Sequential Cinema – ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)

Spider-Man 2 is the greatest live-action comic book film ever made.

That could be the whole post. It’s a bold claim given that since 2004, hundreds of films based on comics have been released. I also say live-action because Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse easily wins that claim in regards to all comic book cinema. That’s an even bolder claim I hope to divulge into once that series of films wraps up. I’d usually have some production history upfront, but Spider-Man 2 is too special to not dive into straight out of the gate. Yet, here are some key production notes to highlight, then straight into the review.

Spider-Man 2 Facts of Note

  • The Sypdercam was developed and used in order to capture more natural and sweeping shots of New York. It was only used once in the first film for the final shot. In this film, it’s shooting in its full glory. It’s equal to a SkyCam seen at sporting events.
  • Alfred Molina beat out the likes of Christopher Walken and Robert DeNiro for the role.
  • Tobey Maguire was suffering back pain from a pre-existing condition while filming Seabiscuit. Jake Gyllenhaal was almost brought in to replace him. Gyllenhaal’s name comes up a lot during the production of this trilogy.
  • It is the first Spider-Man film to win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for John Dykstra’s work on the film. Dykstra’s previous win? 1977’s Star Wars.
  • It made it to the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Top 10 Films of 2004. The other ten? The Aviator, Collateral, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Friday Night Lights, Kinsey, The Incredibles, Maria Full of Grace, Million Dollar Baby, and Sideways. Every one of these films is damn good.

If you know someone who doesn’t like Spider-Man 2, I don’t want to meet them. I don’t want to stare at their soulless vessel they call a body. I don’t want to hear or see the words “Spider-Man 2 sucks” spill from their mouth. I know it’s okay to dislike a movie. Spider-Man 2 is a major exception to that rule for me alongside The Muppet Christmas Carol. Rizzo the Rat kisses Gonzo as Charles Dickens on the nose during an awkward silence in one scene. If that doesn’t warm your heart, you can go kick rocks.

2 begins with good old-fashioned pizza time. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) works as a pizza boy while freelancing for the Daily Bugle. He is also attending university while playing the hero as Spider-Man. Harry Osborn (James Franco) gives Pete an opportunity to meet Dr. Otto Octavius. Octavius is working on a nuclear fusion machine and gets to know Peter a bit better. He also created tentacles to control the solar fusion ball. Unfortunately at the presentation, the device goes awry. The tentacles malfunction and now control Octavius instead. Octavius, now driven mad by the device’s neural network, decides to go on a crime spree to rebuild the device.

Spider-Man vows to stop him until his power goes away. Peter sees this as an out to enjoy a normal life as he has been struggling to even afford rent. He tries his best to ensure Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is doing well finance-wise and win the heart of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). Doctor Octopus wreaks havoc on New York making Peter decide what to do. Is it more important to dismiss his power and not help for the greater good? Or is it more important to protect those who need it even if this is not the life he wishes to have?

Spider-Man 2 is a triumph of cinema. I mean that with sincerity. The triumph comes in at least four different areas it succeeds.

It’s a perfect continuation, but can also be standalone. 

Spider-Man (Maguire) swings through the city of New York on his way to beat up bad guys just like flies. Source: Sony Pictures

It builds upon the foundation of the first movie to go beyond what one expects from superhero fare. It is also a very rare sequel in a trilogy that works on its own. One can know the origins of Spidey’s legacy plus the first film and walk into this one without feeling they lost a step. 

The new Spidey Marvel Cinematic Universe films are great. Yet, except for Homecoming, it feels you need at least 10 movies worth of knowledge to get the experience. Now you need the MCU, this trilogy, and the Amazing Spider-Man Duology for No Way Home. This film feels refreshing once more in the wake of the DC and Marvel Cinematic Universes. It relies on only one movie prior without having to get all “Pepe Silvia” to enjoy a movie. Not to mention the Alex Ross art recap for the title sequence catching people up to speed.

The action and direction are astounding.

Spider-Man (Maguire) and Doctor Octopus (Molina) go toe-to-toe on a train in the middle of NYC. Source: Sony Pictures

The second is the action throughout the film. The action sequences are astounding even to this day. The first fight against Doc Ock during and after a bank robbery is stunning. Not to mention when they go out of the building after a terrific face-to-face interaction. Doc Ock takes Aunt May with him onto the side of a building. The two have a no holds barred match on the side of the building complete with the camera keeping the eye on the action. No shaky cam. No random blurs of color meshed together. It’s them punching the living hell out of each other as the camera swoops up, down, and around. It’s brutal and fierce to see them go at it and it’s a blast. Even Aunt May gets one in by breaking Doc Ock’s glasses. It rules so damn hard.

Yet, that’s not the signature scene. That honor goes to the entire train fight sequence.  It blends the wonderment of CGI, fight choreography, and brilliant character moments. It’s an action setpiece that all other superhero action sequences aspire to be. This is also in the same year that gave us the terrific Dash running sequence in The Incredibles. In the same year, we got the two best superhero sequences ever committed to celluloid. Cinematographer Bill Pope and Raimi do not slouch at presenting the action. Pope worked on The Matrix trilogy alongside The Wachowskis. He also worked on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with director Edgar Wright. Yet, he also shot Raimi classics Darkman and Army of Darkness with Raimi. As a Raimi stalwart, Pope took the techniques learned into the Raimi trilogy to create magic. 

It never veers from the action. Raimi, Pope, and Dykstra hit it out of the park. It’s a treat to the eye to see Spidey and Doc Ock go toe-to-toe on a moving train. They hang on to buildings and getting the city involved in the crisis abound. Watch the scene for yourselves below because to describe it in words is doing it a disservice.

