A decade after its release, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 remains one of the best superhero movies ever made. Both light as a feather and packing the full weight of humanity, the film proved – even before Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – that soul and spectacle could coexist in a world of capes and spandex. We thrill as much to Peter Parker’s personal trials – college life, paying rent, the sting of forbidden love – as we do to an acrobatic faceoff atop a speeding train. Spidey soars, but he also crashes – what the movie dispels is any illusion of the hero’s invincibility, his superman status. At one point, this crash is literal: while experiencing an emotional slump, Peter suddenly loses his ability to spin webs, and he tumbles violently, pathetically, into a gas pipe. This stunning fall reminds us that what afflicts the psychological also takes its toll on the physical, just one of many adages that we seldom apply to our heroes and saints. Spider-Man 2 tells us that we ought to.
This sense of Peter’s vulnerability, his ability to get hurt, is masterfully fused with action sequences that, on a technical level, would have us believe otherwise. As Spidey pirouettes through the stratosphere of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, we experience a vicarious liberation from earthbound mankind. We feel empowered, giddy, free. This sensation peaks during the fight scenes, which rank among the most exciting ever filmed. A chase up a clock tower turns into a free-fall brawl; a standoff at a bank makes a brief detour onto the street before somersaulting up an office building, raining glass and brick onto the street below. In both cases, the combatants are Spidey and Doc Ock, whose metallic tentacles dart about with such fluidity and range of movement that we forget actor Alfred Molina doesn’t possess them as natural appendages. On his end, Spidey has improved his web-slinging skills since the first film to exhilarating effect. Watching the two of them go at it is like seeing a ballet dancer playing cat’s cradle with the Kraken in zero space gravity. Sounds crazy? It is. What’s even crazier is that, amid all this visual vim and high-velocity violence, we never lose sight of the fact that both players are fully human, each with his own reasons for enduring the other’s beating. The stunts and the CGI aren’t empty gestures. They burst onto the screen fueled by the characters’ depth, so we end up caring about the outcome of the action beyond a temporary, sensationalist thrill. This is action that extends from the action of living life, substantiated through the full-blooded backstory each character brings to the battleground and retains after the fight is done. This is action that matters.
And this is a movie that matters, one whose deft blending of urgent humanity and action-movie virtuosity threatens to become forgotten in an age where superhero-dom has been more or less monopolized by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply fond of the reliable entertainment value of those films, some of which are legitimately excellent – Iron Man and the two Captain America films come to mind. In addition, there is also X-Men, whose First Class marked the franchise’s return to hipness, and Marc Webb’s Spider-Man reboot, which salvaged the series’ reputation post-Spider-Man 3 through zinging wit and a likable lead in Andrew Garfield. Upon their release, these films felt new, and new is thrilling in a genre steeped in tradition. But it’s good to look back every once in a while, and when we do, we see Spider-Man 2, a movie that still feels vital even as an endless stream of genre successors crowds our pop cultural consciousness. We may very well be in the golden age of superhero films, but Spider-Man 2 is still Marvel’s crown jewel. It shines through the years.