Immediately after Spider-Man 2002’s success, director Sam Raimi signed on for a sequel. A sequel that, to this day, many consider to be among the greatest superhero movies of all-time. Although it didn’t make quite as much money as the first, with $789 million on a $200 million budget, it was no doubt a very successful film.
Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who co-created the Smallville TV series that started airing the year before, soon joined in to help write the script. David Koepp, who wrote the final script for the first movie, also came back for the sequel. Koepp by the way is up there with the most successful film screenwriters of all-time. Some of his other credits include Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (which he also worked as a second unit director), the first Mission Impossible movie, Zathura, Toy Soldiers, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull … well, I didn’t say all of his movies are good.
A lot of people don’t remember this, but Tobey Maguire was fired from the title role at one point in pre-production over a pre-existing back condition, which started bothering him in late 2002. Jake Gyllenhaal was actually hired to replace him, partly thanks to Gyllenhaal resembling Maguire. Ronald Meyer, then Maguire’s girlfriend’s father and head of Universal Studios, helped him regain the role. Gyllenhaal would move on to portraying Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Among those considered for the role of Doctor Octopus, Ed Harris, Chris Cooper and Christopher Walken were up there. As awesome as Walken is, I’m not convinced he would have been the right choice. I could see Harris or Cooper doing a good job, but they ended up casting Alfred Molina. He was chosen based on his performance in Frida, which impressed Raimi, and also felt that Molina’s physical size felt true to the character. Molina was a big fan of Marvel Comics, but wasn’t actually too familiar with Doc Ock before accepting the role. After doing his research, he wanted to maintain the character’s cruel sense of humour.
Spider-Man 2 featured over 100 filming locations, higher than normal even for a bid budget film. Some of the pre-shoot filming took place in November 2002, before they even settled on the cast. This was mostly the background footage of Spider-Man 2’s train fight, including the train itself, several stations. The main filming was originally supposed to begin in January 2003, but was delayed so that Maguire could finish filming Seabiscuit. Instead, filming began in April, with most of it taking place in either Chicago or New York, with production moving to the studios in Los Angeles about a month later.
Even after his back problem scare, Maguire insisted on performing a lot of his stunts. He even made fun of it, coming up with the “my back, my back” line after he landed hard on a car while trying to regain his powers. Impressively enough, even Rosemary Harris (Aunt May) did most of her own stunts despite being 73, which even put her stunt double out of work. On the other hand, Molina joked that his stunt double would occasionally trick him into performing a stunt every now and then.
The set of the final fight, a collapsed warehouse on a pier, actually caused an 8-week hiatus in filming. Production designer Neil Spisak came up with the idea of Otto Octavius (Doc Ock) working in such an environment to symbolize how his life had collapsed and become more monstrous. It took 15 weeks to build the set, longer than anticipated.
The production also used a method ironically called Spydercam to help show Spider-Man’s world view, which used movable cameras on cables. Sometimes these shots dropped the camera 50 stories or moved them 2,400 feet in a single shot. These cameras would often shoot at 6 frames a second for faster playback, and were motion controlled, making them more cost-effective than normal for the method.
Spider-Man 2’s effects crew worked to reduce CGI as much as possible. They hired Edge FX to build Doc Ock’s suit, with functioning metal tentacles used in many of the shots. Molina referred to each tentacle by name, with “Larry”, “Harry”, “Moe”, and “Flo” … Flo being the top-right tentacle generally operated by a female grip. Flo was often the one used for delicate operations like removing his sunglasses or lighting his cigar. CGI was of course used on the tentacles any time he used them to travel, and during some of the fight scene shots, generally using a CGI actor for Doc Ock as well.
The visual effects team as a whole sought to make the worst shot in Spider-Man 2 better than the best shot in the first movie. For the most part, I’d say they succeeded, with this movie looking noticeably better than the first. It’s visually aged very well, whereas some shots in the first movie looked bad even when it released.
The first trailers for this movie showed before Return of the King, with later trailers releasing in April 2004.
Spider-Man 2 released in June 30th of 2004, breaking the first movie’s then record of $39.4 million on opening day, with $40.4 million. That record would be beaten a year later by Star Wars episode 3 with $50 million. It also beat Return of the King’s record for the highest grossing Wednesday, a record it held for three years until Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It also surpassed the record for the largest July opening weekend, previously held by Austin Powers in Goldmember, as well as Men In Black II’s record for the biggest Fourth of July opening weekend of all-time. That record lasted for 7 years, until Transformers: Dark of the Moon (ugh), surpassed it.
