Freditorial: Is Spider-Man 2 As Good As We Remember?

I know, right? An original sequel. We have reached the point where that is now a distinction that has to be made. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in theaters around the world now, and hitting the States this week, we wanted to take a look back at the previous Spider-Man 2 in Sam Raimi’s trilogy. Still considered by many the greatest superhero movie ever made, what made Spider-Man 2 so special and what would Amazing Spider-Man 2 have to be to reach that peak?

Spider-Man was greeted with much enthusiasm in 2002. After decades of trying to make a Spider-Man movie, including development by James Cameron, visual effects finally made it possible for Spidey to sling around the city. Audiences loved Raimi’s tone of lighthearted sincerity, with its message of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Some fans were upset that cinema’s Peter Parker sprouted organic webshooters from his arms (Cameron’s idea, according to Raimi) instead of building them himself. Some complained the CGI looked too cartoony and many lamented the multitude of scenes of Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe performing full dialogue behind immovable masks. Overall, in the early days of the comic book movie, Spider-Man was considered a revelation and the final ingredient to getting comic books taken seriously by Hollywood. I, for one, enjoyed the sincerity of seeing Dafoe and Maguire do those masked scenes and taking them as seriously as their Oscar-nominated films.

So Spider-Man 2 continued the story of Peter Parker (Maguire) trying to balance his new life as a superhero with real life, where having super powers did not in fact help him become a popular guy. Peter is spread so thin responding to every tingling of his Spidey sense that he often misses important engagements with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), Harry Osborn (James Franco) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), not to mention his part time jobs. Since he can’t reveal his secret identity, Peter’s friends just think he’s a flake. We all have to deal with time management and balancing our commitments, but the metaphor of Spider-Man actually committing to saving lives provides a palpable demonstration of this universal conflict.

Meanwhile, scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) has developed four robotic tentacles to help him operate Oscorp’s latest fusion device. The experiment goes wrong, fusing the tentacles to Octavius and killing his wife (Donna Murphy). Otto becomes the villain Dr. Octopus and robs banks to fund his further research. Crushed by his company’s latest failure, Harry can only focus on bringing Spider-Man to justice, whom he still believes killed his father and won’t find out the truth about until Spider-Man 3. He does, however, find out Spidey’s secret identity as Peter.

Spider-Man 2 does a great job of forwarding the Peter Parker story without sacrificing it for action, but there is plentiful action as well. In fact, the first 20 minutes or so plays like a domestic drama and you almost forget it’s a superhero movie until Spidey shows up to save the day. The conflict with Harry stretches to a near breaking point. Peter’s relationship with MJ is not all roses, and it’s hard enough to maintain as a friendship after Peter rebuffed MJ at the end of Spider-Man 1 to protect her from Spidey’s enemies. Raimi still finds time to have fun with Spider-Man, and at his expense, opening the film with Peter using his superpowers to deliver pizza, and wasting time fumbling around in a janitor’s closet.

The visual effects are quantifiably improved in the sequel. Spider-Man and Doc Ock have real weight, which was perhaps lacking in the first film’s Spidey and Green Goblin. I didn’t mind because they were still comic book superheroes, but the action sequences in Spider-Man 2 are truly next level. A particular standout sequence has Spidey rescue Aunt May from Doc Ock after Ock robbed a bank.

At a certain point, Spider-Man’s powers start to fail, as he is so exhausted his personal life wears out his “professional” powers as well. Peter decides to give up being Spider-Man to focus on his personal life, a nod to the “Spider-Man No More” storyline from the comic books. An injury even has Peter stoking his injured back, which felt like a reference to a real life injury which almost kept Maguire from returning to the role. Maguire claimed it was already in the script and just a coincidence. Even as Peter enjoys focusing on his personal life, with a particularly goofy “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” montage culminating in a freeze frame, Doc Ock is still out there. When Spidey is called back into action, his powers come back in full force and Spidey saves a runaway subway full of passengers. With his mask tattered, the New York Public agrees to keep Spider-Man’s identity a secret, furthering the story of Spider-Man winning over the public while the media (The Daily Bugle) keeps trying to frame him as a villain.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 enters the saga in a distinctly different environment. The Amazing Spider-Man was successful but not universally adored, plus it was not the first Spider-Man movie. It was, quite questionably, a remake only 10 years after the long-awaited original. ASM 2 begins with more of an uphill battle to reclaim the franchise, although less of an uphill battle than perhaps a Spider-Man 4 might have. However, without the mandate to retell an origin story we already know, ASM 2 could go anywhere and be as original as it wants to be.

The Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) of Amazing Spider-Man was much more self-assured and less overextended than Maguire’s. Maybe Amazing 2 is where it all becomes unmanageable, or maybe this Peter’s personal problems will be different. He hasn’t even gotten his job at the Daily Bugle yet so work may not be the issue, plus we haven’t heard “The Untold Story” we were promised yet. The villain in Amazing Spider-Man 2 is Electro, hardly as well known as Doc Ock but what can you do when the original trilogy burned through the most iconic villains? We will get a new Green Goblin, with Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) filling his ailing father (Chris Cooper)’s shoes. Since he wasn’t a high school chum of Peter’s, and Peter hasn’t killed his father yet, their dynamic will be different.

Despite its unimpeachable reputation, I feel there is some room for improvement upon the original Spider-Man 2. I was actually surprised it became as beloved as it was and I didn’t see it coming. At the film’s 2004 press screening, I felt a little let down after the promise of the first one, but I tried to be positive. I even tried to coax one colleague out of his depression. Now, ten years of Spider-Man 2 praise later, I’m about to try to pull back the curtain and expose some of the weaknesses in a universally adored film.

Though it was based on the classic “Spider-Man No More,” the whole subplot of Peter losing his powers rang false to me. I get that it’s a metaphor for impotence or any manifestation of exhaustion, but I don’t believe that psychosomatic effects would extend to mutant super powers. I bought into the idea that once Peter was bitten by a generically altered spider, he stuck to walls and shot webs, permanently. That doesn’t just go away when you don’t want it anymore, and if it does, it certainly doesn’t just come back when you want it again. When I’m exhausted I may get weak or unfocused, but I don’t lose the abilities to see and hear. A more relevant story to me would have been that Peter tries to go back to a normal life but still has to deal with sticking to walls and shooting web at inopportune times. I also bought into the first movie’s idea that gaining super powers meant fulfilling daunting responsibilities, but if the powers come and go at will, for what exactly does he have to be responsible?

I also contest that Doc Ock was a sympathetic villain like Green Goblin was. Otto Octavius was a megalomaniac before he got transformed. You can see in his dinner with Peter that he’s condescending and egotistical, and it was clear the fusion experiment was going badly because he pushed it to deadly ends. I guess I’ve been hurt by too many people in my life, I see the red flags before they grow robotic tentacles. Not a problem if he’s supposed to be a terrifying threat, but the film clearly sees him as sympathetic. Also, Molina is such a good actor that he could win over audiences playing Darth Vader if he wanted to.

I’m also surprised that a few scenes of glaring redundancy get a pass in Spider-Man 2. Particularly, a scene where Peter explains to Aunt May his involvement in Uncle Ben’s death feels sluggishly repetitive. The point of the scene is that Peter comes clean about his involvement, that he could have stopped the mugger but didn’t, and she forgives him. However, there are much more dramatic ways to make this point than simply having Tobey Maguire sit down and retell the story of Spider-Man 1. I mean, were they worried audiences who didn’t see the first one would be lost? The $400 million domestic grossing Spider-Man 1? I think at a certain point you don’t have to recap anymore. Everybody saw it.

Aunt May also likes to pontificate about what it means to be a hero. Spider-Man already has the moral “with great power comes great responsibility” and I don’t think there’s any greater message for a superhero movie, not even The Dark Knight, although “the hero they want vs. the hero they deserve” is pretty poignant too. Anyway, I think Spider-Man firmly established what the theme of Spider-Man was and Spider-Man 2 was doing a perfectly good job of exploring it. Further pontificating felt more like saying, “With great power comes great responsibility, and also this. And also this too. And more of this!” May also has a line after Spidey rescues her from Doc Ock that I just don’t understand. Spidey says, “We showed him” and she responds, “What do you mean we?” Is she giving Spider-Man the credit he deserves? If so, she sounds really angry.

And the cake scene. Peter sits down with his landlord’s daughter (Mageina Tovah) to have a piece of cake. Maybe it’s showing that Peter is still too awkward to have a relationship other than Mary Jane? To me it just stops the movie dead. I just assumed this would be the scene where Mary Jane barges in on Peter and gets the wrong idea that he’s already involved with Cake Girl, so at least they didn’t pull that cliché.

Those issues didn’t bother many other viewers and it seems Spider-Man 2 spoke to them even more than the original. To some, remaking Spider-Man 2 might even seem like a more successful proposition than remaking Spider-Man 1. Unless it’s an amazingly well kept secret, Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not doing “Spider-Man No More” again, although mechanical web shooters would mean no need for psychosomatic web loss. There’s every possibility that Electro or Harry Osborn will be more sympathetic than I found Doc Ock, but it might be smart to ditch the sympathetic villain thing and just create a memorable bad guy. If it carries the Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) story to its inevitable conclusion, that could be a stark reminder that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Super powers can’t always save the day.

It seems that time has proven my Spider-Man 2 nitpicks insubstantial, since fans still look upon it as a landmark superhero movie, displaying both a wide breadth of character dynamics, and a focus on one story, one theme. It gave fans the spectacle they wanted with the foundation of beloved characters. What’s a piece of cake here and there in light of all that?

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.