Spider-Man 2, which shattered all kinds of records and pulled in a whopping $180 million in a mere six days over the July 4th weekend, continues this summer’s run of successful sequels, after Harry Potter and Shrek 2. The overwhelming success of the Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and LOTR films provides ample evidence that American audiences are hungry for stories about (relatively) ordinary folks who make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of the innocent.
What sets Spider-Man apart is not that it is a comic-book fantasy, but that it is about ordinary working-class life in contemporary America. Even where Hollywood has abandoned its nihilistic tendencies and its anti-American diatribes in favor of depicting noble individuals struggling against evil, it rarely portrays contemporary America in anything like hopeful terms. It typically looks to other times or places for examples of nobility.
By contrast, Spider-Man captures something of the complex emotional geography of working-class America, its virtues, its longings, its experience of searing loss, its indignation, its remorse, and its joy. The film’s director, Sam Raimi–known for the cult-hit low-budget Evil Dead horror films, and the remarkable A Simple Plan–has stated explicitly that he wanted a hero with a “moral center,” a “role model who children can look up to.” In this he succeeds, although parents should be cautious about exposing very young kids to the film, which contains at least one scene of terrifying violence.
S2 has many things going for it. It does what sequels rarely do: It improves upon the first film, which was itself quite good; moreover, the superbly crafted ending of S2 sets up the third film perfectly. It’s also marvelously filmed and edited. Opening graphics in the mode of comic-book cuts narrate the highlights of the first film, while the cinematography of New York City has a brightly colored pop-art look to it.
In S2, scientist Otto Octavius is working on a fusion project with financial support from Peter’s friend–and the son of the Green Goblin–Harry Osborn. As is typical in the genre, the scientific experiment has unanticipated side effects. Octavius ends up with eight immensely powerful arms, with malevolent designs beyond his control. Learning of the new villain, the Daily Bugle editor dubs him “Doc Ock” and asks rhetorically, “A doctor named Octavius ends up with eight limbs, what are the odds?”
Although it occasionally borders on the saccharine, the film manages to steer clear of excessive sentimentality. It draws viewers into the lives of the characters, their daily struggles and aspirations, especially those of Peter Parker/Spidey (Tobey Maguire) and MJ (Kirsten Dunst). The careful way in which the film brings Peter and MJ together, only to introduce complications that draw them apart, increases the longing of Peter and MJ, as well as the audience’s.
But there is more to this film than a Romeo-and-Juliet love story; Peter and MJ cannot allow their love to obliterate awareness of the wider world. MJ and Peter are both actors, but while MJ can leave her character behind on the stage, Peter must endure the burdens of his secret life. He endures not just the difficulties of crime fighting but also the misunderstanding of those who seem to know him best. His bosses see him as irresponsible, his professor views him as brilliant but lazy, his aunt worries about his inability to take care of himself, his best friend resents his connection to Spider-man, and MJ doesn’t know who he is anymore.
Peter keeps his distance from MJ because of his belief that his crime-fighting duties would make a girlfriend or wife an immediate target of the bad guys. Fed up with the multiple frustrations of his life as a superhero, Spidey gradually comes to the realization that he is not destined to do this job–that he should be free to plan his own life. In an imaginative dream sequence, he recalls and alters a conversation he had with his uncle just before his uncle’s murder. His uncle had impressed upon him that with great power comes great responsibility. But Peter now renounces the burden: “Spider-Man no more,” he announces, and tosses his Spider-Man garb into a trash bin.
Of the central theme in the film, Raimi states, “I was interested in the price of being a good person. It’s a story of someone trying to live up to an ideal and finding it impossible. Peter’s living a life out of balance. He thinks he’s got to make this journey alone, but he doesn’t realize that to love someone is not to shield them from the truth, but to share it with them.”
Truthfulness and loyalty figure prominently in S2. Numerous people accuse Peter of disloyalty. The most stinging encounters involve MJ and his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris as the film’s moral compass). After Peter fails to show up to see her perform in a play, MJ tells him that his “promises mean nothing.” When Peter finally reveals to his aunt the full truth about the events surrounding his uncle’s murder, his aunt’s disappointment is palpable, as is Peter’s remorse.
Just when he thinks he’s cut himself off even from his aunt, she gently praises him for the courage it took to tell the truth. She then goes on to talk about the need for heroes; she concentrates not on the grandeur and invulnerability of heroes, but on their willingness to make sacrifices, to give up even their dreams, for the good of others. The chat with Aunt May, combined with Peter’s inability to glibly look away from others in dire need, leads Peter to a renewed commitment to his role as Spider-Man. The lesson here is that you can’t escape from yourself–from the role you are called to play.
In this and other ways, Spider-Man stands athwart a very influential liberal conception of the self: as being utterly autonomous, floating free from any antecedent obligations.
In its own small way, Spider-Man speaks to and reminds us of working-class heroism in a post-9/11 America. In the production period just after 9/11, the producers of the first Spider-Man decided to remove scenes of Spider-Man scaling the Twin Towers. Yet, the Spider-Man series is–again, in its own small way–a sort of tribute to post-9/11 New York, to the manner in which ordinary working-class citizens face extraordinary difficulties and thus realize a call to extraordinary virtue. In the best populist moment in the film, a crowd surrounds and protects a wounded Spider-Man from the menacing presence of Doc Ock; one by one, they say, “You’ll have to go through me first.”