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Spider-Man 2 has been referred to as one of the best superhero movies ever produced. It has been called the best Spider-Man movie to-date (which isn’t much of a compliment, considering the competition!). And both of those statements are true. However, there’s a little more to it than that.
Spider-Man 2 is certainly a good movie—one of the few comic book movie sequels to actually improve on the original. However, after watching it again, particularly in light of the much more serious modern comic book movies, it is eminently clear that this is a spectacularly campy movie.
The theme of the movie is an expansion of the theme from the first movie. In Spider-Man, Peter must recognize that because he has been given his powers, he needs to use them to help people (“With great power comes great responsibility”). In Spider-Man 2, Peter’s life is in shambles because he is Spider-Man: He lost his job, He can never pay his rent, he is behind on his homework, and he still can’t be with Mary Jane. His doubts of himself as Spider-Man cause his powers to start disappearing, allowing him to live a normal life and even hope to have a relationship with Mary Jane. However, on watching people suffer in his absence and hearing how Aunt May’s neighbor looks up to Spider-Man, Peter realizes that “Sometimes you have to give up on what you want for the greater good.”
Peter’s story in this movie is (again) a close parallel to that of the villain, Dr. Octavius, whose lifelong dream has been to general clean, renewable energy using fusion. His experiment goes wrong, killing his wife and fusing his mechanical arm rig to his spine. The artificial intelligence of his arms begins to influence his thinking so that he decides to try redoing the experiment on a larger scale. Consequently he begins to misuse his power (both his intelligence and his arms) to steal and murder. However, in the end Peter helps him to regain himself and use his gift (“brilliance is a privilege”) to save New York from his out-of-control fusion device.
Octavius is easily the best villain in this trilogy (which really isn’t saying much) precisely because the viewer can empathize with him. At least to a certain point. In the beginning he wants to help humanity, not himself—he scoffs at Harry’s dreams of a Nobel Prize. He seems to have everything: his life’s work is about to be a reality and he has his wife. However, he loses both on the same day and suffers a major psychological break. Then, when things look the worst, he realizes his mistake and gives his life to fix it. This is a great story, and Alfred Molina gives a command performance as Ock.
However, this story of the tragic villain seriously loses something when you realize that his entire villainous turn gets blamed on the arms. Ock himself didn’t kill all the doctors; the arms did that independently to protect themselves. Ock only turned to crime and attempted to recreate the fusion reactor because the arms told him to. In the end there is a great moment of Ock forcing the arms to obey him (instead of the other way around), but this keeps him from being a truly brilliant villain.
Peter’s arc of suffering for his powers, giving them up, and accepting the responsibility once more is also a brilliant decision for the movie to make. The contrast between Peter-as-Spider-Man being exhausted and having his life fall apart, and Peter-without-Spider-Man having the life he dreamed of (though he never actually paid his rent…) and getting his homework done and going to Mary Jane’s play is almost heartbreaking—at least when you remember that this is a Spider-Man movie, and he’s gonna have to be Spider-Man again eventually! The scene of Peter talking to Uncle Ben and throwing out his suit was ripped straight from the comics, and it fits into the movie perfectly.
The love story between Peter and Mary Jane is one of the major elements of this plot, as Peter continues to rebuff her (for her own protection) and she gets tired of waiting for him and decides to marry John Jameson (who isn’t Wolf-Man in this movie). This is a good way of showing just how messed up Peter’s life is as Spider-Man and how difficult his decision to become Spider-Man again is. However, this whole thing is really overdone. It’s basically a rehash of Spider-Man, but with the twist that Mary Jane actually wants him now, and he’s still prevented from being with her. The conclusion of the movie, when Mary Jane sees Peter without the mask and realizes that not only does he love her, but he’s been trying to protect her for two years, is a great way of resolving the tension between them. Then Mary Jane’s decision to be with Peter, even though she knows the consequences, brings the whole thing to a beautiful close. But why couldn’t those two things have been the same scene??? It would have made so much more sense for her to tell him that she loves him and wants to be with him in the shadow of the “risk” of being with him. Then she breaks up with not-Man-Wolf then and there, and the movie ends with her and Peter together. The whole wedding scene is completely unnecessary. Except that now Jameson has cause to hate Parker and not just Spider-Man. So I guess that’s a “win”?
Even Harry Osborne’s turn as the second villain is done very well. At the beginning of the movie he hates Spider-Man but still likes Peter. Partway through he turns on Peter. And then he realizes that they are one and the same person. He doesn’t get much opportunity to process what that means, but that’s actually a good thing. His arc doesn’t distract from the bigger plot of Peter and Ock, but actually complements it to some degree by giving Ock a reason to capture Peter.
Spider-Man 2 is an incredible movie, and offers a great follow-up to Spider-Man. The villain is, in some respects, even better than Norman Osborne’s Green Goblin was. Peter’s arc is relatable and compelling. Even the love story with Mary Jane is done well. Even though it has a lot of camp to it, that actually makes it more fun. Certainly a fun movie to watch while you wait for the Web-Slinger to swing back into theaters next month!