Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man 2’ Stands Alone
There’s been excitement for all of Marvel’s recent Spider-Man movies, but the level of anticipation around Spider-Man: No Way Home is on whole other level. The first teaser for the film broke the record for the most-watched trailer in its first 24 hours of release, beating the previous record holder, Avengers: Endgame, by more than 50 million views. For sake of comparison, consider this: The official teaser trailer for the last Spider-Man movie, Far From Home, has only 49 million views on YouTube total. Clearly, people are hyped for the return of Spider-Man.
Or maybe they’re hyped for the return of Spider-men. The difference between Far From Home and No Way Home, is the promise that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland) will in some way interact with the universes inhabited by the previous movie Spideys (played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield). Although roles for Maguire and Garfield have not been confirmed, the No Way Home trailer teased appearances by almost every major villain their Spider-Men ever faced. Its pièce de résistance was an appearance by Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.
If the internet is any indication, Sony’s returning to the “Raimiverse” at just the right time. In recent years, the original Spider-Man trilogy — and particularly Spider-Man 2, the best film of the series — have taken on renewed popularity. A brief tour of social media suggests Raimi’s Spider-Man films have evolved into maybe the biggest and most financially successful cult films in history. There are countless Instagram accounts devoted to the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, and then niche accounts within the broader world of Spider-Man obsessives. There’s one dedicated to reprinting trivia and old behind the scenes photos. There’s others devoted to the movie’s impressively detailed (and now extremely valuable) action figures. There is even an account — with more than 20,000 followers, dedicated to wacky Raimiverse memes.
This is a pretty sharp turnaround from only about 10 years ago, after Raimi concluded his trilogy with Spider-Man 3, undeniably the weakest of the series. (It’s still better than its reputation.) For awhile, the rap on the Raimi movies — which was mostly based on Spider-Man 3’s worst moments — was that they were hopelessly cheesy and hokey, and didn’t speak to the zeitgeist like the darker, grittier superhero movies that came into fashion in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Why, then, are some fans suddenly so fixated on Raimi’s Spider-Man again? It can’t just be that they’re good. In the 2020s, there are more good comic-book movies about more superheroes than any Marvel or DC fan would have ever dreamed of just a few decades ago. (I know this because I was one of those fans, and if you had told me in 1996 that 25 years later we’d be watching a What If...? TV series the same week a massive Shang-Chi movie was about to hit theaters I would have laughed in your face while adjusting the extremely cool librarian chain I wore on my glasses.) Some of these new films’ special effects put the groundbreaking ones in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy to shame. And it’s not as if the Spider-Man franchise has been bad since Raimi left; the recent Tom Holland movies are totally enjoyable.
I suspect the reason for the Raimiverse’s revitalized rep comes from a deeper place within the film than superficial thrills or aesthetics. Looking back at his trilogy this week, it seems that Raimi quietly announced his aims within Spider-Man 2, in a sequence where Peter Parker’s unrequited love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), stars in a stage play of The Importance of Being Earnest.
The show bears obvious parallels with the story of Spider-Man, including men leading double lives and hiding secret identities, and the notion of being pulled between desire and responsibility. In Spider-Man 2, that theme is particularly important to the scenes involving Mary Jane and her play. She wants Peter to be there, and can’t understand why he’s always flaking out on her. He desperately wants to be there, but misses the curtain because he’s busy stopping crimes as Spider-Man.
But even without those thematic connections, the title The Importance of Being Earnest alone speaks to Raimi’s aims with his Spider-Man films, which are among the most earnest superhero movies ever made. Raimi’s trilogy is resolute in its belief in the need for heroes in general, and in Spider-Man’s ethical code specifically. In five Marvel Cinematic Universe films, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker has never once said “with great power comes great responsibility.” In Raimi’s Spider-Man, the topic is stated explicitly multiple times, and never too far from the characters’ minds. Like in this scene, where Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) unwittingly encourages Peter to return to his responsibilities as Spider-Man by giving a lengthy speech about the importance of heroes.
That sequence is relatively realistic in comparison to Peter’s big pep talk to himself a few scenes earlier — which takes the form of a full-on Shakespearean soliloquy. After grappling with whether to abandon his life as Spider-Man in order to pursue a relationship with Mary Jane, Peter stands at the window of his tiny studio apartment and says, to absolutely no one, “Am I not supposed to have what I want? What I need? What am I supposed to do?”
Is it sappy? Sure, a little. It’s also one of the more heartfelt tributes to the concept of heroism in any movie of the last 20 years. The recent Marvel and DC universes are filled with power fantasies and gentle satires, and even a fair number of films that critique the idea that a superhuman should automatically and thoughtlessly use their powers to help others. Compare that with Raimi’s view, that Spider-Man isn’t just fun, he’s necessary.
