#41 — Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
It’s hard to remember when surveying the release schedule these days, but there was a time when movies populated by superheroes, either adapted from comic books or originally created, weren’t especially common. By now, they’ve swelled to a huge subgenre of filmmaking, essentially taking over as the new action movie, the old model having pushed into the improbable to such a degree that the only way to reach a new level was to introduce costumes and superhuman abilities into the equation. While the ratio of solid works to appalling cash-ins is predictably tilted towards the crass (as it is for every category or subcategory of artistic creation you can conceive of) there have been some grand achievements, no matter how many cineastes preemptively decide that no cinematic art have its origins in the pages of a four-color fantasy. Bryan Singer’s X-Men films were infused with the dark moodiness of the outsider and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films fairly bristled with grim urban nihilism, every triumphant act creating a multitude of dire repercussions. These films largely adhere to their source material, but stand as their own creations. The original comic books are a toolbox, not particularly an inspiration.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is different. More than any other film of its ilk, it is a true and faithful product of the printed pages that are the original home for the characters it utilizes. Yes, it’s refracted through Raimi’s sensibility, and, yes, it plays fast and loose with some details that the most faithful fans can recite with authority. It also captures the feeling of being immersed in a splendidly rendered superhero comic: the sense of adventure, the brightened moral landscape, the exciting possibilities that come from colorful champions casually engaging in the impossible. Raimi does this with conviction, fearlessly bringing this amazing world to life. There is no apology for the spectacle, no couching of the heightened hope and drama built into the story. It is a film about a man who improbably shoots modified spider webbing out of his wrists that he can then use to swing above New York City streets like Tarzan pendulumming through the jungle. You either go for it wholeheartedly or find yourself doomed to failure. Raimi doesn’t make it realistic, but he makes it believable. And his readily apparent, endless enthusiasm makes him the truest believer of them all.
As the integer embedded in the title implies, this is Raimi’s second outing with the wall-crawler, and one of the most endearing aspects of the film is the way it corrects the flaws of the initial outing. Freed from the first film’s requirement of delivering an origin along with the action, Raimi is able to delve deeper. The villain–Doctor Octopus, possessor of spare metal tendril appendages–is more compelling, in part because Alfred Molina plays him with shrewd care, showing how dedication can be turned to in dastardly directions. Mary Jane Watson, the sprightly object of our hero’s affection, goes from bland and under-realized in Kirsten Dunst’s original performance to a bold, forthright woman, her confidence shadowed by a cool, gradual heartbreak. Even the first film’s much maligned moment of proud New Yorkers standing up for their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man fellow citizen thereby saving him from defeat gets an answer here as a similar gesture results is a far less triumphant outcome. Sequels are often accused of being pale imitations of the original. Here is a sequel that instead demonstrates that the filmmakers have learned from their mistakes, and entered the project with a dauntless drive to get it right.
Spider-Man is arguably the most relatable of superheroes, given the grounded nature of Peter Parker, the young man who dons the webbed mask to risk his life for others. He is clumsy and awkward and, despite his enhanced strength and acute instincts, relatively helpless. He feels unable to pursue the woman he loves or tell the world about his sensational abilities. A portion of that film even makes that aspect literal as his powers drift away, leaving him sliding down walls and incapable of spinning his web. Tobey Maguire handles the portrayal perfectly. His Peter Parker never becomes merely mopey, but instead possesses an inherent decency that makes his heroism and aspirations towards it all the more moving. It’s just part of the strong currents of emotion that run through the film, enhancing all the action and trumping the impressively seamless special effects in impact. Watching Spider-Man zing across a Manhattan cityscape is thrilling, but not as much as the disarming “Go get ’em, tiger” that precedes it. There’s a lot of movie magic on display, but that’s the part that raises goosebumps.