“Being brilliant’s not enough, young man. You have to work hard. Intelligence is not a privilege, it’s a gift, and you use it for the good of mankind.”
– Otto Octavius
There’s this terrific scene in the 1978 classic, Superman: The Movie, where Christopher Reeve’s earnest performance really shines. This scene depicts Clark Kent examining himself in the mirror, as he considers telling Lois Lane his big secret. He takes his glasses off, changes his posture, deepens his voice – becomes Superman, essentially – and then goes right back to being Clark Kent. In this one scene, Reeve’s excellent acting solves the age-old dilemma of why Lois can’t see past a silly pair of glasses; it’s because the goofy, dorky Clark Kent is such a different person, in every way, that one wouldn’t even stop to consider the idea that this guy could be Superman. But this scene also points out another fact; the Clark Kent persona is an act. The true Kal-El is the one who wears the red cape and takes off into the sky, abandoning his gauche mortal persona.
Peter Parker, better known as the amazing Spider-Man, doesn’t have the same luxury. He’s awkward—really awkward. Nerdy. Highly intelligent, for sure – but very self-conscious. He’s stuck with the imperfect, bittersweet life he was born into. And most of all, he’s human. He makes mistakes, he screws things up, and he tries to do the right thing, often at great personal expense.
And this is why Spider-Man 2, released all the way back in 2004 – before Twitter, before Facebook was big, before smartphones dominated the marketplace – still stands today as one of the all-time greatest depictions of this enduring character, cinematic or otherwise. Spider-Man 2 is a film with far-reaching ambitions, as it attempts to be a heartfelt character drama, a heart-stopping blockbuster, and even a quirky, indie-style tragic comedy…and somehow, it succeeds at being all three.
We all remember that back in 2004, Spider-Man 2 was an enormous success; what we often forget is what a truly weird film it is. It’s remarkably offbeat. Idiosyncratic. It’s full of bizarre scenes such as the elevator scene, the Raindrops montage and the chocolate cake scene, bits that would normally never be allowed in a summer tent pole movie, but function marvelously here as the puzzle pieces of Peter Parker’s strange, melancholic world. The movie is absolutely dripping with director Sam Raimi’s trademark style, from those nifty Evil Dead camera angles to spinning newspapers and ultra close-ups of screaming faces. But this very weirdness is the key to what makes Spider-Man 2 such a joy to watch, even all of these years later.
After all, Spider-Man has always been a highly unusual superhero. Why should his movie be any less unusual?
Spider-Man 2, as it begins, reintroduces us to the world of Peter Parker; science whiz, college student, photographer, and, of course, high-flying vigilante. In the year since his uncle died and Peter first put on the red and blue spandex, the stresses of real life have hit him like a bag of rocks. He has to work multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills, he lives in a tiny, ratty apartment, he’s late to all of his classes, his friends are sick of his unreliability and his Aunt May is having her house taken away. He can’t seem to catch a break.
Yet what makes Peter Parker such a wonderful character is the fact that throughout all of this, he doesn’t lose hope. While it would be easy for Peter to become negative and cynical, he is an idealist through-and-through. Despite the painful burdens he suffers from daily, he keeps his chin up. He smiles easily. While hardcore fans might quibble about how Peter’s famous sense of humor is put on the back burner in this film, it’s important to recognize that the character’s core values and personality traits – guilt, responsibility, anguish, vulnerability but also optimism and an absolutely remarkable inner strength – are displayed here in a real, startlingly human way that is utterly true to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s most famous creation.
Tobey Maguire’s performance is truly the heart of the film. Sam Raimi takes the risk of anchoring many important scenes with extended close-ups of Tobey’s face, as Peter reacts to the continually depressing situations around him; this risk pays off, precisely because Tobey is so capable of conveying a wealth of emotion in just a single expression. Maguire is a very underrated actor, and it takes only one viewing of Spider-Man 2 to remember how talented he really is.
Just watch his face and body language throughout the scene where Peter watches the love of his life accepting a proposal from another man, in front of a crowd of thousands, and then, as the Daily Bugle’s photographer, he’s ordered to zoom in and take a photograph of her for the newspaper. This comes only minutes after Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, has drunkenly renounced him, publicly slapping him in the face. And finally, even when Peter is offered a free martini glass, like a band-aid for the wounds he’s just endured, the glass is empty. Yes, to put it bluntly, Peter’s life sucks.
