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Credit: Sony Pictures

Exploring Spider-Man 2's unmatched triple decker success on its 15th anniversary

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Jun 27, 2019

The 2002 Spider-Man movie was the first film to make over $100 million in its opening weekend. It's tie-in song, Chad Kroeger's "Hero," charted in the Top 10 in multiple countries and was nominated for two Grammy Awards. And the PlayStation 2 version of its game made $74 million in the United States, while the game sold over six million copies over multiple platforms. Most importantly, Spider-Man was a really good movie, proving that the goofy yet sincere sensibilities of director Sam Raimi were a perfect match for the warmth and adventure of the comic book character.

Then Raimi went out and made a sequel that proved it wasn't a fluke.

Spider-Man 2 is a monument in superhero films and a luminary among superhero sequels, illustrating perfectly how to craft a film that stands on its own while continuing and strengthening the existing themes and plotlines of the franchise. It also proved to be masterful in its marketing, as the tie-in music album and video game are quite possibly the best that the superhero genre has seen as well.

So, to celebrate its 15th anniversary, I'm gonna take a little deep dive into the three prongs of Spider-Man 2's overwhelming success — the movie, the album, and the game — and examine, not only what made them so incredible, but also what sets them above similar efforts in the world of capes and masks.

Spiderman 2 Trailer [HD]

The Movie

If you get a chance and you're not at, like, a job interview or something, watch that trailer right above here. It spends 36 seconds (over a fourth of the trailer) on a truncated version of the "Do you love me?" cafe scene, and then, until about the minute mark, stays in the same location to introduce the villain. One place, three characters, HALF of the trailer.

I think this is a good representation of Spider-Man 2 as a whole because while parts of it are bigger than the first (Doc Ock's nuclear reactor death is certainly more, um, explosive than Green Goblin getting impaled by his own dumb glider, and the action scenes, whether they're outside the bank or on the train, are definitely a lot more elaborately choreographed than anything seen in the original), it's still a very personal movie told with only a handful of main characters. In fact, there's only one new main character. The rest are continuing their journeys from the previous film.

mary jane

Sony Pictures

And it's because we're so comfortable with them that whoever cut this trailer together figured "Yeah, let's devote over 25 percent of it to whether or not Tobey Maguire is gonna make out. The audience will understand."

Some people, though, didn't. Early drafts of the script sought to introduce a parade of villains like Doctor Octopus, The Lizard, and Black Cat, as if they were trying to get Spider-Man 3's oversaturation of bad guys out of the way early. But Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent stuck to their guns with what they wanted the theme of the film to be: How and why a hero would give up their responsibilities. Of course, Spider-Man fans know this as the plot of the famous comic story "Spider-Man No More!" from Amazing Spider-Man #50, but when it comes to onscreen depictions of a hero trying to go back to their normal life, it hadn't really been pulled off effectively yet.

Of course, we had Superman II, which delved into similar themes, but Superman II was always limited by the fact that, deep into its production, its director, Richard Donner, was fired from the film. He was replaced by someone who leaned in a more slapstick direction, and so the theatrical cut of Superman II is a jarring collage of Clark Kent introspection and Three Stooges-esque antics. So Spider-Man 2 would potentially be the first to do this theme justice.

Eventually, they settled on Doctor Octopus, and it seems like they mainly did this because Raimi thought he looked super cool. Of course, you had the stuff about him being an inspiration and mentor to Peter Parker and that's all great, but it's hard not to look at the Doc Ock choice as 90 percent "This would be the best guy for a high-speed train brawl."

 

But who would he brawl with? Jake Gyllenhaal? I'm being serious here. Though Maguire signed on for three movies, a back injury ("My back! My back!") that he suffered while filming Seabiscuit forced Sony Pictures to reconsider its options. It considered Gyllenhaal but, in the end, it seems less like back problems forcing Maguire out and more like his desire for a higher paycheck. Eventually, Maguire was set to star to the tune of $17 million, and Gyllenhaal would sit on the Spider Bench for 15 years.

Filming was made especially interesting, not only due to the massive budget and the willingness of actors to perform their own stunts (though Alfred Molina seems less than thrilled about it) but also through extensive use of the "Spydercam," spelled with a "y" because it's cooler that way. The Spydercam would glide and fall through the streets of NYC, making the shots in which Peter web slings way more dynamic and realistic-feeling.

