It’s hard to think back to when superhero movies weren’t as culturally dominant as they are now. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has only become Hollywood’s top franchise because of the directors who came along before Iron Man and proved that superhero movies could be done well.
Tim Burton and Richard Donner showed that comic books could inspire competent and charming blockbusters, but it was ultimately Sam Raimi who introduced and then perfected what moviegoers now know as the modern superhero movie. After initially experimenting with the genre in 1990 with the Liam Neeson-led Darkman, Raimi returned to the comic book world over a decade later with 2002’s Spider-Man. That film marked a turning point for the superhero genre and, two years later, Raimi one-upped himself with Spider-Man 2.
Raimi’s 2004 blockbuster ranks as one of the most important and influential films of the 21st century, and it’s finally available to stream again on Netflix.
Spider-Man 2 does what every sequel should: It somehow manages to be bigger and more action-packed than its predecessor without ever losing sight of the humanity of its characters. The film builds on many of the leftover plot threads from 2002’s Spider-Man and, in doing so, it forces Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker to reckon with his life as a superhero in ways that are compelling and insightful.
Peter not only struggles to repair his friendship with Harry Osborn (James Franco) following the demise of Harry’s father, Norman (Willem Dafoe), but he also has to grapple with the revelation that his lifelong crush, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), is engaged. Both conflicts force Peter to confront the cost that his superhero lifestyle demands, creating a crisis of confidence within him that briefly robs him of his superpowers.
In case that wasn’t enough, Peter is also forced to face a deadly enemy when one of his idols, Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), begins to wreak havoc throughout New York City. Like his struggles with Mary Jane and Harry, Peter’s conflict with Octavius ultimately ties back into the questions about sacrifice and responsibility that are at the core of Spider-Man 2. The culmination of Peter’s emotional journey is so bittersweet that it remains as effective today as it was 18 years ago.
For his part, Molina wisely doesn’t try to match the same magnetic, manic energy that Willem Dafoe brought as Norman Osborn in 2002’s Spider-Man. Instead, Molina imbues his version of Octavius with so much pathos and wry charm that he feels human even in the moments when he’s scaling tall buildings with his metal arms.
Behind the camera, Sam Raimi brings the same level of visual energy to Spider-Man 2 that he did with its predecessor. His lens whizzes and glides through Spider-Man 2 with a kind of balletic and sometimes delightfully corny grace that is, unfortunately, missing from many modern superhero movies.
From Spider-Man and Doc Ock’s breathtaking, viscerally effective train fight to its now iconic surgery sequence, the film is filled with some of the most thrilling and impressively constructed set pieces in comic book movie history. With Spider-Man 2, Raimi managed to pull off a feat that feels increasingly rare: He made a crowd-pleasing superhero hit that still feels artistic and distinct.
To put that another way, no one could have made Spider-Man 2 except for Sam Raimi. The film is thrilling and sincere, and it features more style and heart than most modern blockbusters would know what to do with. The passion of its creative team is evident in every frame, and the impact it made on Hollywood continues to be felt every time a new MCU entry is released.
Despite spawning so many imitations, it’s a testament to Spider-Man 2 that most of the countless superhero films that have followed it have ultimately failed to match its artistry. Watch it for a reminder of the heights the genre is capable of.
Spider-Man 2 is streaming on Netflix.