Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Though 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.

Spider-Man 2

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Bruce Campbell
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-06-30

"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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.