#4: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Despite being a fine example of a superhero sequel, X2 (2003) was significantly lower on my list because in my opinion it didn’t surpass the first film in any meaningful way. The things I liked about X2 were extremely familiar, because they were the same things I liked about X-Men. It was a fairly “perfect” film in the sense that it didn’t have any serious flaws, but it also didn’t really go “above and beyond” in any meaningful way. I honestly don’t get why people see it as such a clear improvement over the first film. And you know what? That’s really okay, because it didn’t need to be an improvement. Maybe the issue is less that I’m underrated X2 and more that a lot of people are underrated X-Men. (Or, if you like, perhaps I’m overrating X-Men.)
I have no such reservations about Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man (2002) set the tone for the series, introducing the characters and relationships that would be the heart of the films, but Spider-Man 2 was really the big payoff. At its heart, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was about people and relationships more than it was merely about superheroics. If we only had the first film to examine, we might easily have missed this, but in the second film it becomes glaringly obvious (in a good way.) Raimi often seems much more interested in Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) than he is with Spider-Man, showing his very real-life, down-to-earth problems. A large portion of this film actually has Peter “quit” being Spider-Man. The film explores Peter’s motivation on a very personal level, which makes his heroics in the final act that much more satisfying.
The relationships in Peter’s life that were introduced in the first film all reach (or at least approach) their culmination in the sequel. The film finally sees Peter confess his role in Uncle Ben’s death to Aunt May (Rosemary Harris.) When Peter is torn between his duty as Spider-Man and wanting to be happy as Peter Parker, Aunt May delivers the words of wisdom he severely needs.
Harry Osborn (James Franco), once Peter’s best friend, has become obsessed with Spider-Man to an unhealthy degree in the wake of his father’s death. Franco does an exceptional job of portraying the increasingly unhinged Osborn, and the gradually building tension boils over when Harry discovers Spider-Man’s true identity. The conflict here is left unresolved, but it is left truly at its most dramatic moment.
Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), pretty easily the most central relationship in the series, moves forward in the most dramatic way possible. It develops over the course of the entire film, with several reversals and twists and terms, until ultimately reaching its culmination, which serves as the true emotional climax in a film full of mini-emotional climaxes.
The funny thing about saying Raimi often seemed more interested in Peter Parker than Spider-Man is, of course, that Raimi’s rendition of Spider-Man is the most unapologetic, straightforward depiction of a comic book hero we saw until The Avengers. I really discussed this aspect in considerable detail in my review of the first film, but I thought it bore at least mentioning again here because it really is one of the most essential features of the film, and series.
An improvement I really didn’t expect was the villain. Green Goblin was an excellent villain in the first film, and I didn’t see any reason to think he would be easily surpassed in the sequel. And then Dr. Otto Octavius/”Doc Ock” (Alfred Molina) took one of the most well-written villains I’ve ever seen in a superhero film and made it even better with his incredible performance.
Despite being strictly a side character, Dr. Curt Connors (Dylan Baker) is refreshingly well-written and played, which makes how the character was squandered in /The Amazing Spider-Man all the more frustrating. Comedic relief is supplied by the inestimable J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) and, of course, the obligatory cameo by Bruce Campbell.
Although I don’t consider Spider-Man 3 the Worst Thing Ever like many fans, I honestly think the reason it suffers such harsh criticism is that there may not have been anywhere Raimi really could’ve gone from Spider-Man 2. Maybe this series should’ve only been two films long, because it’s difficult imagining him topping Spider-Man 2.
(Then again, quick aside: comic books–and the animated adaptations that have often been more faithful than their live-action counterparts–have always been pretty episodic in nature. So I wouldn’t really have had a problem with nothing “topping” Spider-Man 2. But that’s a completely theoretical discussion so I’ll leave it be for now.)