“She looks at me every day. Oh boy.” Pity Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), so profoundly caught up in his purest of pure loves for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Every day, he notes at the beginning of Spider-Man 2, he passes her face on a billboard, large and luminous, advertising perfume. And every day, Peter wonders how he might reconcile his consuming love for M.J. with his overwhelming duty as Spider-Man.
As the first few minutes of Sam Raimi’s sequel reveal, save for M.J.‘s professional success, not much has changed since Spider-Man (in the film’s world, two years later). True, the kids have turned into adults, more or less. Peter’s moved out of the house in Queens where he was raised by Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and now lives in his own teeny but beautifully windowed Manhattan apartment (not quite making rent each month, between taking photos for the Daily Bugle and delivering pizzas for Mr. Aziz). And true, M.J. is a successful actress currently appearing in a revival of her role in The Importance of Being Earnest. And yes, she’s affianced to good-guy astronaut John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), son of Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), even as she’s plainly still attracted to Peter: “You’re such a mystery,” she sighs, caressing his earnest face. Oh boy.
But even with these changes, the second film is all about the first film, elaborated and nuanced by screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People). Revisiting the same unresolved tensions—romantic and ethical—it refines and complicates them in ways that almost overshadow the fabulous comic book action. That this action is not actually overshadowed has as much to do with its thematic connections to those same tensions. Spider-Man 2 is again about Peter’s split identity, with anxieties only intensified as he has grown older.
Embodying some of these anxieties is the villain, Dr. Ock, formerly Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). Yet another mentor to college student Peter, Octavius is, much like his predecessor Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), impressed by the kid’s insights and intuition. During dinner with the good doctor and his wife Rosalie (Donna Murphy), Peter learns the value of a loving relationship and oh yes, the responsibility of intelligence (“It’s a gift,” insists Octavius, sounding a lot like Uncle Ben, “and you must use it to benefit mankind”).
Famous last words. The next morning, Peter attends a demonstration of the doctor’s fusion reaction project, an effort to find a new source of power funded by OsCorp, via Harry Osborn (James Franco), whose ongoing anger at Spider-Man (whom he blames for his father’s death) is reduced to third-film-warming-up. “Be honest with me,” he urges Peter, who is at this point completely incapable of honesty, “If you knew who he was, would you tell me?”
Octavius’ project involves four elaborate tentacles that, when the experiment goes terribly wrong (as it must), take on weird lives of their own, partly seductive, partly aggressive, acting out the doctor’s tragedy and bile. The arms—and especially Molina’s elastic face, so very different from the Goblin’s much-maligned mask—make him a worthy, emotionally complex, insect-like opponent, as adept at climbing up and down buildings as Spidey, and eager to devastate anyone who stands in the way of his “science” (defined in part by his moment—he first appeared in the Spidey comics in 1968, when alternative power sources were all the rage). Doc Ock has a particular and spectacular goal in mind—to harness the “power of the sun.” Transformed into a full-fledged (tabloid-headline-making) criminal when he robs a bank to support his ongoing work, Doc Ock moves his work to the “pier,” where it’s dark and drippy. Here he’s wholly focused on the power for its own sake: he wants revenge on the world.
By contrast, Spider-Man’s sense of purpose and grasp on his own power are increasingly uncertain. “Am I not supposed to have what I want, what I need?” he wonders in voiceover. He can’t forgive himself for Uncle Ben’s murder, can’t have M.J., and can’t be on time to save his life (he pays dearly for his compulsion to fight crime when it makes him late for M.J.‘s play, such that he’s schooled by an officious usher [Bruce Campbell] on the importance of being punctual). When Spider-Man begins to lose his ability to sling webs and crawl up walls, Peter thinks maybe he’s made the wrong choice, that maybe he can’t live up to Ben’s injunction to accept his “great responsibility.”
This is the famous crux of Spider-Man’s ongoing, Darkmannish dilemma. Uncomfortable with his powers (as they come on him like a virus, following that irradiated noxious spider bite, rather than being his from birth, as they are for, say, Superman), Peter repeatedly returns to his central question: Who am I? This makes him seem “like” other people (say, comic book readers), but at the same time, he’s wearing that spandex suit and the mask with no mouth. Spider-Man’s identity impasse is ever spectacular.
At the same time, of course, it is mundane. The magnificent Doc Ock doesn’t need to wrestle with the split identity: when, as he notes, his wife and dream are dead, he’s monstrous, attended only by his snakelike, writhily communicative extra arms. Peter can’t help but imagine that such simplicity is preferable; the astronaut only has to be just that, and “adorable” to M.J. His distress allows the proto-climactic moment, Aunt May’s “The kids need a hero” speech, but it’s clunky and unnecessary, as Peter’s been grappling with exactly this idea, more and less subtly, throughout the film. Seemingly ever sad and youthful, Maguire brings a discerning mix of gravity, self-consciousness, and childish wonder to his role. Though his Spider-Man plainly enjoys saving kids from danger and even instructing them (“Hey you guys! No playing in the street”), he also longs for a more regular, selfish life, a girlfriend and a job where he doesn’t get whomped into walls or crashed through windows daily. (That’s not to say that romancing M.J. will be any less excruciating, though he can’t know this yet.)
When Spidey decides to quit (literally tossing his costume in a trash bin), the city careens into lawlessness and chaos. As the Bugle announces, luridly, crime is up by 75%. Still, Peter resists the urge to help hapless cops, insisting to M.J. that he is “different.” She longs for this to be so (as she imagines it translates to a commitment and maybe a bout of honesty), but at the same time, she wants him to be Spider-Man, the dashing fellow who swept her off her feet and kissed her while hanging upside down in the rain.
The brilliance of Spider-Man, as a concept, is that he can be different and the same, both at once. Spider-Man 2 repeats the first movie’s trajectory (even inviting back Norman for a brief reflected visit), but also veers off to expose other angles and take other perspectives. Appropriately, given its iconic perfection, the costume becomes an emblem of these changes: he washes it at the Laundromat, trashes it, recovers it, and eventually, has it ripped from his body. Each rift reveals more vulnerable flesh and calls for more trust in his audience. But it’s the exposure of his precious face—sign of his secret self—that’s most frightening, ordinary, and exciting.