The 2002 box-office smash Spider-Man didn't just warrant a sequel; it demanded one. Sam Raimi's superhero epic was a textbook example of how to bring a beloved comic book to the big screen with its spirit intact, just as its terrific follow-up illustrates how a sequel can build and expand on its predecessor rather than simply cannibalizing it.
Simultaneously funnier, darker, and more emotional than its forebear, Spider-Man 2 opens with its web-slinging protagonist (Tobey Maguire, deftly balancing action and angst) at a low ebb. Tired of his indecisiveness, his would-be girlfriend Kirsten Dunst has moved on to a less conflicted suitor. Maguire's gig as a freelance photographer is constantly in danger, while professor Dylan Baker views him as brilliant but lazy, little realizing that Maguire's extracurricular activities involve more than the usual bong-huffing and channel-surfing.
Cracking under the strain of his thankless job rescuing a regularly imperiled New York that still views him with suspicion, and dismayed by a sudden reduction in his web-slinging abilities, Maguire decides to retire his Spider-Man ensemble and pursue the simple pleasures that come with not having to save the world. His resolve is tested, however, when Alfred Molina dramatically transforms from an endearingly dorky scientist to super-villain Dr. Octopus, a malevolent, David Cronenberg-esque fusion of man and machine with sinister mechanical arms that have an evil will all their own.
Raimi and his screenwriters—including two-time Academy Award winner Alvin Sargent and novelist Michael Chabon—use their characters' superhuman powers to amplify the issues and concerns of a human story. Spider-Man 2 wrestles with conflicts between power and responsibility, but the filmmakers smartly counter heavy drama with goofy comedy, mining a rich vein of humor in the juxtaposition of the mundane and the superheroic. Maguire and Molina excel at opposite ends of the moral spectrum, but the film is stolen once again by J.K. Simmons as Maguire's belligerent, relentlessly self-serving motormouth of a boss, whose office is a loving oasis of retro screwball comedy, anachronistic hairstyles and all.
Molina's tormented man-machine is a stunning technical and creative achievement, a terrifying monster who moves with the sinister shudder of an impending earthquake and fights a mostly losing battle with his own mind and body. His weirdly expressive mechanical arms alone have more personality than most human movie characters, but Molina's performance ensures that the man doesn't get lost in the machinery. In that sense, he's a bit like Spider-Man 2 itself: a blockbuster with tremendous emotional resonance, a special-effects extravaganza with soul.