Why Spider-Man 2 Remains Hollywood’s Best Superhero Film
Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has the superhero film down to a science at this point, as the studio churns out a couple of interrelated high-octane romps per year about lovable heroes cracking wise while fighting disposable villains. But long before The Avengers assembled even for the first time onscreen, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker had already set the high water mark for superhero films that still hasn’t quite been equaled.
Following up the critical and commercial success of his first Spider-Man film, director Sam Raimi didn’t change up too much for the film’s sequel, a decision which would usually spell disaster, or at least a snooze fest.
Yet again, Peter Parker grapples with a mentor turned cartoonish super villain by an experiment gone wrong while contemplating his responsibility to the city as Spider-Man and denying himself a relationship with Kirsten Dunst’s literal girl-next-door, Mary Jane. This time around, however, there’s no obligatory origin story to distract from what is essentially a portrait of Peter Parker’s everyday life and struggles, inside and outside of the Spidey suit.
Compare that dynamic to the Marvel and DC films that tend to dominate the landscape of superhero films today, wherein aliens, unfrozen super-soldiers and billionaire playboys like Batman or Iron Man fight intergalactic villains, often with the full-force of the government behind them.
The very concept of everyday falls to the wayside in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which respectively choose to focus instead upon the anarchic philosophies of the admittedly memorable villains or the humorous dynamics of larger-than-life heroes chasing space MacGuffins that serve to set up the inevitable upcoming sequel or mashup.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man 2 remains the best superhero film because it is actually about the everyday experience of being a superhero—a weighty task that can mean either sacrificing your own personal happiness or the safety of strangers who might need Spidey’s help to survive. Peter Parker is compelling precisely because he isn’t larger than life, but simply a doe-eyed young adult struggling to get his increasingly complicated priorities in order—a surprisingly relatable story for a film about someone with spider powers.
Despite the sometimes sobering dangers of being Spider-Man and the drama of Parker’s love triangle with Mary Jane and her undeveloped astronaut fiancée, Raimi strikes the right balance between meaty character study and lighthearted romp that stays true to the spirit of classic comic book lore in a way no other film has quite yet managed.
Peter may have plenty on his mind, but Raimi never resorts to the gloomy navel-gazing of Man of Steel. The story is grounded enough in a semi-recognizable version of New York and even more recognizable frustrations and responsibilities of young adult life, both of which keep the film from becoming weightless, temporary fun like most MCU films, which make for fun theater-going experiences but are rarely all that memorable.
Raimi, who began his career with the creative, playfully demented Evil Dead films, stays true to the spirit of the Spidey comics even in his smooth cinematography that makes the calm before the battle almost as thrilling as the battles themselves. Each action sequence is a master class in skillfully deployed special effects and unique use of setting and camera placement.
It’s virtually impossible for anyone with a pulse to watch Doc Ock’s initial horrifying attack in the hospital, or Peter’s efforts to stop a speeding train from flying over a ruined bridge without getting at least a little excited. Even an opening sequence about delivering a pizza through crowded, crime-ridden Manhattan becomes undeniably compelling while still establishing the core of the film’s story.
Spider-Man 2 isn’t without its flaws. Both Mary Jane and Peter’s moody ex-best friend Harry (a miscast James Franco) often feel like tools rather than real human beings during most of their screen-time, more defined by their relationship with Peter than by anything else about them. Doc Ock, despite an able performance from Alfred Molina, never really moves beyond the cookie-cutter mold of a friendly mentor turned destructive madman. A running thread concerning Peter’s intermittent loss of his Spidey powers never pays off in any sort of meaningful way.
Maybe it doesn’t have to. The inexplicable loss of power combines with so much else—from Mary Jane to Aunt May, Doc Ock to Jay Jonah Jameson—to form a portrait of Peter Parker’s life, a life that is both ordinary and extraordinary, not unlike the film Spider-Man 2 itself.