What we can all learn from Spider-Man 2

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

4. Spider-Man 2 (dir. Sam Raimi, 2004)

Spider-Man is the only superhero I can think of who has a slogan: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I don’t really know which iteration of our friendly neighborhood webslinger hero first invoked the phrase, be it film or comic book, but my first exposure to it was in Sam Raimi’s now legendary trilogy of blockbusters. What an amazing code to live by. “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Go ahead, say it. Think about it. Say it out loud. Feels good, right? So pure. So genuine. So true. It’s such a universal truth that, if followed by everyone, it could heal the all of civilization’s ailments. And really, it’s at the heart of every social discussion we have today. Be it on of race, gender, sexuality, or politics, it all comes down to figuring out who has the power, and whether they wish use it for good or evil, or worst of all, to ignore it entirely. The way social discourse seems doomed to strip itself of nuance these days has dissolved the idea of power dynamics down to a single phrase: Privilege.

I’m certainly being purposefully harsh when I say that all nuance is gone, but oftentimes, privilege is a weaponized term, used to divide the haves from the have nots and stifle any further conversation on the matter. That said, privilege is a very important concept to parse out. The fact of the matter is that arbitrary signifiers have unfairly given advantage to some and disadvantage to others, and we as a society must reckon with this disparity. Unfortunately, when analyzing privilege, it’s easy fo fall into argument rather than discussion. This is why Spider-Man’s slogan is so wonderful. It takes the concept of privilege and frames it less as a weight that those in power must carry, and more as a responsibility for which its beholders should feel blessed. Worded this way, sans the accusatory feel and with a few extra syllables for padding, you won’t find much resistance to the discussion. AIn’t nobody trying to argue with Spider-Man. 

Now really, the notion of responsibility coming as a package deal with power is the theme for the bulk of Marvel Comics’ output. The X-Men framed it as finding strength in one’s perceived weaknesses–more of a tale of the marginalized finding power through their struggle–but the idea is exactly the same: If you have the ability to do good, it is your duty to do so (Magneto would certainly disagree, but only because he has a skewed vision of what responsibility looks like). There are examples all across Marvel’s canon: Doctor Strange sought power for personal gain, but soon found that there were forces much bigger than his ego, and it was his job to tend to them. Black Panther sought to hide his power, and then found benefit in sharing it with the world. The Incredible Hulk constantly struggles with the destructive nature of his power, but often finds it can be channeled to help those in need. Heck, Captain America’s entire ethos follows Spidey’s rule to the letter. He simply refuses to stand by and watch others suffer in ways that only his beefy musculature could prevent. Yes, “With great power comes great responsibility” is at the heart of just about every super-powered story imaginable, and for my money, the movie that did it best just so happens to be one of the greatest blockbusters ever: Spider-Man 2.

Here’s where I get it out of the way and say that this remains the best superhero movie ever made (along with Batman Returns). It’s not my favorite–that distinction goes to Man of Steel and you can kiss my ass and deal with it–but the objective best is Spider-Man 2 (and Batman Returns). 

There are a lot of reasons why this film holds up so well. For one, this was long before every comic book movie had to have connections with a million others, so it actually works in a vacuum. Remember when superhero movies could do that? Oh how far we’ve come. Another reason it holds up is because Sam Raimi is the perfect match for the material. His style of showmanship suits the cartoonish take on New York which could feasibly hold a Spidey tale, and his command of the spatial arrangement required to depict web slinging comes straight from the Evil Dead playbook, most notably in the first person depiction of the “evil.” But the best reason why this movie resonates to this day is that the story of Spider-Man 2 most effectively explores the theme that–I’ll say it again–with great power comes great responsibility. 

The movie begins with Peter Parker struggling to maintain a dual life as both a normal guy and a costumed superhero. He and Mary Jane are on the rocks, and his friendship with Harry Osborn is strained in the wake of Norman Osborn’s death. Peter is wrestling with the hierarchy of his responsibility. On the one hand, he has the ability to stop the never ending spree of crime affecting New York, on the other, the absentee lifestyle he has adopted in order to fight crime has a detrimental effect on his personal life. He is unable to be there for his friends, his family, or even himself. The city needs Spider-Man, but Peter needs Peter. It’s the work/life balance that we all struggle to achieve magnified tenfold by the inclusion of superpowers and super-villains. 

Peter’s difficulties are thrown further into flux when his powers suddenly disappear due to psychosomatic factors. When he’s no longer able to be Spider-Man, does that absolve him of Spider-Man’s responsibilities? Does his sudden return to being plain old Peter Parker mean that his abandoned loved ones will just welcome him back into their lives? It’s a question that can’t be answered easily, and it’s a credit to Raimi’s film that no answer is provided beyond “find balance,” which is ultimately what Peter does. He grows to realize that no matter how big the stakes are, his responsibilities are not to be place dingo a ranking. Do as much good as you can where you can, and if you can’t, take solace in knowing you did your best. It’s a difficult, adult concept, and it’s one that I surmise challenges all of us. One thing that my therapist frequently tells me is that if I overextend my abilities to the point of burning out, well then I’m not much good to anybody, which is exactly what happens when Peter loses his powers. At the same time, she often advises me that being burned out is a pretty lame excuse to be a burnout. I’m a lucky guy, and it’s my duty to spread the wealth. 

