From the opening credits that recap the first film’s narrative with pencil drawings to the closing moments of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) deciding to give it a go with Peter (Tobey Maguire) even though he’s Spider-Man, “Spider-Man 2” (2004) is a totally engrossing and satisfying sequel. Director Sam Raimi puts a viewer in the shoes of Peter the whole way as he hits his lowest lows – losing his powers while also feeling all alone in the world – then rises up again.
What I especially adore about “Spider-Man 2,” which I inexplicably thought was mediocre in my theatrical viewing, is that it builds directly off the first film. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent (working from a story by Alfred Millar, Miles Gough and “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” novelist Michael Chabon) doesn’t do that annoying film-series thing where major stuff happens off-screen between movies and we play catch-up. The only leap is that Peter, Mary Jane and Harry (James Franco) have gone from high school students to young adults in the interim. Only two years have passed, so they remain in the same mental and psychological places where we left them.
The frustrations I felt in the first film about Peter choosing Spider-Man over Mary Jane (which I felt was a false binary) are now beautifully mirrored in Peter’s thoughts, and also Mary Jane’s once she learns the truth about his identity. It’s neat how Peter loses his superpowers not because of any pseudo-scientific reason (even though this film has plenty of pseudo-science in the threat posed by the villain), but rather as an outgrowth of his indecision between responsibility and love.
When he chooses the responsibility to humanity of being Spider-Man, his life as Peter is in shambles; he’s in danger of failing his college science class and Mary Jane hates his guts for his unreliability. When he decides his loss of powers gives him permission to stop being Spidey, he is haunted by not saving people – and before long, he’s back at it. With all these moral quandaries – plus his two years of guilt over not stopping Uncle Ben’s killer – “Spider-Man 2” reminds me of the Christopher Reeve-era “Superman”s.
But this is a better overall film than the Supes pictures because Spider-Man – although super-strong when he’s fully powered-up – is a very human superhero. Also, there’s nothing dated or cheesy about how this movie looks. The sequel is visually darker, with Spidey’s first hero sequence taking place at night. Raimi also leans into his schlock roots with Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) even more than he did with the Green Goblin. The hospital sequence where Ock breaks loose and attacks screaming doctors and nurses with his four metal tentacles is totally out of the director’s camp horror playbook, albeit with less blood.
As with Willem Dafoe in the original, Molina is excellent as a villain who is an outgrowth of a well-meaning, if slightly reckless, scientist. The special effects by John Dykstra and his team are outstanding, as we see Doc Ock climbing walls with his four metal limbs – with Molina floating in the middle – in a way that feels natural. The Spidey-Ock fights are incredible. One takes place on the side of a building, with Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) as the hostage, and another finds Spidey trying to stop a runaway train. In the latter sequence, it’s a great choice to have Spidey lose his mask. There’s always a danger of a disconnect between the CGI scenes and the Maguire scenes, and seeing the strain on Peter’s face as he pulls the train to a stop helps this character coalesce.
We also get refreshing blasts of comedy, with more great stuff from the newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). While things like pasting up the front page right before deadline are anachronistic, Jameson’s absurdities – always lowballing on the fee for Peter’s photos, then quickly agreeing to the normal rate – are such a rapid-fire delight that I wouldn’t have time to complain if I wanted to. Also funny: the elevator scene, where a fully costumed Spidey gets stuck with a marketing guru. Oh, and Aunt May giving away Peter’s comic collection while downsizing might be the funniest line – and most relatable for many viewers. (See, I told you Peter hits extreme lows.)
The music is better this time around, with Danny Elfman’s score nicely worked into the mix, and Dashboard Confessional leading off the soundtrack – a much more appropriate band for Spidey than the butt rock of the first “Spider-Man.”
Percolating behind this ride of suspense and fun is the set-up for a third film, wherein Harry works up a good loathing for Spider-Man, who he thinks killed his father, the Green Goblin. That’s another reason why “Spider-Man 2” is such an accessible sequel: It understands and accepts that we’ve all watched and liked the first entry and want the next chapter. In that way, this film is a precursor to the trust in the audience later shown by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which started with “Iron Man” in 2008 and now numbers 22 interlinked films.
But I come back to Peter and Mary Jane. The film definitely teases us with the idea that they’ll never be together because of that vague responsibility and secret identity BS, but in the climactic sequence at Ock’s laboratory, it beautifully reveals it wants the same thing viewers want. Spidey’s mask gets ripped away in the fight, and Mary Jane finally understands – and in a nice nod to the notion that she’s not an idiot, she admits she has always suspected.
As with the first entry, the final scene between the Boy Next Door and Girl Next Door feels like something out of a daydream, but this time Peter doesn’t reject Mary Jane. And what’s more, Mary Jane – always in the damsel role as per the way old-school comics tended to treat women – is the one who makes the decision: She is fine being with a guy who has to run off and be a superhero. “Spider-Man 2” is from the title character’s perspective, for sure, but it leaves us with the exciting notion that MJ could become a full-fledged person in the next film.