Oh, and just in case you're not interested in that, here's Alfred Molina singing "If I Were a Rich Man" while still attached to his tentacles (Molina played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, though I still consider Doctor Octopus to be the more, ahem, distinguished role):

 

But the real star of the film isn't the theater actor lending gravitas to every sentence. No, it's the tentacles that he's attached to! Altogether, they weighed about 100 pounds, but when blended with CGI, they created some of the best practical/computer effects since Jurassic Park. Also, they gave us scenes like this, which is a tribute to Raimi's own Evil Dead series and also one of the most horrifying things to be found in any superhero film ever.

 

Another big part of Spider-Man 2 is the fall of Harry Osborn, a young man who doesn't quite fit in his father's shoes, but still desperately wants to make him proud, even after his father's death "at the hands of Spider-Man." To complete his transformation from awkward rich kid to Green Goblin Lite, they brought back Willem Dafoe as a hallucinatory presence that taunted Harry about avenging him and other fun stuff like that. And why did they bring him back? Well, if you listen to Dafoe, it's because, during a press tour of the original film, he straight up asked Raimi to bring him back.

And who can say no to Willem Dafoe?

What all of this would lead to is a film that both honors and outdoes its predecessor. It took everything that worked in the first movie and peeled off the stuff that didn't. (You'll find that 2 doesn't have the out-of-nowhere, silly jokes that Peter makes in 1, "humor" that I always felt was an attempt to replicate the comics in a way that didn't play to the strengths of the actor or the filmmakers.) To distill it down, it is the perfect franchise film, something with the aims of the middle section of a blockbuster trilogy, but with the heart of a caring, emotional drama.

jameson

Sony Pictures

And has it been outdone since then? The closest equivalent Marvel has made is the wonderful Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Iron Man 2 is a messy cog in the MCU and Thor: The Dark World is angrily forgettable). DC gave us The Dark Knight, which covers a lot of the "When can a hero stop being a hero?" themes and is often truly terrific, but filters them through metaphors about the "war on terror" that ages the film in a number of weird ways.

Spider-Man 2 would go on to gross $373 million in the U.S. and win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. And when it comes to the 2004 box office, it was only outdone by... Shrek 2. That's a little disappointing, but Shrek 2 does have Jennifer Saunders singing "I Need A Hero," so I can't be TOO sad.

spider-man 2 "watch vindecated by dashboard confessional"

The Album

The world of superhero movie tie-in albums is an uneven one.

The first real one is the album Prince made specifically for Tim Burton's Batman, and it's honestly a really good album, mostly because it's Prince. And then we have the one for Batman Forever, which includes my favorite song, Seal's "Kiss From A Rose," and others like Method Man's "The Riddler," which is the closest that Method Man will ever come to producing music for the Dr. Demento radio show.

And the soundtrack to the first Spidey movie, Music from and Inspired by Spider-Man? It's... just okay. It's got "Hero," which I have a soft spot in my heart for, but for the most part, it seems all over the place. Aerosmith doing the Spider-Man theme alongside "hits" by Alien Ant Farm, The Strokes, and Sum 41? It's less Music from and Inspired by Spider-Man and more "Hero" and other songs that we got the rights to slapped under a Spider-Man Picture.

 

So in order to best the first go-round, the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack would have to accomplish two things: 1) It would actually have to feel like a cohesive album and not just songs from 2004 picked out of a hat, and 2) It would have to feel like the movie it was promoting. And it would accomplish both of these tasks in spades. Spider-Man 2 is a legitimately good album on its own (it reached #7 on the U.S. Billboard 200), mainly because it's more of a companion piece to the movie than a mindless tie-in product.

First off, it's got "Vindicated" by Dashboard Confessional, a karaoke-ready song that would be good even if it was never attached to a teenager with arachnid powers. This is in direct contrast to "Hero," which is only really good if you have fond memories of the end credits of Spider-Man.

But fear not, as Spider-Man 2 has its own "The lyrics of this song are definitely about spider hero stuff" entry with "Ordinary." It isn't exactly the banger that "Vindicated" is, but it definitely fulfills the quota for music that might as well be a Tobey Maguire monologue spread over some guitars.

 

Rounding it out is stuff like "Gifts and Curses" by Yellowcard (it is my firm belief that the Spider-Man trilogy and the first few Tony Hawk games were the number one purveyors of good soundtracks in the early '00s) and the vastly underrated "The Night That The Lights Went Out in NYC" by The Ataris. Of course, you had composer Danny Elfman's score on a separate album, which, like his work on the first film, is glorious.

