‘Spider-Man 2’ is turning 20 — here’s why I think it’s the greatest superhero movie ever

Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 2
(Image credit: Alamy)

The playbook for sequels goes something like this: bigger, better, and more expensive. Raising the stakes is a requirement. The themes introduced in the first film must be further explored in the sequel. The pressure to deliver can be insurmountable, causing many sequels to fall flat and never live up to the hype. That didn’t happen to "Spider-Man 2," which rose to the occasion and exceeded every expectation. 

After the rousing success of 2002’s “Spider-Man,” Sam Raimi returned in 2004 with “Spider-Man 2,” which is celebrating its 20th anniversary on June 30. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) struggles to balance his life as a crime-fighting superhero and a normal college kid. Peter wants to be with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but her engagement with another man temporarily ends that dream. Harry Osborn (James Franco) still blames Spider-Man over his father’s death, complicating his friendship with Peter. Then, there’s Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who is still adjusting to life without her husband and Peter’s uncle, Ben Parker. 

Spider-Man 2 (2004) Official Trailer 1 - Tobey Maguire Movie - YouTube Spider-Man 2 (2004) Official Trailer 1 - Tobey Maguire Movie - YouTube
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After defeating the Green Goblin, Spider-Man faces a new threat: Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who transforms into Dr. Octopus after a deadly accident kills his wife and leaves him with metal tentacles attached to his body. As if this weren’t enough already, Peter starts to lose his powers due to the growing pressures of being Spider-Man.

Raimi’s decision to focus on Peter’s vulnerability and the weight of being a superhero, first and foremost, was a stroke of genius. This emotional element combined with the blockbuster spectacle of a comic book movie is why “Spider-Man 2” remains the best superhero movie ever.

Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius gives an all-time villain performance

The difference between a good and great comic book adaptation rests on the shoulders of its villain. Heath Ledger as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger in “Black Panther.” Josh Brolin as Thanos in "The Infinity Saga." Add Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius / Doctor Octopus to the list of elite superhero villains.

Originally scheduled to appear as the secondary antagonist in “Spider-Man," Raimi cut Doc Ock from the film to focus solely on the Green Goblin. Great decision. Raimi then revisited Dr. Octopus for the sequel, introducing Octavius as a mentor and fatherlike figure to Peter.

Alfred Molina in Spider-Man 2

(Image credit: Alamy)

 After his wife dies, the AI controlling the mechanical tentacles corrupts Octavius, leading to some inexcusable actions on his part. For starters, he attempts to murder Aunt May, Mary Jane, and Peter. Dr. Octopus also tries to kill a train full of people, a scene on the shortlist for greatest action sequence in a superhero movie. Raimi even sneaks some humor at the end of the fight, when Octavius makes quick work of Joey Diaz and his fellow New Yorkers to capture Peter. 

However, Octavius doesn’t always feel like a bad person, a credit to Molina’s emotionally complex performance. Peter doesn’t wish to kill Octavius; he wants to save him. The touching moment between Peter and Octavius after the former convinces the latter to stop the reactor could not have happened without a sympathetic and tragic villain. 

Sam Raimi understands the fundamental theme of Spider-Man 

Behind the camera, Raimi is a technical savant. “Spider-Man 2” is CGI done right. Spider-Man flying through the streets of New York is at times breathtaking. Raimi applied his expertise in tension and horror to some of “Spider-Man 2’s” most pivotal scenes. The hospital scene where Octavius kills every doctor is a stunning sequence that could have easily been in one of Raimi’s “Evil Dead” movies. Why Marvel hasn’t hired Raimi to direct “Avengers: Secret Wars” is beyond me. 

“With great power comes great responsibility.” The famous line from Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man” became one of the defining moments of Raimi’s trilogy. However, the phrase that better represents the core theme of "Spider-Man 2" is “You'll always have a choice.” This choice is what Rami understood better than any director who’s ever worked on a “Spider-Man” film. 

Spider-Man 2 | Doctor Scene |"You Always Have A Choice, Peter" | Movie Clip (2004) - YouTube Spider-Man 2 | Doctor Scene |
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The choice in “Spider-Man 2” revolves around who Peter wants to be, which determines the outlook of his life. To live normally, can Peter still be Spider-Man? Will he sacrifice appearances at plays or physics classes to capture some bank robbers? Can he be a loyal friend to Harry while still being Spider-Man? Can Peter love Mary Jane, or must he shut her out to protect her from Spider-Man’s enemies? This existential crisis causes Peter to lose his powers. This vulnerability from Peter is something rarely seen in a movie with comic book heroes.

Take away the webs, the suits, and the villains. At its core, “Spider-Man 2” is a movie about sacrifice and responsibility. Peter finally realizes this sentiment in his last conversation with Doc Ock. Peter says, “Sometimes, to do what's right, we must be steady and give up the things we desire the most, even our dreams.” Being a hero is hard, just like making a successful sequel. But when a filmmaker like Raimi understands the emotional dilemma of being a hero, you get a masterpiece like “Spider-Man 2.” 

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Dan Girolamo

Dan is a talented content creator who specializes in pop culture, entertainment, and sports. His entertainment interviews have been featured on Digital Trends, where he has spoken with various actors and entertainers, including Brendan Fraser, Alison Brie, and James Cameron. Additionally, Dan is a sportswriter with The Sports Daily, breaking down the top news in the NFL and NBA while providing picks and predictions for each league. Other bylines include ComingSoon.net, Unafraid Show, Fansided, and WatchMojo. When he’s not working, Dan enjoys rooting for his favorite New York sports teams and watching the latest movie from Christopher Nolan or Martin Scorsese.