What a world of difference there is between the superhero blockbuster of today and the superhero blockbuster of 2004. What a vast, vast world of difference.
Consider some of the best superhero films of recent memory – Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy, Wonder Woman, Captain America: Civil War. Some of these movies are more character-driven than others, but even in, say, Logan, the primary storyline revolves around Wolverine needing to transport a child from Point A to Point B. In Guardians, the A-plot has something to do with an infinity stone or something. Wonder Woman: killing Ares; Civil War: libertarianism?
Spider-Man 2 is a very good superhero movie, but only tangentially is it a superhero movie. As is obvious to anyone who’s seen the film, this sequel to Sam Raimi’s box-office-record-smashing Spider-Man is primarily a romantic comedy. That said, it has some of the best superheroics and sweeping action cinematography of any superhero flick ever made.
Truly – and as much as I want to discuss Peter and M.J., I’m too wound up and excited about those action sequences to not start out by talking about them – the Spidey/Doc Ock hand-to-hand fight scenes are incredible. Raimi’s camera weaves and whooshes in, out, and around as the two powerhouses battle it out in the streets, and on the skyscrapers, of New York. It makes you wonder how no one has really come close to replicating this in the years since. Here’s the formula, Hollywood: a superhero and a supervillain trade punches in some cool setting, preferably with innocent civilians around. Forget the flying alien-robot armies, forget fucking infinity stones, forget SHIELD and HYDRA and Samuel L. Jackson, and just stage a goddamn one-on-one superhero battle on the streets of a major city. There’s a moment in Spider-Man 2 where Danny Elfman’s score cuts out as Spider-Man and Doc Ock are falling through the air, grappling, and all we hear are the sounds of them fighting and the wind whooshing past as they fall. This isn’t going to be the last time I use the word in this review, but it’s just breathtaking.
You feel every endangered life in this movie. After trashing his super-suit due to his ever-present obsession with Mary Jane, Peter has to live with himself just walking on by as two thugs mug an innocent in an alley. He has to soak in the ramifications of his decision, how it will impact the human life surrounding him. At one point, it becomes too much to bear, and Peter rushes into a burning building to save a child. The stakes in this movie are the lives of individual New Yorkers, people Raimi has us caring about even as they spend twenty seconds, max, on camera. Contrast this to the climactic New York battle sequence in The Avengers, an undeservedly celebrated sequence full of disconnected, unintelligible, nonsensical action with no earnest thought given to the thousands upon thousands of lives that are ostensibly being snuffed out. Even the extras in Spider-Man 2, the screaming pedestrians running amok as Doc Ock hurls a car into the cafe where Peter and M.J. are primed to share a kiss, feel like real people with real lives. We can hear the individual cries of fear, an astonishing distinction from the blasé attitude toward super-battle related catastrophe in recent films like The Avengers and (this is low hanging fruit, I know, but still…) Man of Steel.
And then there are the shots of Spidey swinging through the city. I remember watching them as a kid and feeling inside as if I were catapulting through the city via Spidey-web. It’s enveloping. This isn’t simply nostalgia acting on its own – the special effects in this thirteen-year-old film hold up entirely, and even exceed that of many similar 2017 films.
The film cares less about its action-oriented scenes than it does its romance-oriented scenes. The A-plot of Spider-Man 2, so far as I can tell, is Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane Watson. Unfortunately, this stuff works significantly less well than the aforementioned action scenes. Peter is so very confused about his obligations toward M.J. – he loves her and wants to be with her, but is steadfast in his conviction that she must never know of his superhero alter-ego. There’s a scene where he approaches her at a party and starts to recite inane poetry in her face. It is not great.
There are so many tropes of the classic romantic comedy here: Peter conflicted about his love life as it relates to his secret work life, Peter and M.J. alternating between being interested in and being against their relationship (seriously, it happens like five times in this movie – as soon as one of them comes around and wants to be together, the other becomes cynical and detached) , a bride running from her marriage to be with the man she truly wants, deep inside.
Speaking of M.J.’s engagement, one of the oddest scenes in the movie has M.J. asking her fiancé to tilt his head back so as to kiss him upside-down and compare the experience to her snogging session with Spider-Man in the first Raimi movie. While the groom-to-be has his world rocked by the magic of upside-down kissing, the look on M.J.’s face makes it clear: it was nothing compared to her sweet, sweet upside-down make out session in the rain with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. The fiancé is, by every indication, a very decent, loving guy (not to mention supernaturally good-looking), but I guess not being a great upside-down kisser is a dealbreaker for Mary Jane Watson, because the film’s climax has her leaving him at the altar in favor of the original upside-down kisser himself.
James Franco is in this movie, and his performance has extra layers of weirdness now, given the dramatic shift in his cultural approximation since his Spider-Man years. As Doc Ock, Alfred Molina knocks it out of the park, delivering one of the best supervillain performances of all time. He’s particularly great in Doc Ock’s final moments, especially in his delivery of the line, “I will not die a monster.” I have nothing good or bad to say about Tobey Maguire’s performance, other than the fact that he is, forever and always, my Spider-Man, no matter how incredible Tom Holland is in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
I’m most conflicted about Kirsten Dunst. There are moments where I can barely believe she was cast for the part, with shallow line-readings and unimpressive emotional work throughout the film on her part. But there are also moments where she seems perfect for the role – “Go get ‘em, tiger” comes to mind. Her screams of terror actually evoke fear and not camp. The film does right by the character of Mary Jane, giving her her actual character and drive, such as they are. In fact, the film’s final shot is of Mary Jane staring wistfully out a window as her new boyfriend, Spider-Man, swings away to fight some NYC crime. Raimi clearly considers her, if not the movie’s second lead, very important to the Spider-Man story.
Spider-Man 2 is not a great movie. It is, however, a great superhero movie, one of the best ever made. If only its influence could more clearly be felt in the Avengers CGI-fests of today.
I’m very open to be proven wrong about the state of contemporary superhero movies, by the way, so please comment below with examples of great, Raimi-esque action sequences in recent comic-book films if you’ve got ’em.