The superhero sequel is a peculiar beast. It is the nature of the sequel to be a chancy proposition, artistically at least: most stories really actually don't need the extra space to be told, and cinema history is littered with sequels that can't do better than feebly retread the same plot and conflicts as the original movie, or else strain so hard to find a new direction that they completely abandon everything that made the first one worth watching to begin with. But not the superhero sequel. There is, I suppose, no genre in all of commercial filmmaking as conducive to making a sequel as superhero movies: granting how few truly excellent blockbuster sequels there are in the first place, a startlingly large number of them are comic book adaptations.
There is a very particular reason for this, and it was most elegantly demonstrated by X2, the first of the three truly magnificent superhero sequels of the 2000: origin stories. Or rather, the lack of an origin story. For some reason, no superhero franchise can bear to just start out by having the characters all existing and fighting villains and all that; we can have Indiana Jones or James Bond dropped into our lap and catch up with whatever we need to learn on the fly, but no, not Johnny "Ghost Rider" Blaze. We need to learn about that fucker's tragic past..
And so it is that, instead of the super-powered ass-kicking that is the main draw of these films, the first movie has to dramatically present the act of taking the game board out of the box and setting up the pieces, as it were. As is typified by X-Men, a perfectly fine movie that doesn't really go much of any place and gets kind of boring as it introduces one character after another, until by the time we're all ready to go, there's just enough time left for one big fight and then the sequel hook. But then along comes X2 which is all rising action, fight scenes, and effects, and everything is right with the world.
There are exceptions to this trend: movies that include the whole origin story as a first act and then present a mini-sequel all ready to go in the second half. And this is a worthy thing to attempt, but this runs the risk of making a film that is either overstuffed (Superman) or noticeably rushed (Iron Man), and this still gives us room for improvement in a sequel that is better able to pace itself (though this is emphatically not what happened with Iron Man 2).
And so we have a remarkably dense list of superhero movie sequels that are either objectively or at least arguably better than their predecessor: Superman II, Batman Returns, Blade II, X2, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (a dreadful movie, but a considerable improvement on Fantastic Four), Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Dark Knight (the third of the three magnificent sequels I mentioned earlier), The Avengers, and certainly not least, the second of the decade's truly wonderful superhero sequels and the reason we are all gathered here now, Spider-Man 2, a 2004 film that has been frequently cited not just as as better movie than the 2002 Spider-Man, but as the best superhero movie of all time (a claim that hasn't really been made much since 2008, but back in the day? People were absolutely nuts for it). And, sure enough, a big part of the reason why it works so well is because it doesn't have to spend an ounce of its energy setting up characters or situations: it hits the ground at ramming speed and, slightly over two hours later, collapses in blissful exhaustion.
In all frankness, I don't personally like it as much as the first: in point of fact, I think Spider-Man (which played the "origin story in the first half, condensed three-act plot in the second" card) does a better job than any movie outside of Batman Begins of connecting the origin story so tightly to its main character's emotional arc that it never feels like an expository slog, as much of X-Men (or a really extreme example, like Green Lantern) does. There are other reasons, too, mostly little ones: it's not as much fun to look at, for starters, with director Sam Raimi and new cinematographer Bill Pope dropping the pop-art color scheme of the first movie for a much flatter, normal-looking palette, and - horror of horrors - replacing the sturdy, reliable spherical format of the first movie, with its compact 1.85:1 aspect ratio, for anamorphic widescreen, in its screen-stretching 2.35:1, and they did this for wholly defensible, pragmatic reasons: the main villain was too wide to fit comfortably in 1.85:1 compositions. But it doesn't change the fact that 2.35:1 is a bitch of an aspect ratio to compose for, and Raimi and Pope are only intermittently good at it, and even if that weren't the case, there's still no way to replicate the comic panel sense of many of the first film's compositions to that wide of a frame, and so it is that the most distinctive element of Spider-Man's visuals has been tossed aside capriciousl. I'm sorry, I know nothing's lamer than a rant about aspect ratios, but I've been carrying it around for eight years. Default anamorphic widescreen for every tentpole movie is one of my greatest bêtes noires, and, Jesus, Raimi had it right the first time, and then he threw it away, and that's not something to get over slowly, or for no reason.
Like I was saying, though, little reasons. Spider-Man 2 is, by every yardstick, a great popcorn movie, and I do not hesitate even momentarily at the notion of calling both it and its precursor among the very best superhero movies ever made. And for every little reason that I like the first one better, there's a little reason I like the second one better, too: infinitely better CGI - it still hasn't aged as well as we might have hoped or assumed in 2004, but at least Spidey looks like he actually has weight and takes up physical space now; as a direct effect of that improvement, the action sequences are pretty much uniformly better, though I find the much-loved "battle on an elevated train" moment to be rather too busily edited to completely embrace it (it also looks unmistakably like Chicago in a film that pointedly takes place in New York, but I suppose that most people wouldn't notice and would care even less); and while the original film has a perfectly satisfactory narrative that makes good use of the canonical Spider-Man tropes - "with great power etc.", the travails of being an urban teen and geek - Spider-Man 2 starts off with one of the most intriguing internal character dilemmas of any modern superhero movie. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is failing in school, he can't hold down a job, his social life is dying, he's alienated his One True Love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and it's all because he spends half his time running around New York in blue and red tights, saving people from crime and mayhem, and being tarred as a thuggish vigilante because of it. Eventually, his resentment is so intense that he begins to psychosomatically lose his superpowers, right at the same time that New York is under attack from its second science-powered mad scientist in two years.
