“You love that word, ‘disturbance,’ Sam,” says Tobey Maguire, watching himself play Peter Parker at the start of Spider-Man 2. “It’s Alvin’s word,” laughs director Sam Raimi, joining his star for a commentary track. “It’s such a funny word for Peter to say, especially the way you deliver it, for me, because he obviously can’t say what really was going on, and this is the word he comes up with that works for him and doesn’t give it away to other people. It’s such an awkward bad choice of a word.”
The scene that has brought on this awkward bad choice is the sequel’s first: Peter on his pizza delivery bike, almost crashing into his employer, Mr. Aziz (Aasif Mandvi). He’s been distracted by the billboard that haunts him daily: his one true love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), stares at him from a perfume ad, as he moons, “Oh boy, if only she knew how I felt about her. But she can never know. I made a choice once to live a life of responsibility, a life she can never be a part of. I’m Spider-Man, given a job to do.” Poor Peter, so profoundly caught up in his purest of pure loves, and so committed to his “responsibility.” It’s the superhero-with-a-secret-identity’s dilemma write obviously.
As the first few minutes of the 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). 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, eager, terrified face.
But even with these changes, the second film is all about the first film, elaborated and nuanced by screenwriter Alvin Sargent. 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.
As Maguire sees it, Spidey 2 improves on the first installment because “All of the action comes out of story in this movie.” That is, where the first film was busy setting up characters and backstories, the new one visualizes Peter’s internal struggle as a series of fights and action sequences, each a mini-instance of the broader theme. And so: the primary antagonist in this case is Dr. Ock, formerly Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), embodying and reflecting Peter’s own anxieties about commitment, both romantic and social/political. 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 “not a privilege, it’s a gift,” insists Octavius, sounding a lot like the much-missed Uncle Ben, “and you must use it for the good of mankind.”
The focus on the relationship between Doc Ock and Peter came at the expense of another villain, the Black Cat. According to co-producer Grant Curtis (who shares a commentary track with producer Avi Arad), the decision to go with Doc Ock solo was a matter of elaborating on Peter’s pain. (The first disc of this two-disc set includes a blooper real, a BX Train music video, web-access episodes, and a pop-up trivia option called “Spidey Sense 2.”) Moved by the good doctor’s passion and his visible devotion to his wife Rosie (Donna Murphy), Peter attends a demonstration of Otto’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?”
This is Peter’s dilemma throughout the film, that he cannot tell anyone a truth, only watch them live their lives and feel sorry that he’s so alone. This makes Octavius’ project quite relevant, metaphorically: he wears 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. While he’s 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), he’s also a victim of split-selfness, and his sorrow and frustration reflect Peter’s, only slightly more extreme.
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.
While Doc Ock is bizarrely convinced of his own rightness, Peter/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 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 impasse. Uncomfortable with his abilities (they have come on him like a virus, following that irradiated noxious spider bite), 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 ambivalence is ever spectacular.
At the same time, it is mundane. The magnificent Doc Ock doesn’t wrestle: when, as he notes, his wife and dream are dead, he’s monstrous, period, attended only by his snakelike, writhily communicative extra arms. Peter can’t help but imagine that such simplicity is preferable; the astronaut need only to be just that, and “adorable” to M.J. His distress allows the proto-climactic moment (Aunt May makes a corny “The kids need a hero” speech), but also undermines it — such a speech can’t possibly fix the problem. 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.
The ongoing violence of his existence is a big deal, technically as well as emotionally or physically. A second commentary track on the DVD (by tech crewmembers) relates struggles on the set (as they used a range of effects, puppets, animatronics, models, or digital tentacles, how to manage the shoot without a script, initially), as well as their ingenious solutions. (“This picture was insane!” observes one designer.) Their obsession with the tentacles is understandable (“It takes four people to operate one tentacle”), though the film involves lots of other effects. A second disc in this set includes featurettes on the technical issues, including a behind-the-scenes documentary (“Making the Amazing”), with sections titled “Greater Power, Greater Responsibility,” “Story & Character,” “Visual Design,” “Costume Design,” “The Spydercam,” “Stunts,” and “Practical Effects,” among others. This disc also includes “Hero in Crisis,” “Ock-Umentary: Eight Arms to Hold You” (featuring Stan Lee), “Interwoven: The Women of Spider-Man,” and “Enter the Web” is a multi-angle look at the pier sequence. In other words, the extras are all geeky and smart and fascinating — lots of stories about how the show came together, despite obstacles, confusions, and crises.
Or maybe because of them. As much as the film pressed its makers into new inventiveness, Spidey finds himself in some torment, so unhinged that he loses control of his powers. And so, he decides to quit (literally tossing his costume in a trash bin), which means 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, mirror-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.