According to FilmFisher’s rating system, to award a film the perfect 5-fish rating is to claim the film is “not merely a towering achievement in its genre” but also “makes ardent strides towards virtue and offers the viewer an acute and profound entrance into the ancient discussion of human excellence and the transcendence of God.”
I am willing to make all these claims about Spider-Man 2.
The superhero genre is a relatively young one, and no matter how crowded the playing field has become in the last decade or so, when it comes to the title of “best superhero movie ever made,” Spider-Man 2 has few real rivals. (I count them on one hand: Unbreakable, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight.) As far as I am concerned, it is not only a towering achievement in its genre but the genre’s crowning achievement, the single fullest realization of superhero movies’ potential to be as soulful and moving as they are spectacular and exciting. That this goofy comic book movie broaches the subject of divine transcendence is a more difficult claim to defend, but although the film’s milieu is entirely secular (unlike Spider-Man 3), it is simply not possible for any work of art to search so deeply into the nature of virtue and present such a stirring vision of human goodness without testifying, however obliquely, to the character of God.
PART 1All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
The film does not begin with Spider-Man, or even with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), but with his beloved, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). More precisely, the film opens with an image of Mary Jane’s eyes on a billboard for “Emma Rose” perfume. Mary Jane is the Beatrice to Peter’s Dante, watching over him on his life’s journey, and the name of the perfume recalls Dante’s vision (in his Paradiso) of the Empyrean, the highest circle of heaven, as a fiery celestial rose – an image later picked up by T.S. Eliot (in his Four Quartets, above). Gazing upon Mary Jane, Peter tells us:
She looks at me every day: Mary Jane Watson. Oh boy. If she only knew how I felt about her. But she can never know. I made a choice once, to live a life of responsibility – a life she can never be a part of. Who am I? I’m Spider-Man, given a job to do… and I’m Peter Parker, and I, too, have a job.
While Peter narrates, director Sam Raimi pulls away from Mary Jane’s eyes to reveal her face, set against a backdrop of blinding, heavenly white. As the camera continues to pull back, though, we realize that we are looking at a billboard, and there is something comical, even crass, about the way Peter’s romanticized vision of his beloved turns out to be nothing loftier than an advertisement for perfumes. (M.J. herself is “embarrassed” by it.) The billboard is overlooking a busy New York street, and Peter, driving his “scooter thing” along that street, is looking up at it (as befits Mary Jane’s role in the drama). He is, in other words, not looking where he is going, and his reverie concludes in unceremonious fashion when he nearly runs over his boss, Mr. Aziz.
This little introduction – thirty seconds of screentime in total – does quite a bit of heavy lifting. Peter tells us that Mary Jane “looks at [him] every day,” but he is actually hiding from her eyes because he feels there is no place for her in Spider-Man’s “life of responsibility.” It is important that, in his opening narration, Peter identifies himself first as Spider-Man and only secondly as Peter Parker. The first Spider-Man is about the way we aspire to become virtuous by imagining our ideal selves, but as Spider-Man 2 begins, the ideal self is no longer an inspiration to live up to but a mask of illusory perfection that hides the true, imperfect self. In the same way that Peter pines for an image of Mary Jane while distancing himself from the real Mary Jane, he is trying to live up to an idealized image of Spider-Man without acknowledging the real limitations, desires, and responsibilities of the very human Peter. Spider-Man and Mary Jane, once icons that spurred Peter to seek a higher reality, have become deceptive dreams that can never truly satisfy him.
