'Spider-Man 2' (2004)/Directed by Sam Raimi/Grade: B+
Alright, so, when I was a kid, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy (outside of Spider-Man 3 (2007)), was one of my favorite movie series ever. I loved the style of it, the action, the characters. I enjoyed pretty much all of it, without the capacity for critical thinking that I have now. At 23, I still enjoy the best of that trilogy quite a bit, but Spider-Man 2 (2004) definitely has some chinks in the armor that hold it back from being a masterpiece.
For those unaware, the movie picks up not long after the events of the first film, with Peter Parker struggling to find a job after he loses a gig as a pizza delivery boy, which, unbeknownst to his boss, is only because he got sidetracked with stopping some criminals as Spider-Man. On top of that, a rift slowly forms in Peter's friendship with Harry Osborne (James Franco), who's convinced that Spider-Man killed his father Norman (Willem Dafoe), and is furious that Peter seems to know him so well and still takes his pictures. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is in a relationship with someone else. Peter's grades are failing. How could it get worse?
Well, the answer to that arrives when Dr. Otto Octavius's (Alfred Molina, an absolute powerhouse here) experiment with atomic fusion goes tragically awry, and his four nifty metallic tentacles are permanently bolted into his back, and he becomes Doc Ock. Seeing an opportunity, Harry enlists Octavius to kill Spider-Man, bringing all of the drama in Peter's life to life-threatening heights.
What blew me away about this picture as a kid, and what still excites me now, were its visual effects (which won VFX supervisor John Dykstra his second Oscar, after a win decades earlier for Star Wars (1977)), as well as its inventive action sequences. From an early chase where Spidey follows two bank robbers, to a truly mind-blowing extended fight between him and Doc Ock on top of a train, director Sam Raimi unleashes his creativity and love for Spider-Man in ways that still stick in my brain. What makes it all even better is that despite these being very exaggerated characters in an exaggerated world, everything felt as if there was physical weight to it. When Spider-Man got hit in the face, it really seemed like it hurt. When Doc Ock's tentacles took on a mind of their own and attacked a roomful of surgeons attempting to remove them, it didn't seem fake, it looked real. Not to mention that particular sequence was a much-affectionate homage to Raimi's Evil Dead films.
I also appreciated Peter's characterization throughout this movie. As a sequel, it was appropriate for Raimi, and screenwriter Alvin Sergeant (Ordinary People (1980)), to consistently throw problem after problem on top of our hero, which perpetually raised the stakes. It reminded me often of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), another great sequel where the heroes constantly got outwitted by the enemy. Plus Tobey Maguire's performance just sold the agony and frustration of the character so well. I still think it was his best work in the trilogy.
Where this movie really falls flat for me as an adult is the central romance between Peter and MJ, a gripe I also hold with the trilogy at large. At best, it employs tired romcom cliches, like MJ being with this bland, perfectly nice 'other guy' who's given no real characterization or personality, whilst another vanilla, ordinary guy lusts after her. At worst, her relationship with Peter is totally and mutually unhealthy. The two have no ability to communicate honestly and directly with each other. Peter hides his alter ego out of a lack of trust (he says it's to protect her during a phone call, but it's still not trusting her), and stubbornly tries to win MJ over repeatedly, after he himself turned her down at the end of the first movie, which honestly makes him look like an idiot. MJ, early on, blatantly flirts and puts the moves on Peter, right before she tells him she's in a relationship with someone else. It stuns me how bad this relationship really is, especially when compared to romances in other Spider-Man film series. If you wanted a romance to root for, I'd suggest watch the Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland incarnations of this character.
Overall, though, this is a sufficiently entertaining superhero flick, despite being held back from perfection by the core of its own story. It doesn't reach the heights that later Spider-Man movies would achieve, but it nevertheless remains a nostalgic childhood time capsule worth revisiting.