Movie Review: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made? I’ve stated so in the past, but we’ll see how I feel at the end of this review.
The movie is based upon one of the classics of the Silver Age of Comics, Spider-Man #50, “Spider-Man No More!,” written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita and published in July 1967, in which our hero, tired of losing as Peter Parker as often as he wins as Spider-Man, dumps the Spidey costume in a back alley and gets on with his life. It’s all going fine until he spies an old security guard being roughed up by hoods and comes to his rescue. Why does he save him? Because the old man reminds him ... of course! … of Uncle Ben! How could he forget? Indeed. How could Peter forget the man who raised him but lost his life because Peter was too busy making money as Spider-Man to stop a simple thief? That’s like Adam and Eve forgetting the snake. And that’s the main problem with Spider-Man #50.
Director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent, working off a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and famed novelist Michael Chabon, go a slightly different route. Just as their first movie, “Spider-Man,” internalized Spidey’s webs, making them part of his physiology rather than a weekend Peter Parker science project (thwip!), so “Spider-Man 2” internalizes the “No more!” part. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gives up being Spider-Man because he actually loses his powers. He never forgets his Uncle Ben.
Forget him? Shit. He’s haunted by him.
Worst. Party. Ever.
This is the superhero movie, by the way, that most reminds me of the period when I was collecting comic books: roughly 1973 to 1977. It’s Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man. No Spider-Mobile, thank god, but Pete’s got the tenement walk-up, the rent is due, and he’s failing his classes. Everything that can go wrong, does. In the movie, he’s fired as a pizza delivery guy, then forced to take J.J.J.’s crap pay so J.J.J. (J.K. Simmons) can turn the city against him. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is losing her house, Harry Osborn (James Franco) is obsessed with revenge, and M.J. (Kirsten Dunst) is dating a handsome astronaut, who just happens to be J.J.J.’s son, John (Daniel Gillies). You wonder when Pete’s going to break.
He does in bits. He’s web-slinging through the city and suddenly ... no web. He looks over a tall building and feels vertigo. But he still turns into Spidey to save: 1) the city from Otto Octavius’ botched fusion reaction experiment; and 2) Aunt May from a bank-robbing Doc Ock. But the third time? Bupkis. No web, no grip, no nothing. “Why is this happening to me?” he says. His doctor, tapping his noggin, tells him the problem is “up here.”
Later, up there, Pete debates a ghostly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson):
Uncle Ben: You’ve been given a gift, Peter. With great power comes great responsibility.
Peter: No, Uncle Ben. I’m just Peter Parker. I’m Spider-Man no more.
Cut to: a goofy montage of everything going Pete’s way, backed by Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
But to get back to his earlier question: Why is this happening to him?
Back in 2004, I assumed it was the weight of all of it: Harry, Aunt May, J.J.J., M.J., Aasif Mandvi. But it’s not. It’s just M.J.
The clue comes early, during a kitchen table conversation with Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). “If you keep something as complicated as love stored up,” Octavius tells him, holding hands with his wife, “it can make you sick.” And so it does.
The final straw is a brutal one. J.J.J. hires Pete to photograph a big event for his son. Harry’s there, drinking, being an asshole, and obsessing over “your friend, the bug.” M.J., now a successful model and actress, is there, too, on the balcony, cold and distant, and Pete, at the 11th hour, and against all logic, tries to save the day with 19th-century British poetry. For some reason it doesn’t work. “I don’t know you,” M.J. says. She tells him that John has seen her play five times, Harry twice, Aunt May once. Him? Never. “After all these years,” she says, “he’s nothing to me but an empty seat.” This is followed by, in short order, 1) a drunk, belligerent Harry accuses Pete of stealing his father’s love and letting him die, then 2) slaps him repeatedly (where are those Spidey reflexes when Pete needs them?), before 3) John Jameson announces his engagement to M.J. as everyone cheers. And even that’s not the low point. The low point is when J.J.J. shouts, “Parker, wake up! Shoot the picture!” and a stunned, heartbroken Peter, with the sting of his best friend’s slaps still on his cheeks, is forced to photograph the engagement announcement of the woman he loves to another man.
After a day like that, you’d lose your powers, too.
Nobel prize, Otto
Even so, how stupid is Peter Parker? He only goes after M.J. once she’s gone. And with poetry? My god, that’s dumb. Pete’s dumb, J.J.J. is oblivious, and everyone else is brutal. Seriously. The problem with Peter Parker isn’t the weight of being Spider-Man; it’s that he chooses lousy friends.
Even as just Peter Parker, life’s still screwed up. When he tells Aunt May he’s the one responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, she simply walks away from him without a word. When he saves a kid from a burning building, a fireman deflects his heroics by saying, “Some poor soul got trapped on the fourth floor.” When the skinny daughter of his Russian landlord brings him milk and cake, their time together is awkward and cringeworthy.
So how does Spidey get his groove back? It begins with Aunt May. She can’t afford the mortgage anymore so she’s moving into an apartment. (BTW: Shouldn’t Uncle Ben have paid off this mortgage, like, years earlier? What was he spending his money on? Booze? Broads? Gambling? Forget Pete’s parents; that’s the retcon story I’d like to see.) As Pete’s helping with the move, or at least standing around like a goober, Aunt May gives this speech about the missing Spider-Man. It’s basically a Gipper speech:
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.
Hey! Every emotion Pete’s trying to sort through in this movie! What a coincidence.
By the way: Does Aunt May know? That he’s Spider-Man? You almost get a glimmer of recognition earlier when he yells “Hang on!” as she’s clinging to the side of the building while he’s battling Doc Ock.
More than terrified: A look that says, “Wait a minute, I know that voice ...”