PART 2Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind Cannot bear very much reality.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Peter’s attempts to harmonize his dual selves are mirrored in the film’s antagonist, Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), and his dream of creating “successful fusion.” Harry Osborn (James Franco) refers to Octavius as one of Peter’s “idols,” and it is not hard to see why: Octavius is everything Peter desires to become, a principled and altruistic scientist whose tireless work to save the world is supported (and balanced) by his loving wife, Rosie (Donna Murphy). While Peter and Otto are scientists, the women they love are associated with the arts. Mary Jane is an actress performing Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest); Rosie is a poet who mentions T. S. Eliot, and whose very name links her to Eliot’s image of the heavenly rose. “I still don’t understand what he was talking about,” Otto says of Eliot, and the film shows this to be true. His fusion machine recalls Eliot’s celestial fire – he likens it to a “perpetual sun, providing renewable power for the whole world” – but the tragic irony is that, for Otto and Rosie, the fire and the rose are not one. Instead, the fire consumes and destroys the rose when Otto’s machine causes Rosie’s death.
The death of Rosie reflects Peter’s profoundest fear: the sacrifice of Mary Jane on the altar of his altruistic dream. At the same time, it evokes the defining tragedy of his life, the death of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). Both Peter and Otto lose their loved ones because they are momentarily obsessed by their newfound power and the glory it promises, and it is guilt over this failure that drives them to pursue their dreams so desperately and single-mindedly. Just as Peter’s becoming Spider-Man is a way to atone for Uncle Ben’s death, Otto’s attempt to recreate the machine is a way to atone for Rosie’s. Both Peter and Otto believe that if they can just shape their lives into narratives in which their good deeds outweigh their guilt and give meaning to the loss of their loved ones, they can redeem themselves. Yet these dreams of absolution are empty, illusory, and such dreams invariably become towers of Babel (Otto’s artificial sun is an attempt to ascend to a manmade heaven) that exhaust and finally break those who build them.
Whereas Peter consciously fixates on his guilt, Otto buries his, and is thus driven by it unawares. Throughout the film, he is surrounded by motifs that draw attention to his sight (or blindness); we first see him hunched over a desk, examining a tiny chip with a pair of microscopic goggles. His transformation into Doctor Octopus after the death of Rosie and the initial destruction of the machine is framed primarily as a shift in vision:
Otto’s attempt to “create fusion” works for only a few moments before he becomes fixated on his own success. “The power of the sun in the palm of my hand,” he intones as the machine’s light fills one eye, leaving the other dark (top left). For a moment, Otto, staring into the sun of his own making, can see nothing else, and this lapse into hubris prevents him from shutting the machine down, leading to Rosie’s death when a wall of windows shatters. Windows, of course, allow one to see, and when they break, Raimi shows the shards of glass flying into Rosie’s eye (top right). It was Rosie who kept Otto balanced and protected him from tunnel vision, and after her death, he becomes blind (bottom left). At this point, his robotic tentacles – implements designed solely to create his machine – begin to see for him. While Otto is unconscious in the operating room, the tentacles attack the doctors who would remove them from his body, and Raimi shoots much of the scene from their POV (bottom right). For most of the film’s runtime, Otto will wear dark glasses or goggles (even indoors or at night) while the tentacles reinforce his myopic resolve to rebuild the machine. To avoid facing his guilt over Rosie’s death, Otto continues to blindly chase the “dream” that killed her.
Peter, too, struggles with vision problems. As Spider-Man, he has perfect eyesight, but when he begins to lose his powers, he also begins to need glasses again. Like Otto going blind without Rosie, Peter’s vision begins to blur when he is losing Mary Jane. After she accepts another man’s marriage proposal, Peter’s webs fail him and he falls into an alleyway, where he finds himself unable to read a newspaper. The libelous headline suggests that Spider-Man is in league with Doctor Octopus, humorously underlining the parallels between the two. Mary Jane gets engaged during a party at the planetarium, recalling Otto’s sun; she is the center of Peter’s cosmos, and like Otto pursuing his dream to others’ harm, Peter abandons his responsibilities as Spider-Man to chase her.
While Otto’s tentacles urge him to recreate the machine, the internal voice that urges Peter to be Spider-Man belongs to Uncle Ben. “You’ve been given a gift, Peter,” Uncle Ben implores, recalling an earlier speech from Otto: “Intelligence is not a privilege, it’s a gift, and you use it for the good of mankind.” As noble as Ben and Otto’s principles are, though, guilt twists them into impossible demands. Peter’s conversation with Uncle Ben takes place in the same car where they last spoke when he was alive; their relationship is still framed in Peter’s memory of his own failure, and so it can only be pervaded by guilt and regret. “I can’t live your dreams anymore,” Peter pleads, and he is right. This specter of Uncle Ben will never grant him peace; it will only ever demand that he do more to redeem himself.
