I love Spider-Man 2. Unabashedly. Wholeheartedly. With Spider-Man: No Way Home finally out, I wanted to revisit my favorite Spider-Man movie of all time—why I love it as a drama over a comic book action movie, and why, frankly, I’m forever nostalgic for the standalone superhero movie.
Not trying enrage any fanbases here. I like Andrew Garfield’s earnestness as an actor and I dig the childish naivete that Tom Holland has in spades, both perfect for the role. But it’s clear that their sagas are more interested in the larger Marvel sandbox than the character. Like, imagine a breakneck movie with Garfield’s Spider-Man maskless and on the run from cops while rounding up criminals in one frenetic night. Or an actual John Hughes-inspired film (instead of a series of montages) that has nothing to do with Tony Stark and focuses solely on Holland’s Peter Parker trying to survive the school year. HUGE missed opportunities imo.
Respectfully, each rebooted iteration of the web crawler hasn’t quite hit the same high for me. I suppose it’s not fair to play the comparison game when Sony had wildly different agendas for each version. Or perhaps more simply, I was ruined in the summer of 2004 because Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 still remains the undisputed game-changer for me 17 years later. It’s not only my pick for the best Spidey movie, but the best superhero movie ever made.
I could distill my argument down to the first 20 minutes of the movie: Peter Parker loses a job as pizza delivery guy, lucks out on a paycheck at the Daily Bugle, misses class yet again, then he learns Aunt May’s house is facing foreclosure, and finally, he finds out MJ is seeing someone. This is all before we get to his rinky-dink apartment where a whole bunch of other problems in his life hit harder.
Spider-Man saved a bunch of kids in the beginning, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you forgot about that completely in the rapid series of events. Raimi doesn’t alter the lighting nor dampen or exaggerate the colors to signal what’s going on emotionally for Peter. He presents everything exactly the same. Because Peter’s journey is ours too. He has to see the lessons for himself just as we do, and we’re deep in the lesson as soon as the movie starts.
Raimi states it bluntly – this is the life of Spider-Man. This is the cost of being a hero. Every perceived “win” for Spider-Man comes with 3 or 4 losses for Peter. He’s not rewarded for saving lives, as the Bugle’s headlines like to remind him. In fact, the film’s beat-by-beat synopsis reads a lot like he’s being punished throughout.
Peter is simultaneously everywhere and going nowhere with his life. He can save people at their most vulnerable, but he can’t save his life from falling apart, or his loved ones for that matter. He and MJ are further apart than when they were in high school, his friendship with Harry is splintering, and he’s losing the house he grew up in. Everything he does or doesn’t do has profound consequences.
There are some things he can’t sense or save in the nick of time. He can take punches but he can’t take rejection, regret, guilt. This is what makes Spider-Man 2 so fascinating all these years later in the heyday of the MCU. It’s a film that’s remarkably light and breezy on the action, and SO MUCH MORE dramatic and emotional damn near every step of the way.
Raimi isn’t as interested in spectacle than he is in examining the very nature of heroism, and questioning why someone would run into a burning building. (Though he knows how to stage high-flying spectacle; he makes us earn the show-stopping train sequence.) He puts a keen emphasis on Peter’s existential crisis over anything else in the movie, even Doc Ock’s villain plot that will put the entire New York City in danger. Spider-Man 2 is the rare superhero character study, and a brutal one at that.
Uncle Ben’s iconic proverb hits twice as hard; Peter’s trials compound to the point that he essentially gives up being Spider-Man. But Uncle Ben’s words bear double the revelation going all the way back to Spider-Man’s “origin” moment. Peter could’ve easily stopped the robber that killed Uncle Ben. He didn’t, and it cost him. He learns after that there’s a difference between justice and self-satisfaction, between doing something and letting it happen. Peter, of course, never asked to be bitten by a radioactive spider. He was thrust with unexpected power and had to learn responsibility the hard way like a superhero coming-of-age tale.