It’s like she recognizes the voice beneath the mask. You get a glimmer during her Gipper speech, too. I mean, why say all this to Peter Parker, mousy NYU science student? Because of his cowardice at the bank? Is she trying to make him a hero? With this speech? “Peter, be a hero because it sucks.” Either she knows he’s Spider-Man or she's kind of an asshole.
Then we get more “I’m ready, you’re not”/ “No, you’re ready and I’m not” from M.J. and Peter. Seriously, these two. Seriously, M.J. It’s not just going hot and cold with Pete. It’s not just calling Peter “a great big jerk” and not inviting him to the wedding. It’s the idiocy with the kiss. In the first movie, Spider-Man kissed M.J. upside-down in the rain (you remember), so M.J. is trying to figure out who Spider-Man is by kissing guys. Or at least two guys. First, it’s John, her fiancé, and that makes tons of sense. He’s only the son of the man who has made a career making a villain out of Spider-Man. Is she even thinking? Then she tries to kiss Peter at the coffeeshop. Because Spidey and Peter are connected by the photographs? Because Peter “changed” just as Spidey “retired”? Who knows? Who knows what goes on inside that woman’s head?
But that’s the moment we begin the rest of the movie: As M.J. is puckering up, the car comes crashing through the coffeeshop window, Doc Ock appears and takes M.J., saying, “I’ll peel the flesh off her bones,” snap snap. Then Pete loses his myopia, turns back into Spidey, battles Doc Ock on an elevated train, battles him by the river, and M.J. sees who Spider-Man really is. Wedding with John? Nope. She’s a runaway bride. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” The End.
Can I complain before we get into the end? How much of an idiot Doc Ock is, too? At the coffeeshop, he needs Peter to contact Spider-Man. Yet if not for Pete’s Spidey powers, which Ock doesn’t know about, he would’ve killed him. Twice. Once when he sent the car through the window and the second time when he slammed him into the wall and it fell on top of him. Smart, Otto. Nobel prize, Otto.
And look, I get Sam Raimi’s background as a horror director, and it led to that great scene in the hospital room where Octavius’ arms take out the surgery team. But, dude, what’s up with all the screaming women? It’s half the movie.
SLIDESHOW: The Terrified Women of Spider-Man 2
Ock's wife is our first terror victim.
Then the nurses at the hospital get into the act.
Ah, the old fingernails stand-by.
Ock terrifies the secretary pool ... or excites them. Is it a supervillain outside or the Beatles?
Hey, this one can act! Hire her.
And what’s with all of the gratuitous shots of pretty women? Who does a girl have to fuck to not be in this movie?
But we still get a great ending.
The great ending
The battle sequences throughout the movie stand up 10 years later. It’s a comic book brought to life.
But the elevated train sequence elevates things a notch.
Spidey keeps getting knocked off the “el” and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds but Spidey saves them. You almost hear Ock’s “Bah!,” his great unspoken “Bah!,” as, fed up with nickel and diming it, he destroys the train’s controls and leaves it shooting like a bullet through Manhattan. Maskless at this point, Spidey can only save the passengers by exhausting himself, at which point we get our greatest version of the superhero pieta: Spidey, supine, passed over the heads of the passengers and into the safety of the train compartment. “He’s ... just a kid,” a man in a Mets cap says, and that says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is just a kid. Back in 2007, when I wrote a “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes” list for MSNBC, that scene landed at No. 3.
But it gets better.
At the river’s edge, Ock is using the tritium he got from Harry to recreate the botched fusion reaction experiment. He thinks it’ll work this time but it doesn’t. Same deal: small sun, huge gravitational pull. What to do? Spider-Man tries to appeal to the humanity inside Doc Ock by revealing his own: He takes off his mask. For a moment, it works. “Peter Parker,” Ock says, smiling. Then he remembers an earlier line and relays it again with amusement: “Brilliant but lazy.”
Can I pause to compliment the casting here? We get the best J.J.J. and the best Aunt May we’ll ever get. Molina is not only our best Spider-Man villain, but, I’d argue, one of the best superhero villains of all time. And that’s tough competition: Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Sam Jackson’s Mr. Glass. But I’d put Molina top 5. He not only terrorizes the city and us, he wins back his humanity. The way he says, “You’re right,” to Peter after Peter repeats Aunt May’s self-sacrificing words to him. It’s lovely to watch an actor think on screen. Molina helps make the movie.
But what really makes the movie is The Shot. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero-making.
From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects the nerdy me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies. And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.
That scene, by the way, was No. 1 on my list of the “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes.”
M.J. in the window
So: Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made?
All superhero movies have faults. They have to. They’re absurd. Spider bites don’t turn us into spider-men, gamma radiation doesn’t turn us into hulks, men from other planets don’t develop god-like powers because of Earth’s sun. Plus the movies make their own mistakes. The Joker’s machinations are impossibly complex, Hulk has daddy issues, Superman joins the anti-nuke movement.
The faults of “Spider-Man 2” are more numerous than I remembered: Peter is stupid with poetry, M.J. and Harry are both bitter, and who doesn’t find out Peter is Spider-Man? Probably just Aasif Mondvi. But everything else works.
We even get an ending as ambiguous as “The Graduate.” Remember it? Yes, M.J. is a runaway bride, and yes, she shows up at Peter’s tenement walk-up, and yes, they finally, finally kiss. Then she lets Spidey be Spidey. He hears a siren, he knows what he has to do, and she says, a la '60s M.J., “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” So off he goes, web-slinging through the canyons of Manhattan. But instead of ending right there, Raimi cuts back to M.J. in the window, worried and filled with doubt. This is the burden she carries now. Because the man she loves risks his life every day.
Or maybe she’s simply anticipating the disaster of “Spider-Man 3.”