Ever since the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming this month the internet has eagerly been taking every chance it can to rank the web-slinger’s movies in order of brilliance. It’s just what we do. We can’t just appreciate things for their own merit. Oh, no. We have to make sure there is a definitive decision on which one you’re allowed to like the most. (She says hoping nobody picks up on the hypocrisy of someone who ranks things every first Wednesday of the month.) Apparently, it’s not possible to thing both the new film and the older films are all okay so we have to decide which is the best. I’ve seen so many lists in the last few days and things are getting crazy. After all, there aren’t that many live action Spider-Man films. There are, really, only 6. Which I assume is the reason that many people are desperately including Civil War on their list so it doesn’t seem so utterly pointless and pathetic. It’s not a fucking Spider-Man film; stop going out of your way to put Andrew Garfield’s film further down the list. So, before this goes into rant territory, the main topic of conversation that seems to exist now is whether the newest film is better than the film that previously topped the list: Toby Maguire’s sequel. It is widely acknowledged that his third time to put on the suit was the biggest disaster to happen to comic book movies ever but is Spider-Man 2 actually still better than Tom Holland’s first attempt? There’s only one way to find out.
Spider-Man 2 has been my favourite Spider-Man film for 13 years. That’s not really saying much because the 3 films that were released after it were all fairly questionable in their own way and, in some cases, that’s me being super generous. Spider-Man 2 managed to follow on from the groundwork laid out by Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire in their first film but actually make it a, you know, good film. It was more exciting that the first, the characters were given a chance to develop and we saw actual narrative complexity in Peter’s inability to decide who he really wanted to be. It had its flaws, certainly, but there was such a massive improvement from the origin story that it made for a really refreshing film. Even though some naysayers, mostly my really annoying colleague, who think it’s solely down to Doctor Octopus. Don’t get my wrong, he helps but there is so much to love about this film that you can forgive a lot of the incredibly cringe moments in it.
Like the ridiculous scene where an unmasked Spidey is carried, Christ-like, through the carriage of a train that he has just stopped from crashing. It’s a scene that shouldn’t really work but, in the context of this film, it becomes a powerful and emotional image. I want to hate it but, god damn it, I cry every time. Spider-Man introduced us to Peter and set him off on his journey but the sequel asks the question “what does it mean for his life?”. The first film ended with his rejecting Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to protect her from his secret life and it is a decision he has a hard time accepting here. He has loved Mary-Jane for years so he doesn’t understand why he can’t be happy in order to protect the city of New York. It’s a film in which Spider-Man spends about a quarter of the running time not being Spider-Man.
We pick up about 2 years after Peter told Mary-Jane that he didn’t love her and he’s having a rough time keeping up with his double life. He’s struggling in class, having money issues, and is clashing with Harry thanks to his supposed friendship with Spider-Man. He can’t be everything he needs to be and it all gets a lot worse when MJ tells him she’s seeing someone. Peter struggles with the reality that he can’t have a normal life when there are people to save. So he quits. Unfortunately, crazed scientist Dr Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) is going on a rampage through the city and fucking shit up with his AI mechanical tentacles. Will Peter pick up his suit again or let New York save itself?
This was a film that didn’t just want to see action sequences and big baddies putting people in danger. It wanted to focus on characters and the lives of people who put themselves in danger for others. Peter is constantly trying to juggle his desire to help people and his loyalty towards his best friend, Harry (James Franco) and love for Mary-Jane. Unlike the first film’s attempt to create depth and emotion in the horribly handled death of Uncle Ben, this film succeeds in giving Toby Maguire something to dig into and creates some real tension and drama. Incidentally, it also does a pretty good job in those other things thanks to Doctor Octopus, still one of the best villains in superhero movie history.
But is Spider-Man 2 better than Homecoming? I don’t know. Both are elevated above their status thanks to great performances by their leading villain and both have undeveloped and annoying side characters. I’m sorry but neither Ned or Liz got enough time to develop and the fuss made about Zendaya was ridiculous in comparison to her 15 minutes of screen time. Then we have Harry the most annoying BFF in history and Mary Jane who is only saved from being the blandest love interest in a superhero film thanks to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Both films have their flaws. Toby Maguire still isn’t great and is clearly overshadowed by Tom Holland. However, I think Homecoming suffers in terms of narrative but only because it’s setting up the franchise. It might not be an origin movie as such but it is this incarnations first film. It has a lot of boxes to tick and it slows things down. Spider-Man 2 has a great story. If I honestly had to pick I’d say the 2004 film just about gets it but, I admit, it’s probably damn close.