These are purely private suspenses. The action movie’s usual engine has been switched with the usual purely ornamental chassis: Peter Parker’s quotidian woes (not the action movie genre elements) drive the narrative. The film’s plot thus jerks anxiously around in ways less like Schwarzenegger than Austen—the intrigue is more soap-operatic than operatic, the always insistent vector nearly that of a romantic comedy’s cutely goal-oriented theatrics. Spiderman (Tobey Maguire) finds that his dream job isn’t actually, well, as Spiderman; he has higher aspirations and dreams instead to someday be the boyfriend of the smitten but jilted Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), a proper friend to revenge-bent, Hotspur-via-90210 Harry Osborn (James Franco), and the filially respectful nephew of his grieving Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). That his secret identity gets blown a few times, that Doc Octopus (Alfred Molina), a nuclear physicist driven nuts by his impervious cybernetic limbs, nearly destroys the world—these catastrophes seem almost like narrative afterthoughts, the dashed off signature to Peter Parker’s late rent check.
The chief adversaries in Spiderman 2 aren’t Spiderman and Doc Ock: they are private life versus public life. His grades take second priority to sleepless car chases, his eyes wilt baggily from too much dutiful vigilantism, and Mary Jane all but abandons him for the odd way he’s always disappearing on her—Maguire’a character has to choose between being Spiderman or being Peter Parker.
In other words, Spiderman 2 is a four-color allegory about distributive justice. As Peter Singer has argued, every time we eat foie gras (as I do, every day, for every meal, including midnight snacks and dessert) we waste resources on ourselves that could more usefully go towards AIDS research, famine relief, or, say, postcolonial debt adjustment. We are used to making our only defense—excuses. Our own lives are so puny, our ability to help so scant, we tell ourselves, that we must draw the line somewhere—otherwise, how would we be able to experience our own lives? This excuse is instantly vitiated by Spiderman’s love life: a date for him, means death for someone else.
This type of learning, the school of when to live one’s role and one’s desires—when to be Spiderman and when to be Peter Parker—is the drama of maturation. Spiderman 2 is really a sort of Confucian coming-of-age story, the Marvel comics movie that Ang Lee should have directed—superhero as bildungsroman. Consequently, though it is unembarrassed by its rampant cheesiness and brazen formula, the plot is “inspiring”—heroic while still being human, the soppy, endearingly underdog heroism of films like Tampopo, Waterboys, and most Jackie Chan movies. The film’s flush of afterglow isn’t adrenal—it’s moral. Spiderman’s ultimate victory occurs when he rejects both the tragedy of selflessness and of selfishness. He “wins” the movie by learning that his identities are not mutually exclusive. He can be both Spiderman and Peter Parker—by loving his American darling Mary Jane and whispering against all his private longings, “There is something more important, something bigger, than you and I.”
The film, in fact, is flauntingly interested in this type of union. Even ignoring the chief scientific spectacle (nuclear fusion), Spiderman’s two villains are villains only because of their failure to unite their warring selves. The soothingly upper-middle-class Doctor Octopus can’t fend off the hubris embodied in his obviously allegorical, tempting, serpentine arms. The obnoxiously upper-upper class Harry Osborn doesn’t know how to reconcile his roles as friend and failed son. Octopus, Osborn, and Spiderman are all, incidentally, traumatized by a dead relative. Dominated by what they believe that person would expect of them, the three of them are all jailed in the same cage of guilty, self-flagellating alienation. Thus, the film’s most moving (and dangerously sentimental) scenes happen when the individual observers around them swell into a single, affirming group—a group that accepts them. When, for example, a group of subway riders all vow not to give away Spiderman’s secret identity—and let us ignore, for a moment, the unintentionally funny “mosh pit” sequence that occurs contiguous to this one—the movie gains the perks of moral didacticism, while remaining somehow tender, humane.
These are, in fact, the virtues of the original Spiderman
comic book series after which the film so boyishly adheres. While it’s
now fashionable to diss superhero comic books—a sort of backhanded
compliment to the supposedly far more naturalistic indie graphic novel—the
Spiderman of artist Steve Ditko and writer Stan Lee was always notable
for its realism. As the historian’s clichés go, Spiderman
was an aesthetic breakthrough: the first comic of proper nouns (“New
York” rather than “Metropolis” or “Gotham City”);
the first comic where the teenager (i.e. the character mirroring the reader)
was the hero rather then the sidekick; the first comic where the hero
was masked and alienated—in fact, the first superhero comic about
alienation, rather than about the hysterical or noir wonders of Superman
and Batman. Read almost any of the “canonical” Marvel superhero
titles—X-Men is an easy example of this—and you are almost
instantly overcome by the deluge of wounded sensitivity. But, in Spiderman
2, watching Peter Parker never get the paycheck, the last hors d’oeuvres
at the cocktail party, or the girl, I couldn’t help thinking that
maybe the best analog for Spiderman wasn’t any of these clumsily
vulnerable, emo boys in spandex. Who is the other, most darkly inept comic
book character of all time, the most endearing loser? I am speaking, of
course, of Charlie Brown, like Spiderman, an icon of terrifying resignation
served in the more charming packages of costume and cartoon.