It can be easy to forget in 2021 — now that there are so many superhero movies, most made with a great deal of care and concern about fidelity to their source material — how novel Raimi’s approach was in 2002. Even after massive comic-book-based hits such as Tim Burton’s Batman, Hollywood generally approached superhero movies cautiously. They avoided the material’s more colorful and outlandish aspects whenever possible. Even the popular X-Men movie, which was released just two years before Spider-Man, looked more like The Matrix than a Marvel comic, with its team of mutants dressed in black leather rather than their traditional Spandex.
Raimi, in contrast, embraced and celebrated every potentially goofy or corny aspect of the Spider-Man mythos. Spider-Man wears a version of his classic red and blue costume, and he becomes a hero only after he first tries to get rich as a professional wrestler. He had J.K. Simmons play Spider-Man’s journalistic adversary J. Jonah Jameson with the character’s absurd flattop hairdo. (Note that when Marvel Studios brought Simmons back as Jameson in their movies, they had him go with his natural bald head. Their approach is comic book-y, but not that comic book-y.) Maguire’s Peter Parker talks to himself, asking aloud “What am I supposed to do?” in a manner that recalls the way he would verbalize all his problems while web-swinging around Manhattan in the pages of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita’s original Amazing Spider-Man comics.
At times, Raimi’s films borrow Lee’s florid dialogue and captions exactly, as when Peter marks his retirement from superheroing by declaring “I am Spider-Man no more!” in a direct homage to the caption on the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #50, the issue that Spider-Man 2 draws many of its plot ideas and visuals, including the image of Peter Parker walking away from his costume after he discards it in an alley garbage can. He could have had had Peter say something more naturalistic like “I quit!” or say nothing at all. Instead, he recreated the moment from Lee and Romita’s work as exactly as possible.
Perhaps because Spider-Man 3 included a few sequences of Tobey Maguire evilly dancing down the street, Raimi’s trilogy sometimes gets dismissed as an overly comedic take on the character. It’s actually more of the opposite. The recent Marvel films are far jokier than Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, which take the idea of Spider-Man seriously — almost painfully so. (See: Peter Parker delivering soliloquies about his life.)
While there are humorous moments, including Peter Parker’s exasperating encounter with a Broadway usher, Raimi never makes fun of the idea of Spider-Man. Indeed, he treats him with almost religious reverence, as in the very famous action setpiece on an elevated train that ends with a group of straphangers grabbing Peter Parker’s lifeless body and carrying it over their heads to safety in a Christlike pose.
In fact, Peter ultimately defeats Doctor Octopus with ideas rather than punches and kicks. After Ock’s experiment goes out of control, Peter talks to him man to man, and explains that he needs his help to protect the people of New York from his out-of-control fusion reactor. “Sometimes, to do what’s right,” Peter says, “we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.” After spending the last hour in the thrall of his mechanical arms, Peter’s speech snaps Molina’s Otto out of his madness. He sacrifices himself to destroy his creation and save the city.
Of course, no victory in Spider-Man is ever happy for long. One of the things that makes Peter Parker such an endlessly fascinating character is the way his two identities are always at war with one another, and how success in one aspect of his life invariably spells failure for the other. If Peter goes to Mary Jane’s play, the carjackers get away. If he stops the crooks, Mary Jane is pissed at him.
That concept is hit home during Spider-Man 2’s most poignant scene, when Peter — who has temporarily lost the use of his powers — races into a burning building to rescue a little girl. Even without his spider abilities, Peter doesn’t hesitate, and he manages to find the girl and bring her out alive. “You got some guts, kid,” one of the firefighters says to him after he makes it out. But that moment of pride is short-lived. A few seconds later, another firefighter walks over and says “Some poor soul got trapped on the fourth floor. Never made it out.” Peter didn’t hear them, and didn’t save them. He can never save everyone.
Feeling the weight of that one person’s death — a character we never meet onscreen — is pretty rare in modern Marvel movies, where literally half the universe can get obliterated and then brought back from oblivion by a snap of a superhero’s fingers. That’s another reason why Spider-Man 2 still feels special even amidst a blockbuster landscape littered with other superheroes. For one thing, Spider-Man 2 didn’t have to connect to any of that, or tease anything. At their best, Marvel’s movies and television series now feel like small cogs in a giant machine. Spider-Man 2 leaves room for more sequels, but it doesn’t have a cliffhanger or a post-credits scene. It was a perfect movie unto itself.
Maybe, ironically, that’s why fans are so excited by the promise of a return to the Raimiverse in No Way Home. Still, Marvel needs to be careful how they use Molina, Willem Dafoe, and, if he shows up, Tobey Maguire. Their characters still hold a great deal of power. But using them comes with an enormous responsibility as well.