Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina
Writer: Alvin Sargent
Director: Sam Raimi
Studio: Sony Pictures
It’s the second-highest-grossing film of 2004. It’s the gold standard of Spider-Man films. It’s the Webhead’s second-ever silver screen venture. It’s pizza time.
Spider-Man 2 turns 15 today. Critics have heralded it as the greatest Spidey flick ever. After a string of mediocre-to-disastrous follow-ups and a couple of serious contenders, the question stands: is Spider-Man 2 still king?
Along with X2: X-Men United, this movie defined the superhero sequel. It’s not a reboot or rehash. It dives into the comic lore, introducing characters like Curt Connors and John Jameson (and even referencing Doctor Strange). For the first time, fans could speculate about deep-cuts like Man-Wolf appearing on screen.
It has no qualms about being a comicbook movie. Even today’s MCU films sucker audiences in with irony. They make jokes about talking raccoons until you take Rocket seriously. But Spider-Man 2 embraces its content with total earnestness. Here’s a guy with four metal arms fused to his back controlling his brain, and we’re not going to crack jokes about it, we’re just going to take it seriously.
But it’s also a fantastically human movie. Take the moment when Peter Parker tries to return the twenty bucks given to him by Aunt May. She shouts at him: “For God’s sake, it isn’t much, just take it!”
It’s stunning. In Harris’ performance, you feel May’s anger and embarrassment at her inability to provide for Peter, her pride and unwillingness to let Peter provide for her, and her remaining grief over her late husband.
The pathos of this moment strikes a depth and smallness alien to most superhero films. I love the Avengers franchise, but next to Spider-Man 2, even the quietest scenes on Hawkeye’s farm feel a bit melodramatic.
The movie starts with Peter rushing to fulfill “Joe’s 29-minute pizza delivery guarantee.” It’s not about fight scenes or villainous plots or MacGuffins. It’s about Peter’s own ability to balance friendships, career, education, and responsibility as a hero. He spends the film juggling the metaphorical brooms falling out of the closet of his life. The later conflict with Doc Ock serves as dressing for this deeper story.
Superhero movies struggle between depth and action, realism, and comicbookiness. But Spider-Man 2 performs both in one leap. It sticks the landing and looks back at the other movies standing nervously behind it as if to say, “What’s the big deal?”
A Historic Impact
In 2006, Marvel reset the Spider-Man comics continuity. Unlike most such reboots, this one stuck. In the controversial One More Day arc, Marvel erased Peter’s marriage and sent him back to the twenty-something limbo in which he’s still living.
Printed in back of the first post-reboot Spider-Man volume, you’ll find Tom Brevoort’s “Spider-Man Manifesto” (perhaps the greatest tragedy here is that he didn’t call it the “Spider-Manifesto”). The piece reads like a manual for writers. Brevoort points out the book’s recent failures and outlines a path forward.
Most strikingly, the second major subheading of Brevoort’s manifesto is simply this: “Spider-Man 2 Gets It Right.”
He shows how Spider-Man 2 captures the essentials—Peter’s financial and romantic struggles, the tension between that and his superhero life—and explains how the new comics follow this formula.
For better or worse, Spider-Man 2 has served as a north star for over a decade of Spider-Man comics. Marvel looked at this movie and saw pure Spider-Man—a purity even their own comics failed to achieve. And they rebooted the entire continuity to match that vision.
Spider-Man 2 influenced the epic Dan Scott run and—by extension—almost all the Spider-Man media to follow. When you read Brevoort’s outline, you can’t help but notice Spider-Man 2’s fingerprints on even the Marvel’s Spider-Man video game and Into the Spider-Verse.
There’s a real argument to be made that Spider-Man 2 has had a greater influence on the character than any other single story.
Does It Hold Up?
It’s not a perfect superhero movie. Peter’s social awkwardness sometimes ventures into the realm of real-world cringe. It’s one of the funniest Spider-Man movies, but the humor rarely comes from Spidey’s mouth. The movie also falls prey to some over-convenience. And I’m not sure how Doc Ock plans to purchase the parts he needs with the gold coins he nabbed from the bank, or why he didn’t just steal the parts in the first place, other than that the filmmakers really wanted a fight scene in a bank.
But even with these faults, the film holds up. In many ways, it actually benefits from arriving before the superhero zeitgeist. Director Sam Raimi’s horror sensibilities shine through just enough, in ways that a modern superhero film might not permit (see the scene where Doc Ock’s arms murder a room of doctors while Octavius lies comatose).
Is It Still The Best?
If you ask me, Spider-Man 2 still holds the title. It’s not a perfect film, but it captures something special. It hits a magic formula that just makes you say, “There it is. There’s Spider-Man.”
I don’t have space to do justice to so many of the film’s strengths: the way it’s shot through with literature, using Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as a commentary on the story; Tobey Maguire’s hilarious and heartbreaking everyman performance; J.K. Simmons’ iconic Jameson.
Even the other contenders for best Spider-Man film owe something of their spirit to this movie. After fifteen years, nothing else captures Peter Parker quite like this.
Danny Elfman's Score9.0/10
Quotability After 15 years10.0/10
English Literature 10110.0/10
- A small but powerful story steeped in real emotion
- Huge impact on Spider-Man history
- Fantastic performances
- The special effects still hold up
- Not enough Spidey humor
- Poor pizza delivery speed