Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, James Franco, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina
Have I Seen it Before: I’m a man in my 30s. Let’s just assume that I have dutifully seen every film featuring Spider-Man and probably will for the rest of my life.
Did I Like It: Sometimes you just need to work the bugs out before you can really swing.
I’m wondering about my sort of down opinion on Sam Raimi’s first effort with the character, Spider-Man (2002). Is it truly that the first film’s special effects don’t work as well as we may have once thought? Is it true that the superhero origin story never quite translates to the most thrilling movie possible? Or is it the case that when I first saw the original film I was having a bad time in life, and that colors my reactions to this day.
All of them could be a little bit true, and all of those elements are different here in Raimi’s second outing. The special effects are more refined. Rarely do I think of Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) as an animated character injected into some background plates, and Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) is a nearly-perfect blend of puppetry and performance for most of his shots. The story is more self-assured, even as its protagonist spends much of the film plagued by doubt. And, ultimately, I was in a much better head-space in the summer of 2004 than I was in the spring of 2002, but that should hardly matter for this type of analysis, and yet, it does occur to me.
Some would say this is the best superhero movie of all time, and certainly the best Spider-Man movie to date. I would put it in that same pantheon of best movies, along with Superman (1978), The Dark Knight (2008), or any of the number of the best MCU movies. And yet, I think I may have had an even better time during the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), although this could be attributed to the Michael Keaton factor™ that I am sure will become an ongoing theme in these reviews.
The performances are all finely-tuned. Maguire, for all his reputation as a callow Hollywood party boy in real life, manages to bring Parker’s pure-nerdiness to life believably. Alfred Molina brings real humanity to the diminished mindset and tragedy of the film’s villain. Kirsten Dunst doesn’t get a whole lot to do other than be damsel-ish and frequently in distress, which is a shame that only time passing can really illuminate.
But it’s the little moments that work, too: The scene with May and Peter where he confesses (most of) his culpability in Uncle Ben’s (Cliff Robertson) death is quiet and unnerving. In the years that follow the release of these summer blockbusters, the special effects can age rather annoyingly, the pyrotechnics can fail to awe by the time of a second viewing, but a good quiet scene between two good actors will stick around with you, and it’s good that this film has them.
This comes pretty tantalizingly clear in the film’s choice of a final shot. In the original film, we have Spider-Man jumping around the city, off to another adventure. While this film has a certain reprise of that motif, the true last moment is of Mary-Jane, having just run away from her wedding and watching as her true love leaps into danger once more. The look is wistful, and aware. The happiness she felt just half a minute before is already starting to wilt. It’s one of the few times Dunst gets to really go for some acting, and it is the image that remains in my head all of these years later.