Spider-Man 2 asks the question no movie of its type has ever asked and answered satisfactorily: What would it be like to be a superhero? Is the power you've been granted a gift or a duty, and more importantly, if you are so endowed, why don't you just tell everybody, including the girl you love?
Honor, duty and service to others are concepts that never get addressed at the movies, much less anywhere else. And so it is surprising to see a tug of war about these ideals contested on 4,000 screens. The questions are serious and played with seriously in an elegant screenplay by Alvin Sargent; and seen in the yearning anxiety of Tobey Maguire who, as the bumbling Peter Parker, knows he's really Spider-Man underneath; and in the eyes of Kirsten Dunst, who despite everything, even facts, has faith in what is unseen, and blazes with love for the boy next door, who can be a hero with all these qualities -- if only he can learn to believe.
Beginning with the titles, it is clear that the moment has come and the gravity of falling through space is finally real in this franchise. Frazetta-esque color wash drawings, the highlights of the first in the series, are seen over the opening credits and set the mythic tone. I was not a fan of the first Spider-Man, an exercise that I thought of, and still think of, as clunky. But if that's what it took to get here, and lead director Sam Raimi to be at the top of his own superpowers, and even if the star had to be arm-twisted into coming back, it was worth the set-up and the wait. The stage has been lit to deal with real problems, and instead of shying away, they go right at them -- and face the truth.
And just as you might not imagine a superhero could be a real human being, would you believe a villain could have a soul too? Be not afraid of the trailer for this movie that shows an eight-limbed man named Dr. Octavius. For in the capable hands of Alfred Molina, all eight of them, Doc Ock is a real man with a real dilemma. In his case, it's losing the love of his life during a bizarre accident, becoming, in essence, Peter's opposite, a man with no future, no reason to be good, and influenced only by his hissing tentacles that convince him Eden no longer exists without Eve. With no love in his life, evil not only makes sense, it is the only answer.
The battle between these two is not as great however as the one Peter Parker must fight with himself. Going back and forth between accepting his destiny and being a Regular Joe in a Regular World, he even tries to "go straight" for a time. Peter's superhero duties are a drag, always having to save people, never living a normal life, not even getting to go to the theater where your girl is on stage and wants you to see her. You can't pay your rent, your aunt's house is in foreclosure, and even the newspapers hate you. Day after day the media bashes, you are misunderstood by the hoi polloi and called a villain. What's the point of doing what you know is right if no one appreciates it? Peter is even harassed by parody -- a street musician who sings an atonal version of the "Spider-Man" theme song. And if that weren't enough, the lack of belief in yourself is causing your powers to wane. Without focus, without a cause, Peter's sticky webs no longer fire out of his arms, and for superheroes there is no Viagra.
There are moments in this walk in the desert of self-doubt that are at turns witty, ironic and poignant. Unable to climb down off a roof due to his sudden webus interuptus, Spider-Man has to take a more common route, leading to a wonderful long take as a man sharing the elevator with Spidey hears about how binding the costume can be. And later when he must tell his aunt the truth about her husband's death, and his part in it, Peter risks everything by telling that truth and by humbling his superpowers to the more pedestrian ones of keeping his side of the street clean. Pretty basic stuff for a guy who can swing from a thread overhead.
But when something is on the line that Peter cares about, say the girl he loves getting kidnapped by the man with no soul, he gets his powers back. And everything, even rivalry with an old friend, must be put aside. "This is bigger than you and me," Peter tells Harry Osborn (James Franco), the son of the man he killed, and who still wants revenge. But after a movie full of sputtering powers and the inability to accept the challenge, the challenge comes anyway. And Peter is ready. He's ready not because the powers he's been given make him superior, but because honor, sense of duty and service to others is what's right, even if you're not a superhero. And even if no one knows but you. The special effect of having these powers is glorious, but it's not the main event. The battle is. And the battle is every day.
The climactic moment comes when Peter fights his evil twin, Doc Ock, a war that ranges all over the HO scale model train town of this film. Like the best Wild West action, atop a speeding metro, they grapple and punch, but it is Spider-Man who is left to slow the hurtling train, to give his all, every last ounce of himself, to make it stop and save those onboard. He even does it without the mask, having been stripped of it in the fight. And so half superhero/ half man, he does his duty, and saves the people, then falls exhausted. Unmasked, he is pulled back into the car by these same civilians, lifted up and brought in to safety, then laid down for all to see; and to their shock, they realize who Spider-Man really is.
"He's just a kid," someone says.
Boy inside, superhero outside. Endowed with powers he can't accept, steeled by virtue and ethics, and believe it or not, the advice of his white-haired aunt, he finally knows, just like we all know, that our powers come not from what we do but by what we stand for, even if no one knows, even if we don't always believe. But that's what it's like to be a superhero -- or at least to have the standards of one. We suit up and we show up and we try even though we often fail.
After all, we're, all of us, only human.