Overall, the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack isn't just listenable when you have the movie in mind. It's one of the best collections of alternative rock from that era, a time capsule ode to millennial angst. However, by the time the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack came out, whoever put these together had reverted to their old ways, as it might as well be Now That's What I Call Music! Volume Spider-Man.

And has it been outdone since then? Well, almost. But that's mostly because I'm a dumb ol' 30-year-old who hasn't heard of half of the artists on the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack. I will say that it's awesome, though, and I'm glad that the Spider-Man series has continued the trend of having the best tie-in music found anywhere.

Spider-Man 2 Xbox Trailer - E3 2004 Trailer

The Game

Back in 2004, one trend in video games was picking up steam and one was running at full speed. That first trend was open world gaming, as revolutionized by Grand Theft Auto III two years prior. And the second was the trend of movie tie-in games, something that is all but extinct today due to plummeting sales. The Spider-Man 2 game would capitalize on both of these trends and would produce a game that's not only legitimately good for its genre of "Huh, I saw the movie so I guess I'll pick this up!" but also stands as one of the better Spider-Man adventures that you yourself control.

But first, let's look back at the original. While it sold very well, it did have a few problems. NYC feels pretty claustrophobic; the camera angles that it gives you sometimes feel ironic. And Maguire sounds like he's just waking up from a nap the whole time.

So there was room for improvement, and Treyarch was ready to deliver. It all began with an overhaul to the web-slinging.

See, before Spider-Man 2, web-slinging, despite it being one of the coolest things about Spider-Man, had always felt abominably clunky. A lot of this is due to technological limitations, but it makes it no less disappointing to finally get your Spidey into the air and discover that he flows about as well as someone trying to make a field goal with a stuffed Thanksgiving turkey.

spider-man-2

Treyarch

So Treyarch developed a physics-based system that would allow for way smoother gliding. They also created a way so that there would be infinite points for the web to "attach to," so that you wouldn't be playing and suddenly find yourself desperately hammering buttons as Peter Parker plummeted to the streets, and Peter wouldn't have to sling his webs into the infinite sky anymore.

And just as important to the game's success as the web slinging was the environment, and the team behind it became obsessed with creating an "open world sandbox" that brought you as close to NYC as the Playstation 2 would allow. The results, considering that it's from 2004, are exhilarating. Spider-Man's world legitimately feels huge for the first time. But they needed a story to match, and they'd actually find that story due to, well, a lack of a story.

Sony was very protective of its Spider-Man 2 scripts, so at first, the game's developers could only read it on the Sony Pictures Lot and then take their memories back to the studio. And they were quick to realize that the story of the movie and all of the things that made it great (its small, emotional moments and focus on character drama) wouldn't be a perfect fit for a giant action game. And so they went wild with it, loosely adapting the film but throwing in villains like Shocker, Rhino, Mysterio, Black Cat and, of course, Dr. Octopus.

spidey2

Treyarch

Luckily, Tobey Maguire sounded happier to be there when voicing his character in this game, and they even got Alfred Molina and Kirsten Dunst to reprise their roles. However, not everything would make it into the game, and so a bunch of sections were cut and placed in the Spider-Man 3 game, which, like its movie counterpart, was underwhelming to many.

It was a massive effort and it was rewarded with being the number one movie tie-in game of the year (Take THAT, Shrek 2.) For the first time, it made you feel like Spider-Man, rather than someone controlling a clunky video game version of Spider-Man. And even though the song that plays during the "Deliver the pizza!" side quests has never stopped haunting my brain...

 

...it set the standard for what movie tie-in games could be. And was it ever matched?

No. Never.

Spider-Man 2, in my opinion, is the third best Spider-Man game of all time (after 2018's Spider-Man and 2005's Ultimate Spider-Man,) but when it comes to games that are based on superhero films, it's never been improved upon.

This is for two reasons: 1) It's a fantastic game, y'all, and 2) The movie tie-in genre would slowly dissipate due to the reason I mentioned above. Of course, the incredible Batman: Arkham Asylum was only made because a The Dark Knight tie-in game fell apart. So we'll never know if Spider-Man 2 would've faced a contender to its throne.

Overall, Spider-Man 2 remains one of my favorite films from any genre; the soundtrack is something that I listen to regularly, and the game brings back a number of fond memories. It's the last superhero film to receive this kind of success in three major areas, and even if we do eventually get a Spider-Man film that tops it, it will never replace the moment when Spider-Man 2 was everything.

And everything was really damn good.

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