It’s been 19 years since the astonishing Spider-Man 2 swung onto the silver screen, and the movie remains one of the best superhero films ever made. From the action to the character work and themes, there’s plenty about this sequel that makes it so sensational.
However, for us, there are two disparate reasons for the film’s success that we’re pretty confident we can tie together. The first, and this one is a lot more obvious, is the movie’s bad guy – Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), the deranged nuclear physicist who becomes Doctor Octopus. Doc Ock is a step up on the previous film’s villain Green Goblin (sorry, Willem Dafoe fans) for numerous reasons. Still, the most important is the effort made to humanise Otto before he transforms into a moustache-twirling villain.
Unlike Norman, who was, to be frank, an arsehole before his transformation into the Goblin, Otto is instead kind and caring. We see his relationship with his beloved Rosie, his zeal for science, and his dedication to being a good man.
He’s a reflection of the life Peter could have had if that damned genetically altered spider had never bitten him. All of this set-up makes his eventual transformation into the nefarious villain Doctor Octopus all the more tragic, and it makes Spider-Man 2 a far more human story than its predecessor.
The choice to use Doctor Octopus as the villain also ties into the second reason we think this movie’s stood the test of time: it looks absolutely incredible. You see, while Spider-Man had its fair share of exciting aerial action scenes, it feels quite restrained. Using Doctor Octopus, a character who, like Spidey, can cling to walls and make a mockery of gravity, gives the follow-up a sense of verticality that its predecessor just didn’t have.
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Almost every set-piece takes place somewhere memorable – whether it’s the side of a bank or the top of a train – the fight sequences have a momentum to them that most modern films in the genre lack. Even today, when CGI and VFX have become ubiquitous in blockbuster films, the set-pieces and cinematography in Spider-Man 2 set it apart from other movie’s in the genre.
The film’s highlight is quite clearly the fight on top of the elevated train, during which Peter and Otto fight quite literally everywhere on the train. It’s a powerful and dynamic action scene where the frenetic camerawork alone sells you on the power of these two characters.
It’s got all of Raimi’s trademarks, including the wild tilts, pans, and zooms. My jaw still drops when I watch Spider-Man manage to squeeze through a gap in a bridge Ock just flung him at.
It’s clear that during the making of the second film that Sam Raimi felt less restricted and more confident in what he could do with the camera and started to bring a little of what he’d learned while making the Evil Dead to Spider-Man.
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This is most obvious during the ‘Birth of Doctor Octopus’ scene when a group of surgeons try and remove Otto’s extra arms. The tentacles inevitably defend themselves, dispatching the unfortunate doctors with remarkable efficiency.
The whole sequence plays out like a Deadite attack, complete with gurning close-ups, dramatic chainsaw flourishes, and point of view shots taken straight from Evil Dead 2.
There are other more subtle examples of Raimi’s horror origins cutting, though, including the moment Otto confronts Harry Osborn. As Harry walks out onto the balcony, he turns right and left, and the camera pans with him.
It then cuts to a point of view shot as Harry slowly peers over the balcony’s edge, and suddenly a tentacle jumps into the frame and knocks Harry down. It’s a deftly orchestrated jump scare that demonstrates how proper camerawork and patience are necessary when setting up something as simple as a scare.
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So, how are we going to tie the greatness of Doctor Octopus with the technical achievements of Sam Raimi? Well, it boils down to Sam Raimi caring about his movies.
He only wanted to put Doctor Octopus in his movie if he could make the character believable, and that pushed him to make Otto work on both a human and technical level. You need your director engaged on both levels for movies to work. We saw In Spider-Man 3 – with Venom – what happened if Raimi didn’t care about a character or felt pressured to use them, it was a car crash.
After all, the best superhero films are those that combine great special effects with fantastic, human stories, and that’s something Spider-Man 2 does perfectly.