Greater Power, Greater Responsibility: SPIDER-MAN 2 At 15
Right from the beautifully designed Alex Ross opening credits all the way up to its explosive finale, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 doubles down on everything that made the first film a hit and expands upon it with a focus on theme and character. Like some of the best sequels, Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargeant (Ordinary People, Unfaithful) put Spider-Man through the wringer in order to test his ideals and choices. A lot of what makes Spider-Man 2 such a fascinating entry into the superhero genre is that it is primarily concerned with exploring issues of identity and growing up.
The film is not just ambitious in terms of scale; Raimi goes for thematic ambition as well. The film juggles not only Peter’s double life but also it has a lot on its mind regarding heroism, duality, sacrifice, and ultimately choice. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still ambitious on an action scale (the train fight sequence is beyond extraordinary). It just it feels like a great balancing act of truth and spectacle. The film also displays pitch-perfect tone. Raimi remains consistent with the tone of the first film, but makes the contrast between comedy and drama even more pronounced here. Going from a hilarious J. Jonah Jameson to a wonderfully dramatic Doctor Otto Octavius monologue speaks volumes about how confident Raimi is in terms of creating a cohesive film. Just look at the “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” sequence as a display of Raimi’s mastery of tone – using MCU-like comedy/drama moments before the MCU existed.
Speaking of Otto Octavius aka “Doc Ock,” Alfred Molina’s turn as one of Spidey’s most iconic baddies remains a classic. Molina manages to not only make Octavius a smart and charming mentor for Peter (look at the dinner sequence with Maguire and Donna Murphy as an example of this) but also a legitimately terrifying bad guy who poses a great threat to Spidey. The Spider-Man dynamic is always at its best when he’s fighting villains who are his equal in terms of intellectual prowess and Molina’s Doc Ock is played with all the gravitas of a Shakespeare character. Raimi and Molina even manage to do a great subversion of the Frankenstein myth with Octavius by having him turn into both Doctor Frankenstein and the Creature – he’s both the mad scientist and the tortured creation and it's riveting to watch.
Aside from Maguire and Molina, Raimi’s sequel is stacked with a tremendous cast. Kirsten Dunst and James Franco get more to do. Rosemary Harris gets a much more compelling role as Aunt May complete with a Doc Ock stand-off and one of the all-time best speeches in superhero cinema. Of course, Bruce Campbell’s obnoxious usher cameo is as hilarious today as when the film first came out in 2004 and even supporting players like Elizabeth Banks, Bill Nunn, Dylan Baker, Cliff Robertson, Joel McHale (pre-Community), Aasif Mandiv and so many more have great scenes that shine and stand out.
One of the best aspects of Spider-Man 2 is Raimi’s unique personality and singular style. In the same way that Tim Burton went full Burton for his second outing with Batman in Batman Returns, here Raimi goes full classic Raimi in a way that gives Spider-Man 2 a specific voice. The horror hospital sequence is a perfect encapsulation of this with Raimi employing all his horror background from The Evil Dead Trilogy and using it to give his signature stamp in a superhero story. There are even references to Raimi’s horror trilogy, like the chainsaw or the point of view camera shots, but it’s all in service of character and dramatic weight. It’s a great way to show how terrifying the tentacles can be without a human controlling them, but it also captures each of the tentacles’ personalities through the visuals. That’s the big standout scene that we all like to point out as bearing Raimi’s signature style but the whole film carries the director’s personality. Whether it’s the juggling of tones, the energetic filmmaking style or the thematic ambition that the film carries, one can feel that Raimi wanted to use Spider-Man 2 to say something about heroism and humanity as a whole.