Eight Arms of Fury
Say what you will about the first Spider-Man film by Sam Raimi (and I did, at length, both good and bad), but at the time it came out it was one of the best superhero movies released in a long time. It certainly helped to prove that superhero films could be done in a way that was both serious and fun (washing away the ill-effects of the third and fourth Batman films). Sure, viewed from today's perspective, Spider-man seems a little cheesy, a tad hokey, but it was a huge deal at the time.
It was beyond expected that a sequel to the film would come out -- it was demanded. Released two years later, Spider-man 2
Sometime after the events of the first movie, Peter Parker (a returning Tobey Maguire) is just going about his life. Or, really, it's more accurate to say he's failing to go about his life: he can't hold down a steady job, he's failing in college, and all his friends barely see him at all. he does manage to get a meeting with his current idol, Doctor Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a master of nuclear physics, on the even of the good doctor's newest experiment in fusion power. However, that experiment goes poorly, Otto's wife is killed, and Otto is horribly maimed in the accident with his specially-built, AI-controlled mechanical arms fused to his body. It's yet another thing Peter is unable to stop, another on a long list of this Spider-man just can't do. Soon enough his doubts start building, his powers start fading, and Peter gives up being Spider-man. But can Peter truly quit, or does New York (and the world) need Spider-man now more than ever?
Spider-man 2 deserves credit right out of the gate for resisting the urge to cram two villains into one movie. There's a lot of story this film wanted to tell (on it's two-hours-plus runtime) and adding in another villain would have sold the story short. It seems like superheros of the 90s and 00s really liked to cram more and more villains into their sequels (Batman Returns with both Catwoman and Penguin; TMNT II with Tokka, Razar, and Supper Shredder; and hell, Spider-man III with Green Goblin II, Venom, and Sandman). Limiting the number of villains allows the plot to remain more focused, giving both Spider-man and the eventual Doctor Octopus time to breathe, to develop their stories, to have real motivations. It's easy to over stuff superhero films under a "more is more" mentality (to sell more toys), so I appreciate this film more for its focus.
That said, Doctor Octopus really isn't a great villain in this movie. Alfred Molina is a good actor who has a diverse and pretty solid body of work, and the actor does what he can with the role. Doc Ock, though, is an underwritten character. He gets a couple of solid scenes to be a real person early in the film, but once his experiment goes wrong, and the arms fuse to his body, he's rendered into a pretty generic bad guy. He just basically gets to sit on the sidelines and occasionally do evil things when the requisite action-beat is required. He's not a character, he's an action figure moved around the toy box as needed.
I also have issues with Doc Ock's big plan. From the beginning of his time in the movie, his goal is to create sustainable, constant fusion energy. To do this he builds a machine that, when a small drop of the tritium is added in, creates a fusion reaction not unlike a miniature star. With his power arms he's able to control the reaction and push "solar flares" back into the machine. The thing is, how is that sustainable? It essentially requires someone to stand by the machine at all times, constantly keeping it under control with robotic arms. One misstep and the entire experiment goes up. It's no wonder it explodes, so the only question this is why anyone would think it was a good idea to fund it (Oscorp stupidity couldn't go that far). And if Doc Ock is the brilliant physicist he's sold as, shouldn't he have already known this wouldn't work? His whole experiment looked like a fiasco before it was even started. Did no one have the heart to tell him?
Really, it's no wonder he goes off the deep end once his experiment goes up in smoke. This was his life's work and it basically amounted to some crazy experiment in his garage that a large corporation swooped in, did absolutely no research on, and then funded it (because it's so much easier to burn money in a miniature star). Everyone put this crazy-assed weirdo on a pedestal and then they were all shocked when it crazy-exploded and got people killed. Of course he was going to try again, and of course it was likely to explode again, because he's not a normal scientist -- he's a mad scientist. He's a nutter in a lab coat and everyone in the film seems just fine with the arrangement. Then his crazy robot arms take over and suddenly everyone starts wringing their hands.
Thankfully, as much as the villain plot line of the movie doesn't work, it's also not the main focus of so much of the film. The plot really cares more about Peter and his doubts about being Spider-man. Maguire still plays Peter like a dour sad-sack, but considerings the plot line he's given his performance at least makes sense this time around. The world keeps crapping on him, abusing him as if he were Bruce Campbell in an Evil Dead movie, and after being ground down so far, Peter just can't have much happiness left in him. For a story like this, Maguire is the perfect person to the play the role. I still wish Spidey was more light and happy, funnier and quipier, but I'm willing to accept in this time around because it works with the plot and not against it.
I also really liked Kirsten Dunst this time around. Her Mary Jane is actually moving forward with her life and she's given a plot line that serves her well for most of the flick. Sure, she's caught in yet another love triangle, this time between Peter and new beau John Jameson (Daniel Gillies). And yes, she essentially works as the reward for Peter to reach once he's able to find a way to be both Peter and Spidey by movie's end. But she also has her own choices to make, her own life to lead, and the movie does show from time to time, that she wants to be more than a love interest, that she wants her own agency and her own choices. Or, really, Dunst's performance gives us that perspective on her even if the story really doesn't know what to do with her beyond "love interest for Peter".
And then there's Harry Osborn, again played by James Franco. He's still bland, still awful, and it's hard to care much about him at all, as before. And yet the film wisely ignores him for most of the movie, downplaying his screen time to focus on more important things (which is just about everything else in the film). Franco was clearly under contract and had to be in the movie, but at least his presence is minimal and he doesn't get much of a chance to ruin his scenes.
In the end, I do think Spider-man 2 is a superior film to the first one (the "Superior Spider-man" if you will). Doc Ock isn't a great villain, but let's be honest, the first film didn't really know what to do with Green Goblin either. That character worked only because Willem Dafoe was such a presence on screen he sold the underwritten character for all it was worth. So much of the sequel works so well that it's easy to downplay the less interesting villain story and just enjoy the film for what it is: a solid, superhero adventure.
Like the first film, Spider-man 2 hasn't exactly aged well in the intervening years. It's CGI is a little spotty-looking now, the plotting isn't as zippy as we expect, and it's hero just is too dour. When you have a film like Spider-man: Homecoming, anything else is going to be poor by comparison. But there's still a lot to like in this 2004 sequel, a watchable film in it's own right that hold up fairly well despite all the films that have come out since.