Nothing But Memory

Marvel Movies Project: Spider-Man 2

Movie poster for Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Let me be up front about this: I saw Spider-Man 2 (2004) something like 10 times in theatre when it first came out. It also ranks on my list of most-viewed movies since I started tracking my viewing in 2006. Basically, I love this movie. It’s one of my favourites of all-time. Watching it now, I’m struck by the crazy number of people who play small roles in it and have since become more famous: Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi is Peter’s boss at the pizza place; Emily Deschanel, aka TV’s Bones, is the receptionist who won’t take the late pizza; Daniel Dae Kim, who played Jin on Lost, is Doc Ock’s lab assistant; Joel McHale from Community is the smarmy bank guy; Reed Diamond, now of the Whedonverse (Dollhouse and Much Ado About Nothing), co-stars in MJ’s play; and Mary Jane narrowly avoids marrying one of  The Vampire Diaries‘ Original vampires, Daniel Gillies.

I am also struck by how much I still really love this movie and how awesome it remains almost 10 years after its release. Sam Raimi and co. build on the foundation they laid in Spider-Man beautifully. The main cast members are all back — even Cliff Robertson and Willem Dafoe’s deceased characters make brief appearances — and the excellent Alfred Molina joins them as Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius. Like Norman Osborn, Octavius becomes something of a mentor to Peter, but there is no family-type link between Peter and Doc Ock the way there is with Norman, the father of Peter’s best friend. That stronger emotional link makes Dafoe’s Green Goblin a more compelling villain than Ock overall; however, Doc Ock still outshines the Goblin in some ways. He’s more fun to watch, partly because he doesn’t wear a mask — I’ve concluded that no mask or partial mask is always better than full mask in the movies, because you just kinda need to see an actor’s face. (It also doesn’t hurt that his tentacles are “real” in many scenes, brought to life via puppetry rather than CGI.) Plus, his evil persona is simply a bit more entertaining than the Goblin’s. Norman Osborn was scary intense crazy and hellbent on destroying Spider-Man. While Doc Ock is crazy too, really he just wants that precious tritium.

But Otto Octavius, although he is an excellent villain, is almost beside the point here: the most important conflict is the one between the “great responsibility” part of being Spider-Man and Peter Parker’s desire to live a happy, normal life. This of course is not a new theme in hero stories, or in Spider-Man stories: the movie borrows its “Spider-Man No More” theme (and a panel or two) from Amazing Spider-Man #50, which came out way back in 1967.

Spider-Man No More

But Spider-Man 2 handles this old story exceptionally well, with a combination humour and genuine emotion. Much of Peter’s typical Parker luck is played for laughs in the movie, but there’s almost always a serious blow after the silliness: for example, his comical failure to deliver pizza on time leads to the loss of a much-needed job and his encounter with the obnoxious usher causes him to miss Mary Jane’s play, which all but kills his chances with her. Peter also faces more serious worries, such as Aunt May’s financial troubles, the conflict with Harry caused by his association with Spider-Man, and the last straw: the truly emotionally devastating news that Mary Jane is engaged to someone else. The guy just cannot catch a break. By the time Peter finally decides he’s had enough of being Spider-Man, it’s hard to blame him for giving up. To borrow a line from Michael Bluth: he’s a saint, a living saint, and he gets absolutely nothing out of it.

We also see just how difficult that decision is for him to live with, though. For a while he’s the happy geek, putting the glasses back on and walking around without a care in the world while “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” soundtracks his life. Soon, though, his failure to live up to Uncle Ben’s standard starts to weigh on him, and ultimately, a piece of chocolate cake and Aunt May’s words about heroes help him rediscover the meaning in being Spider-Man.

Let’s talk about Aunt May for a minute. She is the emotional centre of this movie. Since her husband’s death, she has had even more trouble making ends meet. Not only that, she’s lonely, living by herself in the house in Queens while Peter lives his life in the city. The scene where she gives Peter a $20 bill for his birthday hits hard: her pain at not being able to do more for him, his guilt at not being able to do more for her, and the absence of Uncle Ben hanging over it all. Peter’s confession of his role in Ben’s death is also a very important moment for Peter’s emotional arc. At first it seems Peter might have lost Aunt May’s love, but later she forgives him easily and completely, and his guilt is a little less. Then, she says this:

He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there, flying around like that, saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people, setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them. Cheer them. Scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams. Spider-Man did that for Henry, and he wonders where he’s gone. He needs him.

It’s a lovely meditation on the world’s need for heroes, and if you ask me, it’s also a pretty strong hint that she may have figured out who Spider-Man really is behind that mask when he rescued her from Doc Ock at the bank.

The bank rescue scene, aside from being one of Spider-Man 2‘s most solid action setpieces, is one of the few self-esteem boosting moments for Peter in the early part of the movie. Aunt May, previously anti-Spidey because he supposedly murdered Norman Osborn, is finally won over. She’s on his side, and she accepts him. Later, when Peter finds himself unmasked on a train full of New Yorkers and they promise never to reveal his identity, it’s a similarly fulfilling moment for him. He’s helped those people and they’re paying him back not with indifference or rudeness, but with gratitude and loyalty.

Spider-Man 2 train passengers

The train scene: a bit over-the-top? Maybe. But it’s also a great illustration of the openheartedness and lack of cynicism that, in my opinion, makes these Spidey movies so charming. I am also a huge fan of the lovely way Spider-Man’s true identity is revealed to Mary Jane for this same reason. (“This is really … heavy.”) Now Peter and Mary Jane can finally go through that doorway they’ve been standing in since the first film.

I’ve probably said more than enough about this movie, but here is a final thought: Spider-Man 2 is a superb movie on its own, but it’s an even better sequel. It does a great job of taking what was established in the first film, showing us how it has changed these characters, and building more depth from that. It even calls back to its predecessor by directly paralleling a few scenes from Spider-Man: there’s Peter and Mary Jane’s backyard conversation, which tells us a lot about how much Mary Jane’s perception of Peter has changed, and Peter’s internal dialogue with Uncle Ben, which Peter imagines taking place in the car on the night Ben died. The filmmakers respect continuity of story and character, and we never forget that we’re watching a movie in a series. They also provide a stellar setup for future movies.

Spider-Man 2 ending

The biggest disappointment of the series is that Spider-Man 3 didn’t live up to its potential. But we’ll get to that later.

1 Comment

  1. darrell said

    It’s definitely one of the best superhero movies made in my opinion. I typically enjoy the first movie in a series the most, I think it has something to do with the first time seeing these characters on screen and/or just thinking of the potential future that the first film makes possible. This is one of the few times where I thought the second film was better than the first.

    Then came the third movie.

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