And so, I return to Spider-Man 2 (2004), my love for the characters of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson reinstated; my fascination with Spidey’s web-slinging superpowers reinstalled; my nostalgia for Sam Raimi’s superhero trilogy reawakened all over again. One by one, my memories of going to see these movies as a preteen in the early years of the 21st century come swimming back to me, encouraging me to think long and hard about why the trilogy was initially so successful, and how it eventually went so wrong. Spider-Man (2002) seemed too little, and Spider-Man III (2007) was far too much, yet Spider-Man 2 was always—for lack of a better phrase—just right. After seven years, it is still the best superhero movie ever made.
Since we’re now able to look upon the entire trilogy as a whole, it’s perhaps easier to critique Spider-Man 2 today than it was back then—at least, for those of us who were too young to understand what made it such a strong film. As a preteen, I knew there was intellectual genius in Spider-Man 2 but was never quite sure if intellectual genius was what I actually wanted out of the movie; both the fast-pace of Spider-Man and the nonstop action spectacle of Spider-Man III seemed far more desirable at the time. Looking back, however, the first Spider-Man, with its cartoonish CGI and its superficial David Koepp dialogue, has not aged very well at all. And Spider-Man III, a considerable work in many respects, suffers from an overload of villains and side-stories, plus a convoluted screenplay that emphasized on Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson as a bickering couple, rather than a couple dealing with realistic problems. By the third movie, their relationship had run its course.
But the second film is different. It’s real. While just as much a great entertainment as the bookending installments in the trilogy, Spider-Man 2 is infinitively more wiser about its characters than the other films. I think Raimi, a director with an often-overlooked talent for emotional storytelling, must have been more at ease working on this film than he was at any other time during the trilogy. The movie certainly offers plenty of rousing action set-pieces—a bravado sequence in which Spidey desperately tries to stop a runaway train is among the finest Raimi has ever filmed—but the emphasis this time is more on the human drama at stake. The screenplay was worked on by no less than four writers: Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the scribes behind Smallville, developed the central screen story; Michael Chabon, the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was hired to incorporate his expansive knowledge of all-things comic books; and veteran Alvin Sargent, who has written scripts for so many legendary filmmakers (from Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon to Fred Zinnemann’s Julia), was able to weave all the material into a final draft. Not since Jaws (1975) have so many writers been able to combine their differing visions into such a compelling, big-budget studio screenplay.
Spider-Man 2 works so well, I think, because the inner feelings of the superhero’s alter ego felt so tangible this time around. We were not necessarily watching a movie about a superhero’s disastrous conflict with his arch villain: we were watching a movie about a young man who kept to himself, who let his supernatural powers corrupt his personal life, who spent much of the movie refusing to pour out his troubles to his family and friends because to do so would have put them in jeopardy. Spider-Man 2 shows us that Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is just like you and me, and Raimi presents him with the usual daily affairs: a lazy academic record; a demanding job at a pizzeria; hectic part-time photography work for the loudmouth J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who wants Spider-Man slandered on every front page; rent issues with a Russian landlord (Elya Baskin), who has “ears like a cat and eyes like a rodent!”; and, of course, girl troubles with his best friend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who has always wanted to be more than just a friend to Peter. But she has now turned to the companionship of Jameson’s son (Daniel Gillies), an astronaut touted as “the first man to play football on the moon.” It’s a false relationship borne out of MJ’s impatience with Peter’s failure to act: “I can’t keep thinking about you. It’s too painful.”
All of this might have coalesced into an emotionally-draining cinematic experience, but Spider-Man 2 is not a depressing film. So many superhero movies in recent years have strained to take on a more “serious” tone but have failed miserably due to the sheer idiocies of their principal characters. Spider-Man 2 finds a way to elevate itself above such redundant material. Like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), it is the real thing. Raimi sets up the film’s more human moments quite remarkably—watch the scene in which Peter is forced to “confess” his secret to MJ over a dead phone. Notice, too, the brilliant story device of having MJ star in a Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Peter, like Algernon and Jack (or any other Oscar Wilde character—Dorian Gray not excluded), lives a double life, and cannot reveal any details to the ones he loves. The moment when Peter finally shows up at MJ’s play, bringing an unexpected smile to her face onstage, ranks among the subtlest, most touching moments of Raimi’s career. “I’m not an empty seat anymore,” Peter tells MJ after the show. “I’m different. Punch me—I bleed.” And in a later scene, in which they meet again in a coffee shop and MJ demands of Peter, “Do you love me, or not?” Raimi yet again makes the pain of their unspoken love feel unbelievably palpable. By keeping them apart for so long, he makes their relationship one of the great Hollywood romances.
