Michael Stavros’s review published on Letterboxd:
A lot of superhero sequels look to raise the stakes, broaden their scope, and arbitrarily force their characters to act miserable just for the sake of pretending it's The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight. Sam Raimi waited until the third film to do that, and instead made what is arguably the standard by which all subsequent superhero films are held. Almost everything in this film is a consequence of the first: Peter taking on the duty of being Spider-Man has made it near-impossible for him to have time for anything or anyone, Harry's vow to make Spider-Man pay for his father's death is inching towards fixation and causes great strain on his friendship with Peter, Mary Jane is tired of Peter playing hot and cold with her, and Aunt May is struggling both emotionally and financially since Uncle Ben's death. Really the only plot thread that doesn't follow from the first is Doc Ock, the brilliant scientist corrupted by four robotic tentacle arms with artificial intelligence that he designed for the purposes of an unsuccessful fusion power project.
Sticking with Doc Ock for a little while, Raimi again made the brilliant decision to cast talented character actor Alfred Molina in the part. Molina is an easy guy to love in his early pre-Ock scenes, which makes the tragedy of his character's downfall resonate. Once he turns, though, he's truly menacing and brandishes a lightly sardonic sense of humor to contrasts the lighthearted nature of Spider-Man. The robot arms also showcase a personality of their own, having their true introduction in a hospital scene that has Raimi tapping into his horror roots to perfect effect with a nice Evil Dead reference to cap it off. Having four giant robot arms also lends him a flexibility and lethality in fighting that the Green Goblin didn't have, resulting in what are still some of the best action sequences in the superhero genre. The train sequence in particular is a highlight, with Spider-Man needing to use every ounce of his agility to handle Ock's tentacles while keeping up with the speed of the train. If I have any criticism here, it's that I find the character's motivation to be villainous a little thin: he's horrified to see the arms permanently fused to him without his executive control and grieving over his wife's death as a result of his failed experiment, but he decides to go through with a re-up of the experiment to fund with stolen money because the arms said he should? Also, when he throws a car at Peter and Mary Jane despite needing Peter to get him to Spider-Man (since he's unaware they are one and the same), what was that all about? Oh well, it's not like comic book villains are well-known for their perfectly sound logic so it's not a huge issue and it's made up for by the emotional and tragic complexities of the character. Overall, he functions well as Peter's opposite, being a determined individual directly responsible for his extraordinary circumstances that responds to personal tragedy by indulging his ego.
Another antagonistic voice in Peter's life comes from his best friend Harry, still convinced that Spider-Man murdered his father in cold blood and angry at Peter not using his privileged position as the webhead's personal photographer to assist Harry's quest for revenge. From the get-go, James Franco is given a lot more to work with than he was in the first and he nails it. There's a tension in his scenes with Tobey Maguire that jumps off the screen and becomes increasingly volatile as Harry boils over towards obsession. It all helps to emphasize just how troubled Peter's life is becoming when the person he considered a brother is out to kill him in such a roundabout way. Towards the end, the seeds sown for Harry to take up the mantle of the Green Goblin and hunt down Spider-Man still generate excitement for what's to come. And then I remember, but that's for me to talk about in a future post.
Mary Jane is the other way in which Peter's life is going to hell, as she finally loses faith in him as a potential love or even as a friend given how often he disappoints her. The push-pull dynamic of their interactions, going back and forth between emotional vulnerability and one of them ultimately holding back is the dramatic backbone of the narrative. The film could honestly be seen as a romantic comedy first and a superhero film second given how focal it is to our protagonist's arc. Kirsten Dunst once again does more with the part than is written in the dialogue as she really gets to the psychological core of the character as she struggles between whether to continue pursuing Peter due to their chemistry or leave him behind considering the two years of letdowns that started with the conclusion of the first film. She also developed a greater chemistry with Tobey Maguire that allows the audience to feel more involved in the love story as it seems oh so obvious to us that they belong together despite the forces keeping them apart being clear and understandable. Although I had previously seen the film and knew where it was going, I still found it uniquely interesting that Mary Jane is the last shot of the film, looking off pensively as Spider-Man zips away once again in a way that reminded me of the uncertainty at the end of The Graduate.
Now I want to talk about Rosemary Harris's Aunt May because she's the true heart of this movie. She has the temperament of a doting grandma with a genuine warmth and belief in goodness that would be irresistible even to the coldest cynic. Aunt May is Peter's emotional center, showing him unconditional positive regard on par with Carl Rogers and ultimately presenting the main theme of the film in a similar way to how the words of Uncle Ben served as the theme of the first film. This is all just her character, though, how about the acting? Well, you don't go into the American Theatre Hall of Fame without being able to stir some major emotions and everything Harris does in this movie carries such significant weight that it makes you want to suit up and kick some ass just for her. Seriously, every moment that she is onscreen is a delight, with her big speech about heroes serving as the movie's thesis statement: a heartfelt ode to everyone with the courage to act selflessly and serve as examples for those around them. The wonderful thing about this series is that it defines heroism not by the fantastical abilities of its protagonist, but through the simple virtue of wanting to help and be there for others. In that sense, Aunt May is Peter's hero, the one person who will always support and believe in him regardless of what happens. With someone like that by your side, it's easy to believe in yourself.
Well, that's long enough without actually focusing on the main character. Tobey Maguire highly improves upon what was already a good performance in the first film, doing a bang-up job of bringing more humor to the character with his physicality and maintaining the earnestness that fit Raimi's tone (note: I just wanted to mention that the play Mary Jane was in was The Importance of Being Earnest, which also dealt with double identities). He shines during scenes with Rosemary Harris and an imagined sequence with Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben where he takes on the full weight of the character's history both in the series continuity and as a symbol as well as when he goes back to being the dorky, glasses-bearing Peter Parker. That's not to say he isn't as good in the suit, though, as he has a lightness and nimbleness about him that makes the transitions from stuntwork to special effects more seamless in this installment than they were in the first. He has a full understanding of the character that registers through his work and anchors the film.
Like the first movie, the cast is bolstered by additional supporting actors perfectly fitting their characters. J.K. Simmons gives another terrific performance as J. Jonah Jameson, once again providing a frenzy of humor every scene he's in. Elya Baskin is fun as the landlord of Peter's apartment. Dylan Baker is solid as Peter's physics professor Dr. Curt Connors and damn do I wish we had gotten to see him play the Lizard in Raimi's Spidey-verse. Bruce Campbell has another cameo appearance that had me grinning from ear to ear. Everyone's good, damn it.
Finally, I want to give a lot of praise to Danny Elfman for once again providing a tremendous score that perfectly suits the film and character. I somehow didn't mention him in my review of the first film, but his themes embody everything that I love about this series and Spider-Man as a whole. When that first note starts along with the Columbia Pictures logo, my heart soars and I am immediately 5 years old again anxiously waiting for my hero to show up on the screen.