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Dissecting the Classics – Spider-Man 2

July 7, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Spider-Man 2

Wide Release Date:
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Written By:
Produced By:
Cinematography By:
Edited By:
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Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man
Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson
James Franco as Harry Osborn
Rosemary Harris as Aunt May Parker
Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus
J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson

What Do We All Know?

Spider-Man was never guaranteed a sequel, but after having the biggest opening weekend of all time and becoming a huge hit with fans, it was no surprise they greenlit the second film. Sam Raimi returned, this time with a little more creative freedom after proving he could make money with the Web-Head. It was the second highest grossing film of 2004 in the U.S. (third internationally) and received even more critical praise, even landing at #4 on Roger Ebert’s best of the year list.

Generally regarded as one of the best superhero movies ever made, it’s also considered a high mark for sequels. Few sequels feel like natural extensions of the original, but Spider-Man 2 accomplishes this feat so well that the two films may as well be one movie. Again, considering this wasn’t even guaranteed to exist, that’s an impressive feat.

What Went Right?

Much of what is good in the first film carries over to the second. Tobey Maguire is still a great and dare I say underrated Peter Parker, being funny, awkward, intense and heartfelt as the script demands. Need proof that he’s a great actor? Watch the scene where he confesses to Aunt May about what happened with Uncle Ben. The scene is an absolute heartbreaker and doesn’t even use music to generate the feels. It relies solely on Maguire and Rosemary Harris’ performances. Aunt May also moved more to the foreground here, and Harris really rises to the occasion. All due respect to Sally Field and Marisa Tomei, but there’s only going to be one Aunt May to me.

Speaking of, J.K. Simmons continues to steal the show, and even gets to break the bluster for a few seconds of genuine sincerity. Who else could do this role? James Franco gets much more to play with here, getting to portray Harry Osborn both as a confident business man and an obsessed, broken son mourning for his father, but never forgetting that he cares for Peter. And lastly, Kirsten Dunst also gets meatier stuff to work with; she’s not the girl next door this time, pushing back against Peter’s projections both in conversations and how she manages a successful career and almost a successful marriage without him. She has agency and personality to spare here, a marked improvement on one of the first film’s biggest flaws.

The new addition to the team is Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus, a character that I never thought I would see brought to life. A combination of CGI, puppetry and Molina’s performance make the tentacles believable. And let’s be honest; Doc Ock is much more complex and interesting here than he had ever been portrayed in the comics. How often does that happen? He is tragic, but also manages to be scary and even cool to an extent. And while they rely heavily on special effects, the fight scenes between Spidey and Doc Ock are amazing; the train fight in particular is one of my all time favorite scenes. And yet, the ending isn’t so much a big punch out; Peter allows Otto to recover his humanity and redeem himself. That’s still a pretty fresh and unique ending for the genre over a decade later.

But even with all that support, this is still Peter Parker’s story. The film takes a cue from Superman II, showing why a superhero would get tired of being one and just want to live a normal life. From the opening scene, we see how being Spidey affects Peter’s life; he can’t hold down a job, he can’t pass his college classes, he can’t make Mary Jane’s play. It brings the character back down to earth, and allows him to have another meaningful character arc. Few superhero movies so effectively balance character building with world building and action like Sam Raimi’s first two classics.

What Went Wrong?

Overall, I think I prefer Spider-Man 2 to the original, although the more recent viewings have closed the gap a bit. I feel like the first one is more consistent and has less fat to trim story wise. This one sort of meanders a bit. Did we really need the whole marriage tease with John Jameson, a character who barely gets more than a scene to develop? It ties things together, yes, but I feel like something else could have been used.

Another plot thread that has never quite worked for me is Peter somehow losing his powers thanks to his crisis of conscience. I get the idea as a metaphor, but it just doesn’t make biological sense. In some ways, it undermines the whole idea of him giving up as Spider-Man. I mean, if his powers aren’t working anyway, why should he keep wearing the suit?

One thing that has always bothered me is Mr. Ditkovich, who just seems a bit like a racist caricature to me. Not in a malicious way, but in a tacky, “Why is this character portrayed in this way/using this particular phrase?” sort of way. I’m not overly fond of his daughter Ursula either, especially since she reminds me of one of my least favorite scenes in Spider-Man 3. I usually forget about them afterwards, but I feel I needed to address it.

What Went Really Right?

Now that we are more than a decade removed from the Sam Raimi films, I feel like it’s even more apparent just how much Raimi made these films special. Marvel has more or less mastered the art expanding on existing material and making the world feel bigger, but their films have a mostly uniform aesthetic that, in all honesty, gets a bit boring at times. Raimi’s films are less grounded in reality, with Peter’s New York often beating him up in an exaggerated way for the sake of visual storytelling. Not to mention transitions like the water ripple or the newspaper toss, or the random bystanders that are memorable without taking up too much time.

If you really need proof that Raimi was amazing behind the chair, watch the scene where Dr. Octopus’ tentacles fight off an autopsy, and then watch the ending scene with Mary Jane running away from her wedding. One is pure The Evil Dead style horror-comedy, and the other is as schmaltzy as any romantic comedy. Or watch the montage of Peter enjoying life after Spider-Man. That a film can be this cheesy and funny and still be scary, thrilling and even legitimately dramatic at times, with such disparate scenes, and still feel like it works as a cohesive picture, you’ve got something special. And that’s why these films stand the test of time.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, we tackled Evil Dead II. This week, I introduce Michael to Planet of the Apes.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Social Network, and Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero.