Following the events that took place in the first film, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is now struggling to balance his crime-fighting duties as Spider-Man with his personal life. His grades at college are slipping, he can’t hold down a decent job and his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is becoming more and more complicated. On top of that, his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) is vowing revenge against Spider-Man for the death of his father, unaware that the web-slinger is Peter.
To help Peter with a school assignment, Harry – now the head of Oscorp’s research division – sets up an interview with Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a brilliant nuclear scientist who’s attempting to perfect a sustainable energy source through fusion. To conduct his research, he uses a harness with four robotic AI arms that connect to his body, containing an inhibitor chip that allows Dr. Octavius’s mind to remain in control. While conducting his research for an audience, a power spike causes the experiment to malfunction, fusing the robotic harness to his spine and destroying the inhibitor chip. With the arms now having sentience, Dr. Octopus – a new nemesis for Spider-Man – is born.
In 2002, director Sam Raimi brought us the first Spider-Man film, which received much critical and financial acclaim. At the time, it was the only film to reach at least $100 million in its opening weekend. That there was all the reason the studio really needed to green-light a sequel, and that sequel here proved to be a stepping stone not just for its own series, but for comic book films in general.
Typically, middle films of any series are the easiest for the director and writer. The origin story is out of the way, and in the event they plan on a third film, they don’t have to have a definitive conclusion. The second entry is always the meat portion of the franchise, and that’s why a lot of times, not always, the second film of a franchise is always the strongest (The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, The Road Warrior, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, I’d say The Godfather Part II, but that’s more on par with the original than exceeding it). 2002′s Spider-Man was fun and greatly entertaining, but not without its flaws (Goblin’s mask, for one). Spider-Man 2 improved upon the original in almost every aspect: story, character development, villain, visuals and tone.
Here, we see Peter Parker jaded and burned out. Being Spider-Man has now become a burden for him. As his Uncle Ben stated, “With great power comes great responsibility.”, but that power of his has now caused him to lose focus of work, school and his personal relationships. He plays the role of Spider-Man now simply ’cause he feels he has to, not ’cause he wants to, and that emotional depth given to Parker, provided by a great Tobey Maguire performance, is one of the strongest elements of this film. You know you have a great comic book film when you can strip it of all the visual effects and you’re still left with an emotional story. That’s not to say much effort and focus weren’t placed on the effects. Doc Ock’s arms are proof enough as to the great detail they put into the visuals, and Spider-Man’s powers and flight sequences here are a visual improvement over the first film. This film’s overall focus isn’t on the superpowers, though, it’s on the man behind them. We certainly can’t relate to having superpowers, but many of us can relate to Peter’s everyday struggles.
As one of Spider-Man’s most memorable villains, and one of the best onscreen comic villains, Alfred Molina injects menace, humor and humanity into Dr. Octopus. This is a man who’s not only introduced as a good man, he provides Peter with advice that shapes his character for the film. “Intelligence is not a privilege, it’s a gift. And you use it for the good of mankind.” Octavius is a decent man that’s been overtaken by evil. He’s also the perfect villain for Raimi to work with. By Spider-Man 2, Raimi had already dabbled in westerns (The Quick and the Dead), superhero flicks (Spider-Man, Darkman), sports dramas (For Love of the Game) and the vastly underrated, Coen-esque thriller A Simple Plan. He got his start, though, in horror, creating the cult classic horror film The Evil Dead, and there are moments here where Raimi’s horror sensibilities get an opportunity to shine. Scenes such as Doc Ock’s introduction in an operating room, where one of his tentacles drags a screaming surgeon back toward a darkened corner as she scrapes her fingernails across the floor are a reminder of the terror insight that put Raimi’s name on the map.
The remaining supporting cast shines just as bright. Rosemary Harris is usually the veteran acting presence in these films that’s reduced to a couple scene cameo, but gets a good share of heartfelt moments with Maguire. James Franco plays Harry Osborn with a fine balance between the friend of Peter’s and the enemy of Spider-Man he’d eventually become (one of the big letdowns of Spider-Man 3, by the way). J. K. Simmons may only have a minor part here, but he steals handily every single scene he is in as Daily Bugle staple J. Jonah Jameson, the Perry White of Spider-Man, and Kirsten Dunst avoids any sign of conventionality, bringing heart to the girlfriend Peter wishes he had, but feels he blew his opportunity. She may have moved on from Parker, but there’s a kissing scene she shares with her astronaut fiance that reveals to us maybe she hasn’t. You’ll know it when you see it.
Spider-Man 2, most notably, handles a task with such ease that some films of the same genre struggle with – providing equal amounts of emotional weight to each of the many subplots. Nothing is painted over in broad strokes. Aunt May’s financial struggles, Harry’s personal animosity for Spider-Man, Peter’s guilt over his Uncle Ben’s death, and Mary Jane’s relationship dilemma are all given enough time to breathe and develop, without taking anything away from the other. That’s a testament to Raimi and two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent’s strength as a director and writer, respectively.
Spider-Man 2 not only was an improvement over its predecessor, it set the bar for comic books films in the early 21st century. The special effects, fun and excitement that pleases the web-slinger faithful are certainly there, but the deeper emotional focus and multi-dimensional characters are really the keys to this film’s greatness. That is what drew and continues to draw viewers of all kinds – comic and non-comic fans alike – to this film, which proves to be one of the great comic book adaptions to ever grace the screen.