Perhaps most impressively, its record of $27.6 million for a Monday remained the best ever for 11 years, until Star Wars: The Force Awakens, surpassed it.
Spider-Man 2 also did very well with the critics, earning a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 8.3/10. The Chicago Tribune’s review stated that it “improves on its predecessor in almost every way.” The Los Angeles Times review said pretty much the same, adding that “Doc Ock grabs this film with his quartet of sinisterly serpentine mechanical arms and refuses to let go.” Roger Ebert gave Spider-Man 2 4 out of 4, calling it the best superhero movie since 1978’s Superman, and later called it the 4th best film of the year. On that note, he gave the first movie 2.5 out of 4. Retrospective reviews remain fairly positive as well. In 2013, Forbes described it as “not just one of the greatest sequels, but one of the best films of the genre, period.” In 2018, Film School Rejects referred it as “the best summer movie ever”, comparing it positively against both The Avengers and The Dark Knight.
I wouldn’t go that far, but Spider-Man 2 is a very good movie. It improves on the first in almost every way. The drama hits harder. The action is more impressive, with longer fight scenes spread more evenly throughout the film for improved pacing over the original. The visuals have aged very well, which isn’t always true for mid-2000’s action movies. The writing is better overall, with fewer silly lines in exchange for smarter comedic moments. Even the acting is overall better than the first, and it was good in the first.
Along with Maguire and Murphy, all of the major surviving characters from the first movie return with the same actors. You’ve got Kristen Dunst as Mary Jane, and she remains pretty much perfect for the role. You’ve got James Franco as Harry Osborne, whose performance is much more complex and layered this time round. That’s because of the direction the story takes his character, not because his performance wasn’t already great in the first movie. Last but not least, you’ve got J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, in what might be his most entertaining performance in the Spider-Man franchise. That’s saying a lot.
In addition to the returning cast, Daniel Gillies plays John Jameson (more on him soon). Dylan Baker is Dr. Curt Connors, one of Peter’s professors and a colleague of Otto Octavius. Bruce Campbell cameos again, this time as an usher who refuses to let Peter into Mary Jane’s play late. Some other cameos include Emily Deschanel as a receptionist who refuses to pay for late pizza, Aasif Mandvi as the owner of Joe’s Pizza (who fires Peter for delivering the pizza late), and twins Peyton and Spencer List making their on-screen debuts as kids playing on stairs. Peyton has since developed a fairly successful career, and Spencer is still appearing in movies and TV shows as well. And of course, Willem Dafoe briefly appears as a hallucination of Harry’s father at the end of the movie, a cameo that Dafoe himself came up with.
Dramatically speaking, this movie really takes Peter Parker through the ringer. He’s struggling in school, often showing up late for class and often being too tired to pay attention even when he is there. He’s struggling to keep up with rent in his dingy apartment. He’s sitting on the sidelines as Mary Jane is dating someone else. He can’t seem to hold onto a regular job. Even his friendships are strained, with an increasingly depressed and aggressive Harry constantly pressuring him about Spider-Man, Peter being known as his photographer. The first movie basically ended with Norman Osborn’s death, and Spider-Man dropping him off at home but unable to leave before Harry spots him. Harry now blames Spider-Man for his father’s death, a major plot point that affects both this movie and Spider-Man 3.
For the most part, this drama works very well, while at the same time Raimi sprinkles in enough humour to avoid making this movie straight up depressing. For years though, my biggest complaint for this movie had to do with the Mary Jane side of the drama. Through most of the movie it works quite well, with Mary Jane getting engaged to John Jameson (JJ Jameson’s son and an astronaut). Peter says some stupid things in relation to this, straining their friendship further, in addition to failing to see her play even after her abusive father does. What always bothered me is that it reaches the point where she’s about to get married to John, but leaves him at the alter mere days after learning that Peter is also Spider-Man. That always felt like a bit much to me.