As Peter talks to him, Uncle Ben is set against a blinding white backdrop that recalls Mary Jane’s billboard, suggesting that both exist in the same dreamy ideal space in Peter’s psyche. The talk with Uncle Ben concludes when Peter reverses his earlier self-assessment. The film begins with Peter looking at Mary Jane’s billboard and identifying himself as Spider-Man. At its midpoint, he trades one dream in for another, telling Uncle Ben, “I’m just Peter Parker. I’m Spider-Man no more.”
Raimi sets Peter’s Spider-Man-free happiness to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” and insofar as Spider-Man serves the same purpose for Peter as Otto’s sun does for him, the musical choice is apropos: So I just did me some talkin’ to the sun / And I said I didn’t like the way he got things done. While Otto throws himself into his work with ever-increasing fervor in a vain effort to assuage his guilt, Peter tries to ignore his guilt by abandoning his work. The coping strategies are nearly diametrically opposed, but both are ways of fleeing from reality rather than facing it, and so neither man is truly free. The dream of successful fusion remains unrealized. The fire and the rose are not yet one.
PART 3The only wisdom we can hope to acquire Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Shortly after Peter decides that he is “Spider-Man no more,” he visits Uncle Ben’s grave with Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). It was here, at Uncle Ben’s grave, that Peter walked away from Mary Jane at the ending of the previous film, concluding, “Who am I? I’m Spider-Man.” Now, his visit to the cemetery with Aunt May marks the beginning of his road back to Mary Jane.From L to R: “Spider-Man” (2002), “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
“It was all my doing,” Aunt May says of Uncle Ben’s death, and we can see the roots of Peter’s self-flagellating mindset in the way she takes undue responsibility upon herself. “You don’t have to punish yourself,” Peter tells her – the unspoken implication being that he must punish himself instead, for in his mind, Uncle Ben’s death was all his doing. It is in the process of trying to free Aunt May from her phantom guilt that Peter unburdens himself for the first time. It is only after he has given up trying to earn redemption as Spider-Man that he can confess to Aunt May, and it is only through confession, the unmasking of his true self – Peter, not Spider-Man – that he can truly be freed from his guilt. In one of the most beautiful scenes in a film full of beautiful scenes, Aunt May does just that:Pish posh, we needn’t talk about it. It’s water over the dam or under the bridge or wherever you like it, but… you made a brave move, telling me the truth. And I’m proud of you. And I thank you. And I… I love you, Peter, so very, very much.
Peter’s dialogue with Aunt May is the film’s most significant turning point and, in many ways, the crux of its moral vision. The unending pursuit of good works is no remedy to guilt, but a way of avoiding the real remedy: the grace extended to Peter in the form of Aunt May’s forgiveness and unconditional love. Although Peter has spent the film hiding behind Spider-Man’s mask, afraid of revealing his flaws, when he finally does unmask himself, revealing his deepest source of shame and guilt to her, Aunt May does not respond with condemnation, but with acceptance. He does not have to become Spider-Man to earn her love; rather, she loves Peter as he really is. As the film moves into its final stretch, Aunt May’s response to Peter’s metaphorical unmasking sets off a whole cascade of scenes in which he literally unmasks himself, resolving the dichotomy between Peter and Spider-Man.
By extending unmerited forgiveness towards him, Aunt May releases Peter from the fruitless toil of trying to earn redemption by living Uncle Ben’s “dreams” – and in the same conversation, she calls him back to his responsibility by reminding him of Spider-Man’s real purpose, as embodied in the hero worship of 9-year-old Henry Jackson:[Henry] knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there, flying around like that, saving old girls like me. Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero – courageous, self-sacrificing people setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names, and years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though, sometimes, we have to be steady and give up the things we want the most… even our dreams. Spider-Man did that for Henry and he wonders where he’s gone. He needs him.
