The beauty and subtlety of Spider-Man 2

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004) is one of my favorite films. 

While the original Spider-Man (2002) sees Peter Parker internalizing the adage that “with great power, comes great responsibility,” Spider-Man 2 takes this message further: Peter learns the meaning not only of responsibility, but of commitment, which in this film signals choosing responsibility even despite the undesirable consequences. However, even more poignantly, the film sees Peter learning a consoling lesson: he does not have to do this alone, and heroes are in fact stronger when supported by community. 

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Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius

As an analog to the first part of Peter’s lesson, Spider-Man 2’s villain, Dr. Otto Octavius (“Doc Ock”), is rendered a monster when a set of mechanical arms is welded onto his spine. Through this merging, Octavius loses the ability to control the arms, instead becoming subject to their artificially intelligent whims. Acting as a metaphor, Octavious’s transformation speaks to the need to subordinate one’s passions to one’s intentions, something with which Peter struggles in parallel throughout the film.

For Peter, the essence of his struggle is that he wants to be with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane, and yet Peter’s identity as Spider-Man always seems to sabotage his efforts in regard. As a vivid example of this dynamic, Mary Jane entreats Peter to see her new Broadway show, and yet Peter is never able to do so because of his obligations as Spider-Man; as Mary Jane reflects, to her he is “nothing but an empty seat.” For Peter, it seems that he cannot both be Spider-Man, and attain satisfaction as himself, and this leads Peter to flirt with forgoing his Spider-Man identity altogether. 

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Rosemary Harris as Aunt May

Throughout the ensuing portion of the film, Peter asks both himself and the audience deep questions about the nature of heroism, identity, and obligation. For instance, are heroes such as Spider-Man necessary, or should people learn to save themselves? As Peter’s Aunt May opines to him in a classic speech, there is a “hero in all of us,” emphasizing the quotidian heroism that supersedes figures in costume. Additionally, is it possible for Peter to achieve his dreams while simultaneously fulfilling his duties as Spider-Man, or are the two mutually exclusive? Ultimately, is choice even possible, or will Peter’s very nature as a compassionate person demand that he embody heroism? 

An especially memorable scene occurs when, even though he is without costume, Peter endeavors to save a young girl trapped in a burning building. Despite the odds, he is successful in so doing, only to afterward overhear a firefighter bemoaning a different casualty: a “poor soul” who got “trapped on the fourth floor.” As Peter realizes, it is impossible to save everyone, no matter his identity: he is not and can never be perfect. 

And yet finally, this film is about forgiving Peter for that fact, reminding him that even heroes need not be perfect. In the film’s climax, Peter dukes it out with Doc Ock on a train, and the latter figure removes the train’s controls before departing. Improbably, Peter manages to stop the train, but he both loses his mask and passes out in so doing. A group of passengers catches Peter’s body and pulls him onto the train, and yet this means that they have glimpsed his identity: they know the very thing Peter has been trying to hide for two films. 

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Peter is clearly horrified, and yet he is immediately comforted and reassured by the throng of passengers. Moments later, a pair of children brings Peter back his mask, promising not to tell anybody what they have seen. The rest of the passengers nod, and for the first time Peter realizes reciprocity: he does not need to do the work of being Spider-Man alone, since the entire community of New York supports him.

Similarly, Mary Jane herself confronts Peter with his martyr complex in the final moments of the film. After saving her from Octavius as well as rescuing the city, Peter has again accidentally revealed his identity, this time to Mary Jane; in response, he has also and at long last confessed that he loves her. However, this succession of events enables Peter to explain why, in his mind, he and Mary Jane can never be together; as Peter asserts, “Spider-Man will always have enemies,” and he cannot let Mary Jane take on that “risk.”

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In the film’s final scene, Mary Jane leaves her wedding in favor of Peter, telling him that he needs to respect her enough to let her make “her own [decision],” that she wants to face his cautionary risks “together.” Peter, bordering on speechlessness, can respond only with “Thank you, Mary Jane Watson,” and the passionate kiss toward which the two have been heading for two films; as Mary Jane herself frames this moment to Peter, “Isn’t it time someone saved your life for a change?”

If the original Spider-Man film is about Peter learning to accept responsibility, the second complicates this notion. First, it allows Peter choice through the possibility of abandoning Spider-Man’s identity altogether; he does not need to regulate his passions and can instead submit to them, in the same way as Otto Octavius has lost control of his mechanical arms. More meaningfully, Peter learns that true heroism sometimes entails relying on others: with Mary Jane at his back, and with the people of New York at his side, he will be far more powerful than if he had tried to go it alone; bringing back Aunt May’s pivotal speech, there is a “hero in all of us,” and great acts of heroism are composed of small ones.

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