That said, Spider-Man 2.1 lessons that problem for me. This is actually my first time watching the extended cut (I watched both in preparation for this blog post), and while the theatrical cut has a couple small moments here and there showing Mary Jane’s doubt in her relationship with John, the extended cut does a much better job at it. There’s even an extra scene where one of her friends asks if she truly loves John, or is partly getting married just to show her father that she can amount to something. It’s a small little scene, but it adds quite a bit to Mary Jane’s character arc in this movie.
On that note, the 2.1 extended cut is for the most part a noticeable improvement on the movie. It extends several action scenes, in ways that not only give us more of the very well made fights between Spider-man and Doctor Octopus, but show their fights from the viewpoint of civilians in ways that make them feel bigger and more impactful. There’s added comedy, like JJ Jameson wearing Spider-Man’s costume for a bit in a moment that’s not only funny, but also makes you wonder whether he actually hates Spider-Man or if he secretly admires the hero.
There is one extended scene that probably should have been left out though; the extended scene with Spider-Man in an elevator. The original version was hilariously awkward and short. The extended version goes on for too long, and is awkward in a different yet not the least bit entertaining way. Also, it doesn’t add more of John Jameson, who is in the movie so little that he might as well just be a cameo. Considering he’s actually a big character in the comics, he feels like a wasted addition. He even joined the Avengers for a while as Man-Wolf, and even briefly married She-Hulk, although that attraction was accidentally influenced by Starfox’s out of control pheromones.
Yeah, comics are kind of weird sometimes.
Back to JJ Jameson wearing Spider-Man’s costume. That revolves around a major dramatic moment in the movie, where Peter starts losing his powers because of his emotional state. It reaches the point where he completely gives up on being Spider-Man for a while, a moment that’s straight out of the comics. Giving up his superhero life seems to be a major improvement at first. He finds school a lot easier, and soon approaches being the top of his class. He starts improving his relationships. He starts keeping up with rent. There are several moments that question this decision though. He rushes into a burning building and saves a kid, only to learn that someone else died in the fire – someone he would have saved as Spider-Man. That moment works in so many ways. It shows that even without his powers, Peter is both more confident than he used to be, and he’s a hero at heart. It’s also a turning point where he starts to doubt his decision to quit being Spider-Man.
There is so much that works about this movie that I could go on for a while, but this is probably a good point to sum this review up. Spider-Man 2 is overall the best pre-MCU Spider-Man movie, and one could make the argument that it remains the best overall. Every general aspect of the movie works, from the dramatic story, to the action, to all the performances. The visuals have aged well. Even my biggest personal gripe with the movie is mostly fixed in the extended cut, making that my preferred version of the movie going forward.
In short, this movie is an easy recommendation for Spider-Man fans who somehow haven’t seen this movie already, and in case you enjoyed it back in the day but haven’t seen it in a while, it’s aged quite well. You’ll still most likely enjoy it now. If you can get your hands on the extended cut, I would recommend that version, but the theatrical cut is still great on its own.
Next up is Spider-Man 3, which most people tend to agree is a bit of a mess, but still has some brilliant moments. Of the three movies, Spider-Man 3 is the most memetastic, so it’s at least got that going for it. Then I’ll look at the two Amazing Spider-Man movies. Amazing Spider-Man 2 remains the only Spider-Man movie I’ve only watched once. I’m looking forward to being able to re-evaluate it in the aftermath of No Way Home more than the movie itself to be honest.
Spider-Man 2 is easily one of the best Spider-Man movies, and indeed superhero movies, of all time. Raimi gets everything pitch perfect with this one. The effects are a noticeable improvement as well. Alfred Molina was an inspired choice for Dock Ock, and totally made the tole his own. Brilliant film!
And like I said in the review, the 2.1 extended cut actually improves the movie further. It’s worth checking out if you can find it but haven’t seen it before, but the theatrical cut is a fantastic movie anyway.
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This is a fun film!
The thing that keeps me coming back to Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is the Peter/Harry arc that plays out across all three films. It’s dramatic, sad, and bittersweet all at once and I love it.
Spider-Man 3 has a lot of problems, but the bittersweet conclusion to the Peter/Harry arc is not among them.
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The best live-action Spidy movie out there to this day for me! I look forward to revisiting this too next year. Those parts about his back made me laugh considering that scene about fixing Garfield’s back in the last movie.
And to think that Tobey Maguire came up with that moment, referencing his own back problems. He might not be my favourite Spider-Man actor, but he really was the right choice for these movies.
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