In the first film, he understood that the Green Goblin had to be stopped, or in his own words verbatim: “somebody has to.” In Spider-Man 2, Peter understands that only he can stop Doc Ock. “Spider-Man will always have enemies,” he says to MJ at the end. Stopping one bad guy means two more will rise up and so forth. Life won’t magically rearrange itself to accommodate Peter. If Spider-Man is the only one who can solve the massive trolley problem at each point of danger, then this means Peter will have to sacrifice himself, always, and in more ways than one. This is why I’ll take standalone superhero movies over interconnected universes any day, because this responsibility wouldn’t fall on anyone else by default, and thus it weighs heavier on Peter’s scrawny shoulders.
I’m making Spider-Man 2 sound like a depressing gauntlet (honestly, it kind of is), but even in those first 20 minutes, there are pockets of hope in between the bad and the soul-crushing blows. Like Betty Brant telling him to keep his chin up, or Aunt May and the gang surprising him for his birthday. (The spare decorations in May’s tiny home always get me.) Good things don’t happen often to Peter, so when they do come around, it’s tremendously felt. At his most conflicted, the landlord’s daughter Ursula offers Peter a slice of chocolate cake. That dessert – or the plate, I guess – should be in a film history museum.
It’s such a small yet meaningful gesture, done with no expectation for reward or reciprocation, but done simply out of kindness. And, in the great sewer of New York, it shines like a revelation. As the moment ends, he gets word that Aunt May is giving up the house after all, so Ursula in a loveably endearing way was trying to soften the news for Peter. Mind you, this is all implied. Ursula doesn’t give Peter or the audience any explanation as to why she does this for him. She just does it.
A scene earlier, Peter runs into a burning building to save a kid. He doesn’t wait to confirm with anyone that there might be a kid up there. Someone says there’s a kid and Peter doesn’t flinch. He only pauses beforehand when he realizes he doesn’t have the suit. He’s not Spider-Man anymore, he’s just Peter. Peter nonetheless saves a life.
After the fire’s been extinguished, he overhears that someone else was trapped in the building and had perished. In one shot, Raimi pans the camera from Peter to the firefighter who breaks the news and then back to Peter. He feels responsible, but why? He didn’t cause the fire. In fact, he did what no one else would do in the moment. And he shoulders the blame anyway.
He’s Spider-Man, even when he doesn’t want to be.
Uncle Ben might get the iconic line, but Aunt May gets all the emotionally pivotal scenes. I’m on the verge of tears every time Rosemary Harris speaks: “I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us steady, gives us strength…” Aunt May starts the movie bearing the burden of Uncle Ben’s death. She blames herself for no reason, which Peter manages to save her from by telling her the truth. May, then, absolves any question of the blame entirely.
People are saving and protecting Peter and he doesn’t realize how often this is happening. Maybe we don’t realize it either because it’s not as explicit as stopping a car, or saving someone from falling to their death. But people like Aunt May, MJ, Ursula, Betty, and the people on the train are out there every day, shouldering their own responsibilities and fighting their own battles. Only Peter Parker can be Spider-Man, but being a hero can mean so many different things.
When Peter’s mask comes off following the show-stopping train sequence and the passengers promise to keep his identity a secret, Peter sees finally that he’s surrounded by good people more often than not. The trolley problem is reversed – there’s only one Doc Ock, but there’s a whole train full of people ready to stand up for Spider-Man. These people owe him nothing and they do this for him anyway. It’s these tiny moments that are enough for Peter, that inspire him to don the costume again after giving it up. This next time around, he’s now fully aware that being Spider-Man will cost him everything as Peter Parker. And he gets up and does it anyway.
We’d like to imagine ourselves as Spider-Man but I don’t think any of us would last a day. Why would anyone want to be a hero? Selflessness and self-sacrifice often means bearing the blame. It means watching people die. It means giving up on our dreams. That in and of itself IS heroic, from running into a burning building, to protecting someone from the truth. Spider-Man 2 is a brutal yet hopeful tale about the heart and soul of a hero – about the unspoken heroes in our lives in every incarnation of the word – and how heroism isn’t rewarded, but is returned in kind when we need it most.
I’ll take one slice of chocolate cake over a thousand Avengers assembling any day.