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This 2004 movie remains the crown jewel of superhero cinema. Here’s why it’s still the best

A woman drinks tea with a man in Spider-Man 2.

It’s been 20 years since the premiere of Sam Raimi’s 2004 superhero sequel, Spider-Man 2, and we can confidently say it’s still the best superhero movie ever made. Of course, many worthy comic book adaptations have come out in the years since, and some might declare a few as the best superhero movie out there — I can already see many Dark Knight defenders and Avengers: Endgame truthers readying their pitchforks to defend their faves.

However, I believe it’s undeniable to say that Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero movie that’s actually a superhero movie. Whereas The Dark Knight sacrifices its superhero sensibilities to become a gritty crime thriller and Endgame occasionally feels more like a “best hits” compilation than an actual movie, Spider-Man 2 wears its comic book banners high and proud.

It succeeds without subverting the genre’s expectations or challenging its conventions — on the contrary, it embraces its sensibilities and operates well within its boundaries. The result is an unadulterated and near-perfect love letter to superhero cinema that honors its source material and beloved character like few, if any, superhero movies have. What makes this gem of a movie so brilliant? A combination of elements, surely, but I believe Spider-Man 2 has two crucial elements that separate it from its fellow live-action adaptations.

The power of a villain in the palm of Molina’s hand

Doctor Octopus smiling while talking in Spider-Man 2.
Sony Pictures Releasing

Perhaps more so than any other film genre, superhero movies need a great villain. Because these stories follow a rather straightforward good-versus-evil approach, the villain is just as, if not more, important than the hero. Think about all the titles in contention for the best superhero movie ever — Dark KnightX2: X-Men UnitedEndgameBatman Returns — what do they have in common? Precisely! A great villain.

As the best superhero movie out there, Spider-Man 2 does not disappoint. Its villainy comes from the brilliant and somehow still Oscar-less Alfred Molina as Doctor Otto Octavius, best known as Doctor Octopus. As previously mentioned, the film sticks to a rather common narrative, portraying Octavius as a typical tragic figure who succumbs to his worst impulses after his wife, played by the always great Donna Murphy, is fridged so his story can continue. Yet, ever the consummate pro, Molina takes what could very easily be an ordinary villain and turns him into someone extraordinary.

The strength of Molina’s portrayal lies in his relatability. His Doc Ock is never unlikable or, dare I say it, menacing; he’s not hateable or even reproachable, and at no point does one feel the need to see him gone. Spider-Man 2 pulls a wonderful feat that seldom other movies get away with — the viewer wants Peter to win without wanting Otto to lose. And it’s not like Spider-Man 2 treats Ock as anything less than a bad guy. Raimi understands that, for a superhero movie to work, the line between “right” and “wrong” must be clearly defined. Otto’s actions, much like Norman Osborn’s before him, are wrong — occasionally, they’re also evil, yet Otto himself is not.

Peter walks away from a trash can in Spider-Man 2.

By seemingly choosing simplicity, Raimi invites a pack of fascinating questions about the nature of evil and the essence of human nature. They are not necessarily groundbreaking — indeed, people have been asking themselves whether true evil exists since the dawn of time — but they are important to the story’s success. Even more beautiful is the fact that neither Raimi nor Molina ever ask them directly. Spider-Man 2 doesn’t adopt a moralistic or preachy tone, and at no point do they try to turn the story into a philosophical journey of the self. Yet these issues are on the screen, plain as day yet discreetly flowing in between action set pieces and cheesy jokes.

Transforming subtext into text without actually declaring it is a gift few writers have, and conveying what’s there without putting it into words is even rarer for an actor to accomplish. But Raimi and Molina make it look effortless. It’s more than natural; it’s logical and implicit. Beyond his cool gimmick and striking appearance, Spider-Man 2‘s Doc Ock is memorable for who he is. Not his plans or his powers or even his lines — he himself commands the attention and incites curiosity. He’s unforgettable by simply being, and that’s an unbelievably impressive feat that no other comic book villain has pulled off.

‘Lord knows kids like Henry need a hero.’

Aunt May's Motivational Speech Scene - Spider-Man 2-(2004) Movie Clip Blu-ray HD Sheitla

The second crucial aspect of Spider-Man 2‘s success is something we rarely see in movies anymore, superhero or otherwise: honesty. In fact, it’s more than just plain honesty. Like most other Raimi movies, Spider-Man 2 feels unassuming, as if the man behind it was still the same youthful artist who made Evil Dead for a hundred bucks and a dream. The scale is larger, the visual effects are outstanding, and the hype is real, but the film’s core, its soul, is very much grounded in a basic, relatable principle.

Look at Aunt May’s now-iconic speech about heroism. There are no elaborate words or faux attempts at a philosophical message; there’s no pageantry or self-importance. Instead, it’s just a kindly old woman talking to her nephew from the heart about why everybody needs someone to look up to.

It, of course, helps that an actress of Rosemary Harris’ caliber is delivering it with all the warmth of a loving grandmother next to a cracking fireplace, but she only helps exacerbate what is already there. Spider-Man 2 isn’t afraid to care about its hero because it loves its hero, and maybe you should, too. There’s nothing wrong with needing something, needing someone; why else are we here if not to rely on each other?

Spider-Man crawls on a web in Spider-Man 2.

This refreshing honesty is in every scene of Spider-Man 2, from Ock’s scenes with his wife to Peter’s complicated exchanges with Mary Jane. Love is at the center of this trilogy, and the movies never pretend otherwise. Spider-Man 2 understands the power of a phrase like “I love you,” and it’s not ashamed of using it.

Because words have meaning, just like heroes have meaning, and love is still what makes the world go round. It’s incredible that, in a movie about a guy with spider abilities fighting a guy with mechanical tentacles, love is still the chord that ties everything together. There’s a warmth to Spider-Man 2 that makes it reassuring, a sense that compels one to experience rather than just witness.

In an age when movies feel the need to be abrasive and more cynical, Spider-Man 2 goes the opposite route. It cares so you can care; it feels so you can feel. It dares to be the bravest thing anyone can be: vulnerable, emotional, fragile. It takes more balls to be open than to hide behind layers of CGI and gravitas. In its empathy, Spider-Man 2 ultimately finds victory.

Go get ’em, tiger

Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson looking to the distance in Spider-Man 2.
Sony Pictures Releasing

Spider-Man 2 has all the elements of a great movie of its genre. It has funny, cheesy, and memorable dialogue delivered by a group of actors who know exactly what they’re doing. It has some of the best set pieces the genre has ever seen, including a battle aboard a moving training that might just be the single greatest action sequence in the genre’s history. It has impressive CGI that somehow looks better than most movies released in the past year. And it has all the Raimi quirks we’ve come to expect from his movies, from a distinctive comic book visual approach to fades, whip cuts, and Bruce Campbell.

But that’s not why Spider-Man 2 is the best comic book movie — rather, it’s not just because of that. Instead, Spider-Man 2 reigns supreme because it wants to be a worthy Spider-Man movie first and a great superhero movie second. Like its titular character, Spider-Man 2 wants to do right by the friendly neighborhoods of the world. It means to celebrate and acknowledge rather than just entertain or distract because it understands there’s a bit of Peter Parker in all of us. And if we all can care as much as Peter does, then perhaps there is hope after all.

Spider-Man 2 is available to stream on Disney+.

David Caballero
David is a Mexican freelance writer with a deep appreciation for words. After three years in the cold world of Marketing…
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