In a sense, the film is a portrait of loves which are lost, found, broken, recovered, destroyed and then healed. Some of the relationships are star-crossed: Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) never thought that her husband would be shot dead in a drive-by shooting. She has lived in self-shame since that incident, and can’t help but find ways to blame herself. It is liberating, then, when Peter finds the courage to tell her the truth about what happened, admitting his own guilt and thus allowing Aunt May to move on. She is able to finally break free of the consequences of her star-crossed love with her fallen spouse and start a new life: “I’m quite able to take care of things myself,” she assures Peter. Not so lucky is the star-crossed love between Dr. Octavius (Alfred Molina) and his wife Rosie (Donna Murphy), which ends in an incident that is even more grisly: Rosie is impaled by incoming shards of broken glasses—as a result of Octavius’ failed fusion experiment—and Octavius has nobody to blame but himself. In this scenario, the film’s villain is born: Octavius reawakens from a deadly slumber equipped with four “actuators” attached to his back, which writhe around like snakes, eliminate enemies and even seem to communicate with each other. They have far more personality than, say, the disembodied hand which gives Ash the finger in Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987).
Undercutting the strong passions in the film is a quirky, always delightfully wicked sense of humor, informed largely by the incredible cheapness of the characters. A bank examiner both evicts Aunt May from her house and denies her the free toaster promised in the ad. An usher (Bruce Campbell—Ash himself!) won’t let Peter into the theater because “no one will be seated after the doors are closed—it helps maintain the illusion.” Jameson offers a garbage man (Brent Briscoe) 50 bucks for the purchasing of the famed Spidey suit, and the garbage man stares at him incredulously: “I could get more than that on eBay!” Cheapest of all, perhaps, is fate itself, which never explains to Peter why his web-slinging technique sometimes fails him as he’s flying in midair; Raimi and his screenwriters wisely refrain from explaining the reason behind this unexpected superhero defect, and it’s one of the funniest (and most haunting) ambiguities in the film.
One aspect of the film that I never took much notice of during previous viewings is the striking cinematography by Bill Pope. During one of the earlier scenes, in which MJ rests her hand on Peter’s face, studying him, Pope illuminates a blinding white light across the two faces of the actors. The effect makes Dunst look as ravishing as ever, while having a decidedly different effect on Maguire; the white light looks almost as if it’s helping conceal Peter Parker’s "mysteries," if you will. Pope’s cinematography comes equally in handy during the fight scenes, in which it’s even more important for the cinematography to be discernible—so that the audience can make out the fullest details of the action. Whenever Spidey and Doc Ock drop through the air, the camera drops along with them, and yet the image is never confusing or stomach-churning. As always, Pope’s cinematography goes together like bacon and eggs with John Dykstra’s CGI, which has dated somewhat but was largely innovative at the time (and won the film its only Oscar).
The performances are just as stirring as they were in 2004. Tobey Maguire remains for me the ultimate Peter Parker, which is why I can’t get too excited about Andrew Garfield taking on the role in the upcoming series remake. Kirsten Dunst has come a long way since starring as the McCoy’s young daughter in De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and wound up delivering, in this film, one of the signature performances marking her evolution as an actress. Rosemary Harris makes Aunt May not into the thankless old aunt she could have been, but a loving, iron-willed woman ready to enter the next phase of life. James Franco has fire in his eyes as Harry Osborn; it’s odd to look at his performance today, considering how much his career has skyrocketed since then. Raimi also finds time for amusing cameos. Willem Dafoe makes a ghostly appearance as Norman Osborn, and his cry of “AVENGE ME!” still chills to the bone. The great Cliff Robertson appears in one of Peter’s dreams as Uncle Ben, who reminds him from the grave, “all the times we’ve talked of honesty, fairness, justice… out of all those times, I counted on you to have the courage to take those dreams out into the world.” Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Octavius belongs somewhere in the pantheon of the cinema’s comic book villains. He is cursed from the moment he puts on those actuators, but we feel like cheering when he finally takes the initiative, and gives his life to destroy his own mad creation.
The movie opens with a shot of MJ’s smiling face on a New York billboard, so it is curious when Raimi elects to end the film with yet another shot of MJ’s face—showing, this time, an expression of concern. Tobey Maguire notes on the DVD commentary that the ending of Spider-Man 2 bears a strange resemblance to the ending of The Graduate (1967). While it may be just a coincidence (the parallels of the two films' endings never did occur to Raimi), the two parallels remain thought-provoking. In a contrived but undeniably delightful finale, MJ flees her own wedding and reunites with Peter at the last minute. “Isn’t it about time somebody saved your life?” she asks him. That allows him to spring back into action, thus providing a chance for the audience to break out into applause—but not before the film closes with a shot of MJ looking out into the distance, her smile fading to an expression of uncertainty.
No doubt her expression means something else to those who are already familiar with the third film. But if we forget the third film for a moment, and if we simply look at Spider-Man 2 all on its own, what does that final shot mean to you—as a viewer? For all we know, Peter can only be with MJ for so long. How long will it be before his web technique starts failing him again?
Submitted to Bryce's Wilson's Raimifest.