The characterization of Dr. Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus/Doc Ock as a whole.

Doctor Octopus (Molina) eyes the local bank in order to get some funds aka rob the place wholesale. Source: Sony Pictures

What makes a great comic book story is a great foil, someone for the hero to battle against and save the day. What if that villain does have a real reason for his actions? What if the villain was more so a victim of circumstance rather than true evil? Enter Doctor Octopus. Dr. Otto Octavius was a warm-hearted guy with a love for science and what the solar fusion device could do. All things considered, he found the love of his life, had a great home and took kindly to Peter. He may have called him “brilliant, but lazy,” but more so as a mentor rather than a complete jerk. The sympathy comes from us seeing his life, his love, and his optimism knowing tragedy will befall him. When it does and when he turns, it’s terrifying and upsetting. This kind and a warm person has turned into a monster not by choice, corrupted by the tentacles. His wife died. His dream shot to hell. His life is now in shambles. 

The scene of his monstrous transformation is Raimi all the way with Evil Dead pouring out of every shot. Yet, rather than be cheesy, it’s pure terrifying. It’s a classic Universal monster transformation played straight. Even then, his actions and the way he carries himself go from gentle to more brutal and snarky. Alfred Molina plays it straight. Dafoe was having a ball hamming it up, but Molina is having fun, yet knows when to get serious. That’s not to say Dafoe wasn’t serious (his appearance in this film via Harry’s vision proves that). Molina saw what Dafoe did and made him his own. Molina is a phenomenal actor, “a bit of a slut” and perfect as Doc Ock. He adds human nature to him, the kind nature, and can be a true asshole when it comes to it. His turn to a good guy by the end of the film works too. The audience has invested in his former life, with them knowing there is still good in him. It makes his demise all the more tragic. Well, his demise before the Marvel Cinematic Universe called Molina up again. 

Along with that is the look of Doc Ock. The tentacles are an amazing practical effect that still holds up to this day. How they brought it to life is impressive even to this day and beyond words. Each of them is an individual puppet on its own. They do not look out-of-place either and blend well with the CGI in the film. I’ll admit that I screamed like a kid the minute I saw a tentacle smack the concrete in the No Way Home trailer. By the way, the practical tentacles are back in No Way Home and that’s the only spoiler you’ll get from me. The look of Doc Ock is a badass dark green trenchcoat and brown suit underneath. The shades being the safety goggles from the experiment is a nice touch as while. It’s an upgrade to his costume from the comic that pays tribute to the look. It would be very hard to take his original comic look at face value in live-action. Yet 2004’s look is iconic in itself now.

It shows what makes Spider-Man the hero he is in microcosm.

Peter Parker (Maguire) stares at his hands after his web powers start to disappear. Source: Sony Pictures

Being Spider-Man sometimes sucks. Being Peter Parker with his Parker Luck also sometimes sucks. This movie shows how much it sucks to have this life, but how rewarding it can be as well. Peter does not have any room to be himself. 

He cannot breathe due to the wealth of responsibility he holds. He is stuck trying to make ends meet working for a boss that tolerates him. He isn’t making enough money to afford rent in a crappy complex. He is behind on school work. He is saving the city with only whimpers of acknowledgment or praise. He cannot be with Mary Jane because he wouldn’t have the time for a relationship. That and those who know him would try to hurt her in vengeance as Green Goblin did. Spider-Man needs a break. No wonder he wants to give it up for good.

The powers no longer working for a brief period makes sense because he cannot focus on one thing. He sees it as a sign to be Spider-Man no more. This story with Peter allows Maguire to bring his A-Game. The first film has him being quite dry, but here he’s expanded into a full-formed Peter going on about life. Peter, even without powers, manages to rescue people out of a burning building proving he is still a hero. Spidey being gone will only bring more crime to the city. Even more so since Doc Ock is still wandering about New York on a reign of terror. Aunt May’s speech about heroes exemplifies what it means to be Spider-Man. 

“I believe there’s a hero in all of us…that keeps us honest…gives us strength…makes us noble…and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most – even our dreams”

– Aunt May (Rosemary Harris)

This convinces Peter to go back into the fold. He was selfish. He was wrong. He was right though, he swears he is right. He knew it all along. He’s flawed, but he is cleaning up so well. He sees within himself now the things New York swear it saw itself.  Sorry, “Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessional is an absolute banger. It’s a perfect theme for the movie.

Spider-Man (Maguire) comes to save Mary Jane-Watson (Dunst) from the clutches of Doc Ock. Source: Sony Pictures

Outside of these main four reasons why this film is fantastic is the relationship with his friends. Harry is still furious at Spidey. He will stop at nothing to rid him with Franco capturing his bitterness. Even after Peter reveals he is Spider-Man, he still considers Harry a friend. Mary Jane is still the same old MJ but is more so of a person here. She’s upset with Peter flaking out and does want them to work out. She is so unsure of him and his commitment that it falls on him. Once he shows that he is Spidey in the climax, MJ begins to understand. She even walks away from the altar at the wedding to J. Jonah’s son to be with Peter once and for all.

Spider-Man 2 is a fantastic summer blockbuster. It ruled the summer of 2004. It’s clear to see why from its heart and love of the characters from the world. It is a blend of all the best of action cinema at the time. It is a showcase of Raimi’s direction on a big-budget scale. This is a film that is unabashedly proud of being a Spider-Man movie. It’s a superhero masterpiece.

Final Verdict: 5 out of 5
Spider-Man: The Raimi Trilogy 2/3 Complete

Next time, they say good things come in three. Well, this one is more mediocre than bad like 2007 would have you believe. It’s Spider-Man 3 to close out this retrospective. Till the next sequence.

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