Yet, who doesn’t relate to this? We’ve all endured this sort of pain. Peter’s condition is exaggerated only to make a point; Spider-Man 2 illustrates the idea that to be human is to suffer. Suffering is what defines the human condition, and as a result, suffering is something we cannot escape from.
What other superhero would ever get stuck in that awkward elevator ride? What other superhero would be stuck renting such a crappy apartment, with such a goofy landlord? Then there’s the scene where Peter makes his big confession to his Aunt May, which is a masterstroke of acting for both Tobey and Rosemary Harris. Peter braces himself, takes May’s hand, and he admits to her the truth about Uncle Ben; he admits to his wrongdoing, he admits to the terrible guilt that has plagued him since his teenage irresponsibility led to his uncle’s death by gunshot. And then May lets go of his hand and walks away. Her reaction is understandable, of course. The feelings of both characters are relatable. But that doesn’t make it any less painful to watch.
What’s important to recognize, as well, is that despite Peter’s nerdy appearance, despite his awkward social demeanor, he is displayed here as being an incredibly strong-willed, admirable character, who is anything but weak. He’s continually pummeled by the world, but instead of lashing out, like Doctor Octopus and Harry Osborn do, or giving in, he is resilient. Returning to the scene where Harry publicly humiliates him, one can only imagine the self-torment that Peter endures here; not only the shame, but also the fact that he knows full well that he’s physically capable of crushing Harry’s hand. Hey, Doc Ock would do it in a heartbeat! But Peter doesn’t, because he’s a man of strong will, and a man who’s driven by his moral values. He believes in doing the right thing. He believes in weathering the many blows that life is delivering him, because he knows that he’s strong enough to take the hit.
But buried beneath the surface, Peter does have one thing that he can claim as his own. He has one amazing escape from the world that no one can trample on or take away from him. At a moment’s notice, he can become Spider-Man. This transformation, as depicted in Spider-Man 2, is a thing of beauty. We can’t help but be thrilled as our awkward hero sheds his foibles and becomes a stunning, graceful trapeze artist – flipping and swinging through the city, owning that city, protecting it from harm.
The brilliance of this is that unlike other superheroes, we can truly empathize with Peter—we see ourselves in him–and that’s what makes the action scenes so compelling. We identify with Peter’s problems, and so when his life is endangered as Spider-Man, we legitimately become afraid for his safety. We’re very aware that he isn’t invulnerable. He isn’t some worldly, ninja-trained badass like Christian Bale’s Batman, or a cocky billionaire like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. No, he’s us, and like us, he’s capable of making bad decisions and messing up. He’s capable of losing. He’s capable of dying.
But this raises a question.
If suffering is the human condition, then what actions can we take? Is it possible to alleviate this suffering? Can we get ever rid of it? Maybe if we forgot about other people and focused only on ourselves, we could find the happiness we deserve?
This is the question that Spider-Man 2 ponders.
As his problems continue to worsen, Peter eventually comes to the conclusion that there is only one source to blame for everything that’s wrong in his life – and that source is Spider-Man. Maybe if he disposed of this secret identity, he could live a normal life. Maybe he could have Mary Jane. Maybe he could be happy, for the first time. It makes sense, right?
What Peter doesn’t realize that there is no such thing as a happy, normal life.
Now, let’s examine the movie’s primary themes again. As used here, the identity of “Spider-Man” is symbolic for many things. Forget for a moment that Spider-Man is a costumed superhero, and instead think about what the existence of Peter’s web-slinging alter ego means in the context of this film. Spider-Man symbolizes freedom, certainly…but more importantly, that red and blue costume also represents responsibility. It represents adulthood. Yes, adulthood. The vicious child killer, the dream assassin, that great responsibility that hangs around our necks, haunts our lives and stands in the way of our passions. Why shouldn’t we put our dreams ahead of our responsibilities? Why should we care about how our actions affect others?
Peter wants to be happy. He wants to be free from his burden. So he forsakes the Spider-Man identity. He sees the easiest fix for his dilemma, and he takes it.
This notion strikes very deep into the heart of Western culture, with its happiness-driven, consumerist ideals. We hate pain – we do everything we can to avoid pain. We’re constantly focused on the American dream of success. We’re always seeking out the next big thing, hoping that this one will finally fill the hole in our lives. We’re looking for the next product. Seeking the next experience. Desperately attempting the next get-rich-quick scheme. Whatever our goal is, be it a new career, money, a wife, a car, we always are certain that if we get that one big thing, we will find the happiness we crave.
