There’s a new theory brewing that superhero films are best when they pick a tone, whether it’s grimdark DC serious or sitcom Marvel funny. A film like Logan earns raves for its heavy-man profundity (with megaviolence!), while a lighthearted romp like Homecoming gets extra credit for turning everything into a cameo-comedian laugh line.
And then there’s Spider-Man 2, a sumptuously silly-sweet adventure that riffs on mad-scientist horror, Old New York noir, and some of the High Tropes of the romcom era. Peter delivers pizza through an anti-realistic Manhattan, full of downtown elevated trains and sinking waterfront warehouses and moody Gothic penthouses where a sadsack billionaire heir plots vengeance. There’s a chainsaw, and there’s a montage set to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Spider-Man suffers something like an existential crisis, and he’s passed around unconscious by New Yorkers arms spread out like a Christ figure. Mary Jane gets engaged to an astronaut, and she leaves him at the altar.
It’s a rollicking film, the best evidence that Raimi’s mash of tones can produce genuine cinematic wonder. Alfred Molina doesn’t solve this franchise’s villain problem – the tentacles drove him crazy? – but his Doctor Octopus is a great visual creation, his squiggling robot arms as grotesque as anything in a Guillermo Del Toro film. And this is Maguire’s best showcase: The Peter we find in this movie is both a sincere nerd and a desperate man, trying to hold off his better angels in an attempt to live a normal life. You can’t really reduce Spider-Man 2‘s achievement; there are moments that approach spoofdom and moments of high drama. At its core, it’s a pure cinematic romance, unbounded by the necessities of cinematic universes or fandoms or big plans for Phase 4. As our critic Lisa Schwarzbaum said at the time, “Spider-Man 2 shimmers with love of New York, love of boys on the verge of adult self-awareness, love of young love, and, most of all, brimming, happy, unaffected love of comic books.”