One day last month, Spider-Man fans began to speculate feverishly. The official Marvel Twitter account had posted an image: the number four, woven in web, a spider dangling over it, with no explanation. Many Spidey enthusiasts decided this could only mean one thing: a new film or more likely comic book telling another chapter in the Sam Raimi-directed saga of films that broke box office records in the early-to-mid-Noughties.
The Evil Dead director had come close to making what was then tentatively titled “Spider-Man 4”; auditions were even held for it, with Anne Hathaway and John Malkovich up for parts in a sequel written by Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt. Storyboards were drawn up featuring the villainous Vulture, as Raimi circled a movie that would make up for the disappointment of 2007’s overcrowded, disjointed Spider-Man 3.
Instead, he and Sony parted ways. “It really was the most amicable and undramatic of breakups,” the filmmaker recalled in 2013. “We had a deadline and I couldn’t get the story to work on a level that I wanted it to work. I was very unhappy with Spider-Man 3 and I wanted to make ‘Spider-Man 4’ to end on a very high note, the best Spider-Man of them all. But I couldn’t get the script together in time.”
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In the time since, two new live-action incarnations of Peter Parker have swung onto the silver screen: Andrew Garfield, in two Amazing Spider-Man films that weren’t in fact all that amazing, and Tom Holland, in Marvel’s all-conquering MCU. Despite the success of the latter – Far From Home, the second MCU Spidey solo film, was released last week to strong reviews and a $580m opening weekend – for many fans, the Noughties Spider-Man movies still represent peak Peter Parker. No wonder fans were excited last month at the thought of a comic book “Spider-Man 4”; Tobey Maguire’s endearingly dweeby version of the character remains deeply beloved.
It was Spider-Man 2, released 15 years ago today, that’s largely to credit for the enduring romance between Maguire’s Spidey and fans. To many, it’s not just the best Spider-Man film, but the definitive example of superhero cinema so far: a punchy, hyper-bright teen drama that balanced brilliantly big blockbuster set-pieces with the humour and pathos of a boy trying to find his place in the world. For every moment of high-wire action, Spidey hurtling through the skyline doing battle with deadly foes, there was a relatable example of the agony of being a teenager, struggling (and failing) to get his life together (such as when Peter accidentally mixes up his spandex suit in his washing and dyes all his underwear pink). With great spectacle, came great laughter.
The film – the much-anticipated sequel to 2002’s critically acclaimed Spider-Man – dealt with a mentor gone mad with grief. When a science experiment results in the death of his wife, Dr Octavius’s (Alfred Molina) obsession with creating a new type of energy turns sinister, and only Parker can stop him. And that’s not all. Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborne, is also descending into madness, and on top of everything, his love, MJ, is slipping away from him. It’s a masterful mix, but it almost didn’t happen – not as the Spider-Man 2 we know today.
The character’s inaugural big-screen outing in 2002 had been a long time coming. In 1985, Marvel – on a crash course towards $700m debts that’d eventually cause them to file for bankruptcy – sold the film rights to Spidey for just $225,000. James Cameron, hot off Terminator 2: Judgement Day, wrote a treatment for the movie in the early Nineties that never came to pass, as the rights were passed around Hollywood and legal battles were fought over the character. The delays eventually worked in Spidey’s favour: when Sam Raimi eventually made Spider-Man in 2002, having beaten David Fincher and M Night Shyamalan to direct the movie, it benefited from astonishing computer graphics that visualised Spidey swinging through New York more impressively than had the film been made in the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, as planned.
It was a smash: the first film to reach $100m in a single weekend, and the most lucrative movie of all time based on a comic book, with a box office gross of over $821.7m worldwide. Sony weren’t about to waste any time fast-tracking a sequel. But not everyone was playing ball. Maguire, who filmed horse racing drama Seabiscuit after making Spider-Man, had back complaints from that shoot. He also wanted more money – more, it seemed, than Sony was willing to pay. Producer Amy Pascal offered the role to Jake Gyllenhaal, who almost stepped in, before Maguire backed down on his demands.
Shooting began in April 2003 in New York, reuniting the original’s all-star cast, with Kirsten Dunst (MJ) and James Franco (Harry Osborne) both back alongside Maguire. An original treatment had seen comic villains the Lizard and Black Cat also in the mix; another involved a love triangle between Dr Octopus, Parker and MJ. But the final script opted for a streamlined, leaner film, that positioned Octopus as another father figure for Peter, still grief-stricken from the death of his Uncle Ben. It’s Octopus who Peter battles in a thrilling fight on top of a train: a set-piece that become recognised as the film’s standout sequence. Raimi actually dreamt up and storyboarded this moment during the making of the first film, shaping Spider-Man 2 around it.
In a way, the entire film is about mourning and the ways our reactions to death can honour (or dishonour) the ones we’ve lost. Parker loses his powers in this film, and doesn’t earn them back till he confronts his guilt over his uncle’s passing. Osborne’s grief is a poison slowly corrupting him: he grows darker, unable to maintain his friendship with Peter as his anguish mutates into mania within, eventually becoming the Green Goblin. Dr Octopus’s grief, meanwhile, manifests as anger and obsession: he is consumed by the need to complete his experiment and make it a success, so his partner’s death wasn’t for nothing; he’s searching for meaning in the madness.
Perhaps not coincidentally, New York, the setting of the film, was going through its own process of grief at the time: three years earlier, 2,606 people were killed in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. As the city and indeed America continued to process that trauma, Spider-Man 2 arrived in 2004 with a warning about not letting mourning transform into bitterness and fury, corrupting who you are.
The mysterious number four posted to the Marvel Twitter account turned out to be something else entirely. Another day passed, and an image showing the number three popped up: it was a countdown. As it turned out, they were teasing the announcement of a new Spidey comic written by JJ Abrams and his son. There was still to be a throwback in June to the Raimi of era of Spider-Man films, though, which peaked with Spider-Man 2 in 2004.
When Far From Home hit cinemas, it featured Gyllenhaal, finally appearing in a Spider-Man movie a decade and a half after so nearly donning the red suit. And that wasn’t all. There was to be another blast from the past. If you’ve seen Far From Home, you’ll know what I mean; I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t. The whoops from audiences and reaction to the comeback on social media to that moment are a reminder that the Raimi films, in particular Spider-Man 2, continue to resonate all these years on. “We need a hero, courageous, setting examples for all of us,” says Aunt May in the movie. Spider-Man 2 gave us one, and much more beyond.