Basically, I’m Spider-Man.

On the other hand, Spider-Man 2 also gives us an exploration of power/responsibility through its villain, Dr. Octopus, played with incredible depth by Alfred Molina. Dr. Octopus fucks up the power game right off the bat. You see, he is working to create a new energy source via nuclear fusion. In order to harness this power, which he is physically incapable of wielding, he has built a special suit of robotic arms through which he can manipulate the fusion reactor. During a power surge, in which it would be his responsibility to shut the project down, things go very wrong. He gets drunk off of the power of his own ego, choosing to see a shutdown of his experiment as a failure rather than an opportunity to improve, and as such, the once beloved scientist destroys his lab, kills his wife, and finds himself mourning and in disgrace.

Parallel to his ego are the robotic arms themselves. He has fit these metallic tentacles with an “inhibitor chip.” What the chip does, besides being a VERY comic booky piece of technology, is ensure that control of his suit only goes one way. It’s his brain that directly maneuvers the robotic arms, and not the other way around. But when the power surge occurs, the inhibitor chip is fried. Simultaneously as we watch his ego cause disaster, creating a monster of shame and regret, we also see the whims of his now sentient robotics literally alter his personality. While either the emotional failure or the technological failure alone would certainly be enough to create a villain, its the combination of the two which creates a super-villain. 

What makes Spider-Man 2 so special is that this is ultimately what the battle between Spidey and Doc Ock is all about. It’s very clear from the beginning of the film that the two brilliant men share a mutual respect, and it’s through this respect for each other’s journey that the day is saved. Spider-Man, having just lived through an identity crisis—having just learned that wielding with power responsibly also means taking responsibility for your failures to do so—sees himself in Doc Ock. Conversely, Ock sees Spider-Man applying the lessons that he himself chose to ignore, and realizes that it’s time to own up to his failures. Sure, there’s a big climactic battle, but it doesn’t end in a decisive victory or defeat for either. When faced with a burst of power destructive enough to kill the entire population of New York, its Dr. Octopus who realizes that as the one man with the ability to contain the blast, its his responsibility to do so, even if it means a complete destruction of ego – a suicide mission in which he gives himself over to the greater good. 

So it’s through this dichotomy that we can see how tough it is to work through the notion of privilege, of power, of responsibility. It illustrates just how many moving pieces there are to the concept, and how worthwhile it is to tug at them all. I once read a quote that I think we should all strive to embody (I cannot find who it is attributed to, but if you know, please tell!):

“Just because you can only do a little does not mean you shouldn’t do anything.”  

I think this quote in conjunction with Spidey’s famous slogan could be the key to worldwide success. All of us have power, all of us have privilege. Some more than others for sure, but if each and every one of us chooses to use whatever power we have for good, furthermore owning up to our failures, we’ll be okay. 

Let’s all strive to be Spider-Man. 

Well actually, let’s all strive to be Spider-Man 2. 

Notes: 

  • The scene in which Doc Ock’s arms become sentient is vintage Raimi. It so hyper-kinetic, and showy, so imbued with classic horror sensibilities that it feels as if Raimi is saying “yeah, yeah, I know I went mainstream, but I can still make you piss yourself in fear and don’t you forget it!”
  • I remember seeing the very first trailer for the very first Spider-Man movie a full year before it was released and thinking to myself “What the hell am I going to do with the next year of my life while I wait for this?!?!”   And now there have been six Spider-Man movies since. Oh, how the time passes and MY BACK HURTS AND GET OFF MY LAWN!!!
  • The sequence where Spidey and Ock fall from a skyscraper while fistfighting was so iconic that it has been used countless times since, most recently in Black Panther. You know the moment. They fall and the camera follows. The soundtrack cuts out and all we hear is the whoosh of the air and the thuds of their punches. It’s visual poetry. 
  • Guess what, Spider-Man 3 is fine, so shut up. 
  • The train scene. That is all. 
  •  The closing credits to this movie feature a song by Dashboard Confessional. It’s a solid tune, but it’s a strange choice for the tone of the film. I’m assuming that the only reason it is used is because the opening lyrics are “Hope dangles on a string.” Ya know, like Spidey does. Whatever. 

Before I go, I wanted to drop one last quote on you. It comes from the much maligned, but perfectly acceptable The Amazing Spider-Man (the same could not be said for the sequel), in which the script tries to drop the “With great power comes great responsibility” wisdom on us, but clearly did not want to do so literally, what with this movie attempting to forge a new cinematic path for Spidey. This is the exact quote from the movie, spoke during an argument between Uncle Ben and Peter:

“But your father lived by a philosophy. A principle, really. He believed that if you could do good things for other people, you had a moral obligation to do those things. That’s what’s at stake here. Not choice. Responsibility.”

Wordy to the point of being comical, but I gotta say, I like it. 

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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