Obviously, the notion of a young person with a special, but demanding, gift that ruins their personal life isn't completely fresh, nor was it in 2004; at the very least, it's the core theme of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, hardly the obscurest cultural reference point at the time Spider-Man 2 became the highest grossing live-action film of the year. But it's still a bit challenging and mature for a film genre that even now hasn't grown very far out of the "damn that's super cool!" stage. No, it isn't super cool, the film tells us: it's a chore and a constant misery. Until, that is, it stops telling us: eventually, of course, Peter has to accept his fate and soldier on and have a great big showstopping fight on a train, and I'll never forgive screenwriter Alvin Sargent (along with scenarists Alfred Gough & Miles Millar and Michael Chabon) for making it quite so easy on Peter in the very last scene, effectively stating that the tug between duty and desire doesn't matter when you have a really cool girlfriend. But these are escapist entertainments, and the fact that the film spends so much time probing Peter's resentment of the very thing that makes him awesome is very much in its favor, regardless of how strongly it follows that theme through over the entire course of the movie.
Naturally, all of these means that the B-movie ridiculousness of the first Spider-Man has to be scaled back; another little reason I prefer the first. Not that Spider-Man 2 isn't energetic and fun above all else: for it is. But there's a great deal that's more serious and heartfelt in this one: such as an excellent moments that ends the el train scene, in which a very battered and worn Peter is gently carried aloft by a group of commuters more concerned for the well-being of the surprisingly young and fragile hero than they are awestruck by how dramatically he just saved them. It is tremendously subdued and, briefly, melancholy. Or there's our villain this time, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who wants badly to do good, but is turned into a monster when one of his inventions, a set of python-like mechanical arms attached to his back, goes wrong and takes over his brain, making him a savage criminal (nicknamed Dr. Octopus, then just Doc Ock, in the press) who cannot control his own brutality. It's, frankly, kind of sad, and Molina plays it extremely well; well enough that it's not altogether fun to watch Spider-Man beat him up.
Ultimately, that's why I prefer the first movie: it is more untroubled. The emotional stakes are lower, and there's hardly any realism. It's for these same reasons, mind you, that Spider-Man 2 is probably "better", and certainly its increased seriousness doesn't keep it from being fun, nor does it prevent Raimi from indulging in much more of his characteristically warped energy than he did in the previous movie, especially in ramping up the horror movie imagery: Octavius's wife, Rosie (Donna Murphy), reflected in the shard of glass that's about to kill her; or the low tracking shots and quick, jerking camera movements, and especially a quintessentially Raimi-esque shot following along as one of Doc Ock's metal arms zooms through the air, during his massacre of a hospital room. I am reminded, in comparing Raimi's direction of this film and its predecessor, with Tim Burton's work on Batman and Batman Returns: the first is a big-budget action movie that was clearly directed by its distinctive auteur; the second is an auteur's film that happens to be a big-budget action movie.
So, Lord no, I don't want to imply that Spider-Man 2 isn't a fantastic popcorn movie. It is. My most serious reservation with the film in and of itself is that it cranks up the crises in Peter's life to the point that there's at least one subplot too many for it to handle; my pick is Mary Jane's engagement to newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson's (J.K. Simmons) astronaut son, which crops up long enough to cause Peter to be sad, and then wanders away until it comes back to give the film its needlessly distended finale. And, while nearly everybody in the cast, given a more complex screenplay, ups their game - Simmons gets more chances to snap like a screwball comedy character, James Franco has a much deeper (though under-explored) arc of his own to play with, and Dunst actually has a chance to act and react and play her own set of conflicted emotions, instead of just smiling and being the pretty unattainable girl who is suddenly attainable - Tobey Maguire seems a bit less flexible to me than he did in the previous movie, relying on a limited stock of emotions (now he's nervous! now he's kind of mopey! now he's angry! rinse, repeat), and while the character is still basic and iconic enough as to not require "acting", it does seem to suit his limitations a bit less perfectly here.
But then, we have scenes of Spider-Man swooping around New York, with all the same energetic brio that Raimi, still in love with the character and still enacting what look very much like his childhood fantasies of being the character, brought to the last movie; and all is well with the world. And that's what these movies are still about, the first two anyway: the Silver Age sense of fantasy and possibility, the bright and enthusiastic sense that a decent guy, given the chance, can end up making everything okay both in the world around him and in his own life. It's the ultimate innocence and optimism of Raimi's first two Spider-Man pictures that sets them apart from nearly every other superhero movie and makes them as much giddy larks as they are genuinely sweet coming-of-age fables. For this, I shall love them long after the genre they helped shape and encourage has become just another one of yesterday's fads.