, to do right by his loved ones). It’s an excellent arc for a superhero sequel, and it’s handled well despite its emotional heft. This is thanks to some expert tone-juggling…
Spidey is meant to be funny. Peter’s personal life is almost always tragic. There’s a crazed killer on the loose with metal octopus tentacles. Peter’s best friend wants to kill him. How on earth do you juggle all that and make a film that doesn’t feel more like an emotional rollercoaster than an actual story? The answer’s all in the tone, which, in the first act, veers from happy-go-lucky to down-and-out depending on what’s going on.
One minute, Spidey is saving children and cracking wise. The next, Peter is getting sacked. Peter looks dejected at the bank, and then instantaneously rolls into a fun-filled fight scene in Spidey mode. In this entire first act, the tone is flitting between Peter’s perspective and that of Spidey’s antics. When he’s Spidey, he’s fun. When he’s Peter, he’s miserable.
The tone jumps between polar-opposites, then, but it works. It works because this contrast of tone soon catches up with both Peter and Spidey. When Peter gets rejected by MJ, and web-slings off into the night, it’s one sad moment too many. His organic webs stop coming at a vital point, and he falls hard onto a rooftop. From here, tonally, the film gets darker as it goes on.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had a similar set of worries to deal with, but came out feeling a bit messy. So what did Spider-Man 2 do better? I’d say it’s a combination of things – Maguire’s performance here is his best as Peter, and the science-ruined-my-life parallels in Harry and Ock (played marvellously by Alfred Molina) accentuate this nicely.
The whole world of the film pushes Peter to the point of questioning his responsibilities, too – when Peter tries to re-embrace Spidey, he can’t. He goes flying down an alleyway and puts his back out (a reversal of the first film where Spider powers lifted him up and made him stronger). When he starts trying to climb walls again, Danny Elfman’s score is reluctant to become as euphorically excited as it is during the first film’s wall-crawling scene. Even the score is hesitant to let Peter become Spider-Man again.
Spider-Man 2 feels like a film where everyone was on the same page. Even though there’s some broad comedy moments thrown in to keep wider audiences happy, there’s a dark film underneath the superhero sheen that explores why Peter shouldn’t be Spidey, and if it’s possible for the two to co-exist at all.
The ever-darkening tone and the world-closing-in plot handle this well, and every performance plays into this central conflict: May walking out on Peter, Ock’s downfall, Harry’s quest for vengeance, MJ moving on, J Jonah Jameson’s yelling; Betty Brant telling Peter he won’t get paid; and even Bruce Campbell as the usher guarding the better life that Peter simply can’t access if he’s going to continue being Spider-Man. The world is out to get Peter in this film, and it makes for one of the most introspective and self-analytical superhero films ever made.
Of course, it would be remiss, before we finish, not to mention the stellar visuals of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Even the opening credits are visually interesting, recapping the events of the first film in an illustrated form surely inspired by the style of early Spidey comics. And it only gets better from there.
The failed pizza delivery sequence chucks us straight back into the most visually-arresting feature of the first film – the exhilarating web-swinging sequences. This confident SFX work seeps into the new ideas, too, particularly the Octavius-into-Ock scene where the Doctor uses his robotic limbs to try and contain an explosion, causing the death of his wife in the process. After this, we’re into the surgical lab where Raimi dusts off his Evil Dead directorial toolbox to highlight the horror of the deadly tentacles. The point-of-view killings from the appendages’ perspective are rendered marvellously well.
In fact, the tentacles always look good, even in the somewhat-cheesy bank robbery sequence (with Joel McHale!). Of course, though, there’s one visually astounding scene that has a soft spot in all of our hearts – the train sequence (embedded above for your enjoyment). While Ock attempts to catch Spidey for Harry, he sets a speeding train on a death trip towards the end of the line, and, tellingly, Spidey’s mask comes off pretty quick.
I love this moment, because, here, we need Spidey’s powers and Peter’s brains to fix the problem. After the initial scrap on top of the train, Peter quickly needs to find a solution to the speeding death trap situation. His initial attempt to use his heel to stop the train results in a sarcastic ‘any other bright ideas?’ from a surprisingly chipper passenger en route to near-certain death.
Pete then uses his webs to cling to the building, but pulls off a bunch of bricks instead. The direction, special effects, and performances are working in perfect harmony in this scene, and the tension really ratchets up to the point that you’re not sure if he can do it. He does, though, but only by the skin of his teeth, with the train left dangling off the track like the ending of The Italian Job.
This really is an astounding scene visually, and one of the best superheroes-saving-civilians sequences since the days of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. It’s the most memorable scene of the Raimi trilogy for this writer (Ock’s sacrifice, about half an hour later, is high up the leader-board, too), and arguably the best cinematic Spidey sequence ever.
With action like that, in a film that pries into the inner turmoil of the Peter/Spidey dynamic and finds room for big emotional beats, too, it’s not hard to argue that Spider-Man 2 is a triumph of the superhero sub-genre, especially when considering that there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe or Dark Knight Trilogy to look to for inspiration at this stage.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 got so much right, and Jon Watts has a hell of a job to try and top it. Good luck to him. It should be on the must-watch list for anyone directing a superhero movie.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.