The first dream Peter must sacrifice is the dream of making it on his own steam, for this illusion of self-sufficiency obscures Spider-Man’s true mission. Now that Peter is no longer trying to be Spider-Man to redeem himself, he can truly be Spider-Man for others’ sake, which means giving to others as well as accepting the kindness of others, even when he has done nothing to earn it. (Before his dialogue with Aunt May, Ursula, the daughter of his comically avaricious landlord, Mr. Ditkovich, offers Peter milk and a slice of cake, apropos of nothing – a small, easily overlooked act of compassion that begins to shake him out of his gloom.) It is only after we have been loved unconditionally that we can begin to love others unconditionally. After Peter receives mundane, commonplace kindness from others, Spider-Man can extend extraordinary kindness to others.
In the film’s most thrilling scene, the rescue of a train gone haywire, Raimi draws our attention to Peter’s fallibility and Spider-Man’s heroism by having him remove his mask. It is hard to imagine anyone second-guessing Spider-Man, but after Peter’s first attempt to stop the train fails, the conductor snidely voices his doubts: “Any more bright ideas?” Peter, however, is undaunted; for the moment, at least, he is so completely focused on saving the passengers that he does not care whether or not they perceive his failings. As Eliot puts it, For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. Peter is willing to empty himself for others regardless of the results; he gives himself up even if it means laying bare his human weakness and allowing a train full of strangers to see him as he really is. In so doing, he places himself in a position of dependence on them, and just as Aunt May responded to Peter’s unmasking with love, they respond by tenderly lifting Spider-Man’s unconscious body to safety. Far from undercutting Spider-Man’s heroism, Peter’s humanity underlines it. “He’s just a kid,” murmurs one passenger, awestruck. “No older than my son.” Self-revelation precedes and enables authentic, radical self-giving; self-giving and unmasking are one and the same. True to Aunt May’s speech, the heroism of Spider-Man stirs others to heroism, but it is really the ordinariness of Peter’s face behind the mask that inspires the ordinary people on the train to defy Doctor Octopus. Spider-Man is superhuman, but Peter is just a kid. The mask of Spider-Man represents a lofty ideal, but when the passengers see Peter’s face, heroism suddenly seems humble, earthy, attainable. If he can be courageous and self-sacrificing, they think, so can I.
PART 4The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre – To be redeemed from fire by fire.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
The film’s climactic confrontation between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus ultimately becomes a conversation between Peter Parker and Otto Octavius, for now that Peter has integrated his dual selves, he is able to help Otto harmonize his. Otto’s sunglasses and goggles, which hide his eyes, parallel the Spider-Man mask that hides Peter’s face. Just as the persona of Spider-Man eclipsed Peter, Doctor Octopus has eclipsed Otto, blinding him to his true self; Peter says of the tentacles, “These things have turned you into something you’re not. Don’t listen to them.” By removing his own mask and unveiling his real face, Peter helps Otto to see through the falseness of his dream and recalls him to his true self. Just as Aunt May reminded him of Spider-Man’s true importance, Peter reminds Otto of the real mission behind his altruistic dream: “You once spoke to me about intelligence – that it was a gift to be used for the good of mankind.” And once again, as on the train, Peter’s heroism begets heroism in others. He inspires Otto to overcome himself by repeating Aunt May’s wisdom: “Sometimes, to do what’s right, we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most… even our dreams.”
There is a tragic nobility to Otto’s sacrifice of his life and his dream for the good of mankind, yet his final act falls short of Eliot’s paradoxical hope. Like one of the worshippers of the machine described in the Four Quartets, Otto – who does not understand Eliot – tries to conquer nature and erect a utopian world of his own design, forgetting that nature will always require a sacrifice. All that we fail to offer up will invariably be taken from us by decay, which Eliot calls the death of water and fire, those consuming elements that deride the sacrifice that we denied. When Otto sacrifices his idol to the river, Eliot’s strong brown god, reminder of what men choose to forget, he is only submitting to the common fate of all earthly things.
