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Much has been written lately about superhero films and their artistic merit (or lack thereof). Cinema legends Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola spoke out publicly and controversially in October on the subject of the superhero craze — the latter director called Marvel movies “despicable,” prompting backlash from directors and Disney executives.
There are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, the genre’s critics and defenders alike have been limited by their focus on films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe. Over the past decade or so, these two behemoth franchises have come to dominate the landscape of superhero films, and while most critics seem to agree that the genre is better for it, the new abundance of decent comic book movies has driven some older, and arguably more deserving, films out of the collective memory. Case in point: Sam Raimi’s 2004 film “Spider-Man 2.”
Let’s get one thing out of the way: “Spider-Man 2” is not high cinema. It’s campy, its dialogue is sometimes cringeworthy, and some plot points make no sense (like, for instance, Dr. Octavius’ choice to build an evil A.I. into his prosthetic arms). The film departs considerably from its source material, too. But flaws like these are par for the course in superhero films, and they don’t prevent “Spider-Man 2” from achieving a level of sophistication and dramatic subtlety that remains unmatched in the Marvel canon.
In its predecessor “Spider-Man” (2002), Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) delivers his famous adage: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The phrase has since taken on a life of its own as a hackneyed pop culture soundbite. But despite its ring of banality, the expression actually conveys a rigorous moral imperative: Those who possess talent are compelled by ethics to put aside their personal desires and ambitions to live in the service of others. In other words, our lives are not our own to do with as we wish.
Peter Parker’s struggle to obey this commandment is at the core of “Spider-Man 2.” Within the first 20 minutes of the film, we see Peter lose his pizza delivery job, miss his chemistry class, and get shaken down for rent by a landlord outside of his ramshackle studio apartment. His personal relationships are deteriorating, too: Longtime crush Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and best friend Harry Osborne (James Franco) have both grown increasingly frustrated by Peter’s aloofness. The film’s message is clear: Peter’s superhero responsibilities have devastated his personal life.
So Peter makes a reasonable choice. He hangs up his spidey suit and resumes life as a normal college student. For a while, life is good. His grades improve, he keeps his plans with Mary Jane, and he roams the city without feeling pressured to leap into action at every sign of trouble.
But this can’t last. During a critical scene, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Peter visit the grave of Uncle Ben, who was killed in the first film by a thug Peter allowed to escape. “It wasn’t fair to have gone like that,” Aunt May says. “He was a peaceful man.” Recall that it was Peter’s guilt over his role in Uncle Ben’s death that spurred his crime fighting career in “Spider-Man.” In “Spider-Man 2,” Peter’s guilt finally gets the better of him, and he admits his culpability to Aunt May when they return from the cemetery. Hearing his admission, Aunt May neither comforts Peter nor thanks him for his honesty, as we might expect in a typical superhero movie. Rather, she stares at Peter in horror and disbelief and retreats to her room. It’s an excruciating confirmation of Peter’s worst fears, and his renewed sense of shame leads him to resume super heroism in his next scene.
Peter’s idol (and villain of the story), Dr. Otto Octavius, faces the same dilemma as Peter. A brilliant scientist, Otto dreams of bringing cheap energy to people around the world. “Intelligence is not a privilege,” he tells Peter. “It’s a gift, and you use it for the good of mankind.” Like Uncle Ben, Otto believes that he is obliged to use his gifts to help others. His attempts to change the world ultimately wreak havoc, of course, but his guiding principles are the same as Peter’s.
There is something poetic about the film’s parallel framing of its hero and villain. In the climactic scene, Otto’s experiment has gone awry and threatens to destroy New York City. Otto has the power to prevent catastrophe by sacrificing his life and destroying his machine, but he is understandably reluctant to undo his life’s work. Peter saves the day by delivering his own interpretation of Uncle Ben’s famous phrase. “Sometimes to do what’s right, we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most,” Peter says. “Even our dreams.”
This is what makes “Spider-Man 2” great: The film’s dark vision of power as a curse and super heroism as a stoic moral obligation (rather than a glamorous and gratifying day job) is remarkable for the genre, even radical. Equally remarkable is the elegance and artistry with which this theme is presented and developed throughout the course of the film. Comic book movies will always be limited by the ridiculousness of their premises, but “Spider-Man 2” set a high water mark that Marvel has yet to surpass.
— Staff Writer Branch Freeman can be reached at email@example.com
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