Even with a mad scientist plot which threatens to destroy New York City, Sam Raimi’s first Spider-sequel is smaller, more intimate. Rather than testing audience endurance with more explosions, more villains, more merchandising, Raimi keeps the focus almost squarely on Peter Parker’s ordinary angst. Spider-Man 2 has crimefighting scenes of course–all stressing utilitarian movement where Spider-Man must navigate spaces by twisting and contorting his body (Raimi’s signature swoops, pans, and flying Dutch angles all on display)–but it wrings even more fun and drama out of the everyday: Peter studying up on poetry while at the laundromat (accidentally mixing his whites with his red-and-blue costume) or trying to explain to his would-be love Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) why he didn’t make it to a show she performed. Failing grades and getting fired from one job or another puts strain on his financial and social troubles. Repeatedly, other characters point out how tired Peter looks, evident in the puffiness and dark circles around the eyes of the otherwise boyish Tobey Maguire.
Fittingly, the problem which most troubles Maguire’s Peter Parker is romance. Having rejected Mary Jane’s love in Spider-Man 1 due to his guilt complex, he continues to wrestle between his feelings and a stoic sense of duty. He interprets his lesson of “with great power comes great responsibility” (taught by his uncle Ben, also the greatest source of his guilt) to mean he can’t have meaningful relationships if he has to protect everyone. It’s a sentiment which, at first glance, appears to be reinforced when his aunt May later tells him “there’s a hero in all of us” and “we sometimes have to give up what we want the most.” It’s this psychic tension which causes Peter to sporadically lose his powers throughout the movie, notably after he has in some way upset Mary Jane through his absence. Seeing a chance to get the life he wants, he gives up being Spider-Man. Basically, following the premise of The Last Temptation of Christ.
Yet, Raimi quickly reveals this is, if not the wrong lesson, a flawed interpretation. Emotional distance cripples Peter socially–causing Mary Jane to be chilly towards him, while best friend Harry (James Franco) descends into a misplaced obsession with Spider-Man (seen as responsible for his father’s death)–but selfish desire only allows space for villain Dr. Octopus (delightfully hammy Alfred Molina) to become more unhinged as he pursues his own (unintentionally lethal) dream of building a fusion reactor. Peter only becomes a better hero when he opens up to others: telling his aunt about his accidental involvement in his uncle’s death allows both her and him to move past their initial guilt; revealing his identity to Dr. Octopus and Mary Jane repairs the former’s sanity and mends his relationship with the latter; even the train fight goes awry until Peter loses the mask and has actual dialogue with a civilian.
Critics of the Raimi trilogy often cited Dunst as Mary Jane being the weak link, but it’s interesting how she is the key to Spider-Man 2. She develops suspicions about Peter’s double life, noting how different he seems at various points. When proven correct, she not only understands Peter’s distance despite their mutual feelings, but recognizes it for the call for help it is (she asks “Isn’t it time someone saved your life?”). Raimi posits a “hero in all of us” not as bludgeoning bad guys into submission or suffering the most for everyone else, but in simply being a support for others and in turn being supported by them.
What? You expected a review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2?