There may never be another superhero movie as good as Spider-Man 2.
by MATT STOKES | JULY 5, 2017
The discussion of Spider-Man 2 starts at 26:37.
When it came out in 2004, Spider-Man 2 was universally praised by critics as a standout in an over-saturated superhero movie market. If only they’d known what was coming. Spider-Man 2 was the only superhero/comic book adaptation in the top-ten highest grossing movies of 2004, versus 2016, when that number was four.
Today’s superhero movies are events that hit similar beats, contain villains who can and will destroy the universe, and exist principally to set up future installments. Spider-Man 2, in comparison, is grounded, small, and, more than anything, humane. Outside the Raimi movies, Spider-Man is usually depicted as a teenager with teenaged concerns, but in Spider-Man 2 especially he is every single person juggling too many things at once and not doing any of them well. He neglects his friends, family, job, and treats himself poorly, and all so he can do a poor job of superheroing. What Sam Raimi’s movie gets so right is that if any of us were superheroes, we’d probably be terrible at it.
And of course we’d be! Even though Pete went through an entire first movie’s worth of experiences and, “Hey, I’m gettin’ the hang of this!” montages, it doesn’t mean he’s that much better at being Spider-Man. If I wanted to fly an airplane, it would take more than two years of flight school to get me ready to take a fighter jet into enemy territory. It’d still be a minor miracle every time I landed.
The opening credits are superimposed above beautiful comic-style art renderings of key events from the first film, and we’re reminded instantly that Peter’s choice to be Spider-Man will make him profoundly unhappy, but there is at least nobility in making that choice. What do we do, then, when we check back in with the hero as he’s settled into the reality of that choice? From the opening seconds of Spider-Man 2, it’s clear that moonlighting as a superhero is affecting his by-day life. He’s perpetually distracted, and his boss at the pizzeria tells him he’s not dependable. But he’s been in a rut for so long that he’s past the point of being able to supply good excuses for his slippage. “I’m sorry I’m late, Mr. Aziz,” he tells his boss, half-halfheartedly. “There was a… disturbance.” His boss is so sick of it that he doesn’t even bother asking Pete what the hell he’s talking about.
When Peter told Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the love of his life, that they could not be together at the end of the first film, he explained that he could only be her friend: “That’s all I have to give.” But by the events of this movie, he can’t even give that, as he’s constantly missing her plays and failing to catch up with her.
As Raimi and Tobey Maguire point out in their commentary track for the film, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) and the staff at the Daily Bugle treat Peter like, “dirt beneath their feet. They don’t have time for Peter Parker, they don’t know that he’s the star of the picture.” This is true throughout the movie, as Peter is trampled over wherever he goes… something about him just invites it.
These are not world-shattering stakes. Peter is not haunted and tortured by his powers like Wolverine or Hulk. He is just the stressed-out parent juggling several underpaying jobs and trying to stave off a panic attack and —the kids aren’t happy, the employers aren’t happy, and the parent isn’t happy, but it all has to work out, somehow. Most stories are about the protagonist’s struggle with him/herself, but Spider-Man 2 (even though it has a villain in Doc Ock) is about that struggle first and foremost. Peter begins to abruptly lose his powers when he most needs them. There’s no explanation for what’s happening, he just randomly becomes impotent, and at the most inopportune times. The weight of so much external and internal loathing is bringing him down, and he doesn’t start to recover until he is shown a tiny act of kindness in the form of his neighbor sharing some pie with him. He eventually regains control, but only after he’s made the heroic decision to start loving himself.
Dr. Octavius (Alfred Molina), too, is struggling with powers. He’s not evil, he doesn’t want to control or destroy the world, he just wants to complete his mad science experiment, and the screenplay expertly moves him into the path of Spider-Man. Their struggle is not one for the survival of the cosmos, it’s just another chapter in a long, shitty lives of Peter Parker and Otto Octavius.
Mary Jane has a love interest in the form of astronaut John Jameson (son of J. Jonah), and he is a good guy who means well. She’s just not into him; she yearns for Peter Parker, however inexplicably. Once Peter has focused enough on self-healing and on being a better superhero, things start to work out better for him, and part of that involves letting Mary Jane into his life. In a masterful sequence, Mary Jane flees her wedding, Graduate-style, and runs all the way to Pete’s crappy apartment where he is just… sitting on the bed, staring. He is sad, but he has no alternative, as this is the life he’s chosen, and he must accept its unhappy consequences. MJ and Peter kiss and decide that they’re better off mostly scared but occasionally happy than always lonely, and then the moment is interrupted when Spider-Man has to jump out of the window to chase a police siren.
“With great power comes great responsibility” means that Spider-Man has to be like a parent who puts on his own mask before assisting his children as the plane goes down. If he isn’t taking care of himself, then he’ll be a bad superhero, which is worse than not being a superhero at all.
Director: Sam Raimi
Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire
Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst
Dr. Octavius/Doc Ock: Alfred Molina
Harry Osborn: James Franco
Aunt May: Rosemary Harris
J. Jonah Jameson: J.K. Simmons
Released: June 30, 2004
Domestic Box Office: $373.6 million
The Other Movie
What other movies have we been reconsidering?