Two Decades Later, ‘Spider-Man 2’ Can Still Save Us

The summer I met Spider-Man, I was a child who had just immigrated to America. My parents and I relocated from Shanghai to Louisiana during a sweltering summer. I could barely speak English, but I learned that summertime in America meant ice cream trucks, fireworks on the Fourth of July, and most important, nights at the movie theater. In the summer of 2004, my father took me to see the year's best blockbuster (sorry, Shrek 2 and National Treasure): Spider-Man 2. I walked into a packed theater that day—and left as a Spider-Man fan for life.

This July marks the 20th anniversary of Spider-Man 2, the second entry in the Sam Raimi–directed trilogy. It's the rare sequel that outshined its predecessor—even Roger Ebert called it "the best superhero movie since the modern genre was launched." And Spider-Man 2 still holds up, even today. Case in point? In celebration of Columbia Pictures' centennial, theaters rereleased all of Raimi's Spider-Man films in April. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 made over $681,364 and $1 million respectively in domestic box offices during their weekly runs. Clearly, two decades and 33 MCU movies later, the soul of Spider-Man 2 still speaks to superhero loyalists today. Raimi's message is as clear as it was in 2004: If Spider-Man is the tale of a young boy becoming a man, Spider-Man 2 is the story of how to be a good man.

Let's backtrack a bit. Heading into his Spidey sequel, Raimi had heavy expectations to live up to. He'd have to match the success of the first entry, introduce a new villain, and build on the moral arc of the hero he valued so deeply. "I wanted to make sure we weren't making an 'in on the joke with the audience' presentation," Raimi said to Variety in 2022. "For me, there was no joke.… There’s simply just believing—believing that Peter Parker exists and investing wholly into his heart and matters of his soul." Thankfully, Spider-Man 2 delivered, and then some—now it's widely considered as one of the best superhero films ever made.

For a box-office-shattering superhero film, Spider-Man 2 begins in an unexpected place. The story kicks off with, of course, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire)—who traverses New York City not in web-slinging glory but as a pizza-delivery boy who is fired for not making deliveries on time. Parker is now an absent college student, who is unable to save Aunt May from eviction. Even worse, he's estranged from his best friend Harry Osborne (James Franco)—and still hopelessly pines after Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Sounds like the beginning of a Judd Apatow movie, right? You'd never expect that Parker was about to embark on one of the greatest moral arcs we've ever seen in the genre.

tobey maguire spider man
Pizza time, baby!Columbia Pictures

So how did Raimi pull it off? He strips down Spider-Man and throws his costume away, leaving just an awkward, nerdy young man—who, you know, means well. It's a far cry from something like the Iron Man franchise, where each entry rewards Tony Stark with a new high-tech suit. Spider-Man 2's Peter Parker is not how we're used to seeing superheroes these days. He’s not angsty like Robert Pattinson's Batman, and he certainly doesn’t have a Thor-esque god complex. Raimi shows us that it was never the radioactive spider bite that made Peter Parker a hero—it was his irrepressible desire to do good and protect others that made him a hero. After Harry ends his friendship with Peter and Mary Jane announces her engagement to an astronaut, Peter gives up his superpowered alter ego. But even without the red-and-blue suit, he can't ignore the suffering of those around him for long. He rushes into a burning building to save a child and return her to her mother—not as Spider-Man but as Peter Parker.

Spider-Man 2 is not about Spidey and Doc Ock's epic fight sequences—though we get plenty of that in Raimi’s visceral camerawork. Instead, the director focuses on Parker's struggle with the burden of being a hero. In a crucial moment in the film, Parker finally admits to Aunt May that he lied about his whereabouts the night Uncle Ben died—that he let the man who shot him go. Aunt May is justifiably upset. She leaves Parker alone with his confession.

Of course, Parker's moral dilemma is far removed from the following iterations of Spider-Man and other multibillion-dollar Marvel franchise films. The superhero genre has exploded since 2004, giving us franchise films such as The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man: No Way Homewhich united Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland together for the first time. But in those films, heroes like Iron Man and Captain America face problems that are political and international in scope, often taking the audience beyond time and space. Sure, I love a good adventure through the cosmos with Star-Lord. But it's Spider-Man 2's Peter Parker—the boy with a relentless belief in the goodness in humanity—who left a decades-long impression on my heart.

Perhaps no one puts Spider-Man 2's message into words better than Aunt May, who gives a comforting speech to Parker once they reconcile. "I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride," she says. "Even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most."

Our hero turns those words into action during his showdown with Doc Ock. The two fight on the New York City subway—and Doc Ock destroys the train’s brakes, sending it speeding off an unfinished track. In a brutal, heart-pounding scene, Spider-Man stops the train from crashing by using every ounce of strength and courage left inside him. In that moment, we're gifted with the quality that made Raimi's Spider-Man films so special: faith in humanity. The commuters lift Spider-Man on their shoulders and carry him to safety. Not to mention: They promise to protect his identity. In the end, even Doc Ock finds redemption by way of Aunt May's reminder, sacrificing himself to save the city.

When I rewatched Spider-Man 2 during its rerelease, I knew it would hit me differently. The world around me has changed. I have, too. But the lesson that Raimi's Spider-Man taught me felt just as urgent. In a time when Covid-19 isolated us, the upcoming election widens political divides, and men are randomly punching women in the face in the streets of New York City, we’re desperately in need of Spider-Man 2's vision of humanity. The film isn't great just because of its Dashboard Confessional needle drop or its web-slinging awe. Raimi is transcendent in his message that we need each other in order to survive in this world. We don't need a savior to protect us. Ordinary people can step up for each other in desperate times. And that's all we need.

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