Great genre stories don’t “transcend their genre,” they exemplify it, fulfilling preexisting potential. Spider-Man 2 is indeed, as many critics have said, “the best superhero movie ever.” It is also a philosophical romance that probes the dilemmas and paradoxes of altruism. It is “the best superhero movie ever” because it probes the dilemmas and paradoxes of altruism. It is just a notch or two below a brilliant achievement, and taken in train with its 2002 predecessor and the planned third installment, has the potential to be a landmark movie series.
It’s a philosophical romance with fight scenes, and I don’t want to scant their pleasure or craft. Surprised robbing a bank, villain Doctor Octopus and uses his mechanical arms to whip bags of coins at the hero as he hops from pillar to pillar. The two struggle atop a moving elevated train and up and down the sides of skyscrapers. The CGI effects outstrip the first movie and the fight choreography is more inventive. Cars smash with a crunch that goes straight to some quivering tip of the urban hind-brain.
And it’s all in service to the film’s ideas and emotions, which is the key to the film’s appeal. The story takes Stan Lee’s now-famous formulation, “With great power, there must come great responsibility,” and, in ways alternately showy and subtle, prods at it for two hours. What, the movie wants to know, does this maxim mean?
Bitten by a genetically altered spider, young Peter Parker gains its abilities and, by a sin of omission, allows the murder of his uncle. Resolving to make up for his failure to do the right thing, he dons a costume and sets about stopping crimes, rescuing people from burning buildings and doing whatever a spider can to save people. Telling that story occupies the first film, at the end of which Peter renounces the love of the one woman he has ever cared about because his duty as Spider-Man comes first, and his love could only endanger her.
The new movie picks up two years later. Peter is estranged from his former roommate and best friend, Harry Osborne. He hasn’t seen his erstwhile love, Mary Jane Watson, in so long that he has to ask her where she’s living these days. The bank plans to foreclose on the mortgage of his surviving guardian, Aunt May, and the very first thing that happens in the movie is that he loses his job because he keeps showing up late and then ducking out to chase sirens and save a few lives.
Everything slides for the sake of his self-perceived duty. Peter construes his inner conflict as between his desires and his responsibilities, but he is only partly right. He’s also sacrificing one set of responsibilities for another: He’s sacrificing his responsibility to people he knows for his responsibility to people he doesn’t. (“Everyone has come to see my play,” Mary Jane recriminates, “except my best friend.”)
There is narcissism to this level of selflessness and Spider-Man 2 is a great movie because it realizes this. In both films the costume comes apart under stress as the distinction between ego and alter ego frays. In the second movie Peter/Spider-Man spends down to his seed corn helping others, and his very body rebels. He begins to suffer psychosomatic power loss. Renouncing his alias, Peter’s circumstances improve in direct measure as his guilt waxes. We know, as soon as we see Peter dump his costume in a garbage can, that he’ll be wearing it again before the film’s close, but note, despite a pretty speech by Aunt May about how heroism means “giving up the thing we want the most,” just what circumstance finally revives Peter’s powers.
The film profits from improvements in every aspect over the first movie. That one featured a solid story but so-so dialogue. The new script is more quotable, with some genuinely resonant lines. It contains what appears to be a classic Hollywood “MOS” in Aunt May’s heroism speech, but considered as advice to a loved one the speech can chill. The cast members who were good last time are as good or better, and the weaker ones have improved.
If Rosemary Harris does not get at least a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Aunt May, there will be hell to pay. There’s not the least whiff in Harris’ performance of the “slumming” Dame This or Sir That often project when they stoop to appear in a fantasy film. Unusually for a big-time actor playing a super-villain, Alfred Molina keeps himself on a scenery-chewing diet. And Kirsten Dunst has grown substantially as an actress between the last film and this one. She gets more respect from the camera (no outlined-nipple shots this time) and earns every bit of it. Her character is the linchpin of the series, and it’s not giving away too much to say that her face is the first and last thing we see. Importantly, she is plausibly beautiful — starlet-gorgeous when dolled up for a play or a party, but everyday good-looking in her character’s off-hours. We see large pores, rough cheeks and an ironed hairstyle that is not her best possible look.
How the next movie will develop the still-open themes of the first two nobody yet knows. But we have real cause to hope that the third will live up to the promise of the first two movies because the property’s brain trust clearly know what they’re doing. There’s none of the embarrassment at the material that marred Tim Burton’s two Batman movies. They’ve been faithful translators of the spirit of a character whose appeal has lasted forty years and more, and their stewardship has earned $200 million in six days. That’s great power in Hollywood, responsibly earned.