This is why the inclusion of Spider-Man’s most megalomaniacal enemy, the brilliant Doctor Octopus, is perfect. First appearing all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #3 in 1963, the comic book version of Doc Ock has always served as a dark mirror image to Peter; here, this parallel is shown in a new light. Otto Octavius is introduced to us as a good man, albeit a bit arrogant. But after his lifelong passion project, his renewable energy source, blows up in his face, almost taking half the city with it, Octavius refuses to learn from his mistake. He doesn’t care that people could have been hurt, or even that his own wife was killed in the accident. He just needed another minute; he could’ve stabilized the damn thing with another minute! The accident leaves Octavius hospitalized, disturbed and angry. Further corrupted by the influence of his artificially-intelligent mechanical arms — which are presented here as perhaps being not so much a separate intelligence as they are a physical manifestation of Octavius’ id, which is now overriding Octavius’ previously dominant ego – he immediately seeks to recreate his experiment, and goddamn the consequences. His dream comes first, and if New York is destroyed, so be it. Doctor Octopus demonstrates what Peter could become, if he were to forgo his responsibility and work only to achieve his own dreams at the expense of others.
Meanwhile, Peter becomes caught up in the elusive search for happiness and normalcy. To achieve this goal, he gives up his alter ego. He gives up on helping people, ignoring his responsibilities so he can instead focusing on helping himself. And suddenly, the audience is given the famous “Raindrops” montage, which is one of the movie’s best moments, and the sort of scene you could only get with a wonderfully weird director like Sam Raimi. In this scene, it is displayed time and again that even though getting rid of Spider-Man has solved several of Peter’s dilemmas, it hasn’t solved others. His old problems have been replaced by new ones. Even when Peter Parker, a brilliant science student, stops “wasting” his time swinging from rooftops, he still manages to goof up the simple process of changing a bicycle tire. As Peter watches police cars race by – and bites into a hotdog, pretending not to be disturbed by his own lack of action – we see how Peter could, under the wrong conditions, have become a self-absorbed, morally-bankrupt Doctor Octopus instead of the selfless, morally-driven Spider-Man.
Raindrops Keep Fallin’ from My Head, originally recorded by BJ Thomas and made famous in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is an ingenious inclusion. The song’s happy-go-lucky lyrics also demonstrate the movie’s central themes quite well – and they demonstrate the lesson that, at this point in the movie, Peter Parker has not yet learned.
Which is what, exactly?
Once again, I repeat the movie’s central theme: to be human is to suffer. Peter finds, of course, that getting rid of Spider-Man doesn’t solve his problems. He will still suffer. Suffering is unpreventable, inescapable. So, does this mean a lifetime of gloominess for Peter—and for us, as the audience? Will we never be happy?
Well…yes and no.
Happiness can’t be found through irresponsibility, or by running away from the person inside you. What Peter learns over the course of Spider-Man 2 is that he can’t put his happiness over the lives of others, and he can’t find happiness by being someone else.
Happiness comes from acceptance. When one realizes that suffering is inevitable—that we can’t avoid it, can’t get rid of it—when one learns that we can’t look to outside sources to find our happiness, we are instead forced to look inward. By drawing on our internal strengths, we can harness our better traits and focus on the positives aspects of our lives instead of dwelling on the negative ones. In Spider-Man 2, Peter stops fighting against his own morals. He stops struggling with his identity.
He finally embraces his identity as Spider-Man, for perhaps the first time—free, untrammeled, flying through the skies—but he also comes to terms with the fact that even though he IS the amazing Spider-Man, he is also the troubled, socially-awkward Peter Parker. They aren’t two separate people; both identities are merely different sides of the same man. Without both sides, he is not a real human being. And once he finally accepts himself, once he finally consolidates his identity and stops focusing on his problems, Peter is rewarded with the one thing he’s wanted the most — the redheaded girl of his dreams. He finally stumbles upon happiness, but only after he finds it inside himself.
This is the lesson of Spider-Man 2. Instead of wasting time dwelling on the many bitter aspects in our lives, if we instead accept our suffering and embrace what we’re good at, embrace what we can give to the world, we can achieve greater things than we ever could otherwise. With great power comes great responsibility, and we have a duty to give our talents to the world. Through harnessing our individual gifts, through focusing on our strengths, we can improve the living conditions of those around us. We can become Spider-Men.
Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head
But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turnin’ red
Cryin’s not for me
‘Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complainin’
Because I’m free
Nothin’s worryin’ me