Otto does not “die a monster” – he “dies with pride,” to use Aunt May’s phrase – but death is the final word in his story, and so his story is without final hope. He could not save Rosie because he was unwilling to let go of his dream until it was too late. However, when Mary Jane is about to suffer Rosie’s fate – consumed by the fire of Otto’s machine – Peter is able to save her. Because Otto is now willing to let go of his dream, and Peter is willing to let go of his, Mary Jane lives.
Finally, Peter’s unmasking results in Mary Jane’s realization that he has been – as she puts it onstage in The Importance of Being Earnest – “Leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time.” All of the illusions between the two lovers have been dispelled. By carrying her to the safety of a giant web up in the sky, Peter invites Mary Jane into Spider-Man’s world – and while the image of Mary Jane set against the New York skyline recalls the opening image of the billboard, this is no image of Mary Jane but the living, breathing reality. Now, her eyes can truly see Peter – “I think I always knew, all this time, who you really were” – and to see Peter is to see that he loves her, even though he said he didn’t.
Yet Peter’s love, purified as if by fire, is truly selfless, and for Mary Jane’s good, he is willing to sacrifice his dream of being with her. Knowing he “will always be Spider-Man,” he chooses the life of responsibility and lets her go. Watching from afar as her fiancé embraces her, Peter dons his mask again and swings away – not as Peter, but as Spider-Man. In a certain sense, little has changed since the beginning of the film: Peter and Mary Jane love one another, but Spider-Man prevents them from being together. And yet, everything has changed, for as Peter departs, Mary Jane watches him go, knowing who he really is.
At this point, the film could end, and it would be satisfying. Peter’s arc is complete, as is Otto’s; indeed, when I was younger, Otto’s self-sacrifice was the climax of the movie. (I may even have turned it off after he died.) For Mary Jane to know the truth about Peter is emotionally satisfying, and for Peter to give Mary Jane up is morally satisfying. The first film ended with the very same noble choice, with the same heroic resignation and self-sacrifice. Anything more is gratuitous, superabundant grace.
And yet, there is more.
PART 5I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
From the very first moments of the film, Peter has been in constant motion. Always moving and working, forever trying to keep up with the endless list of demands and responsibilities piling upon him, he has never been able to sit still. Only in the film’s final moments do we find him in a moment of silence, stillness, contemplation, accepting that he and Mary Jane will never be – that, at this very moment, she is marrying someone else.
Here is Eliot’s condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything, and here the film transcends mere moralism to become something profoundly beautiful. The Psalmist tells us that those who sow in tears shall reap in joy; Christ tells us that a grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die if it is to bring forth much fruit, and that whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it. It is precisely when we let go of our dreams, of all that we think we want and need, that God can give us what we truly need and fulfill the deepest desires of our hearts. Only when we give everything up can we receive everything as a gift.
While Peter stares out the window, Raimi’s camera circles around to reveal Mary Jane, standing in the doorway behind him, lit not by the white light of his dreams but by the fiery warmth of the sun. Reciprocating Peter’s willingness to empty himself, Mary Jane has given up her own dream to be with him, a heroic decision that she explains in one of cinema’s great romantic speeches:
Peter… I can’t survive without you… I know you think we can’t be together, but can’t you respect me enough to let me make my own decision? I know there’ll be risks, but I want to face them with you. It’s wrong that we should only be half alive, half of ourselves. I love you. So here I am, standing in your doorway. I’ve always been standing in your doorway. Isn’t it about time somebody saved your life? … Well, say something.
Mary Jane begins by addressing her beloved as Peter, in direct contrast to the opening narration of the film, wherein he identified himself first and foremost as Spider-Man. The promise of the Emma Rose billboard is fulfilled (“Emma” means “whole,” prefiguring Mary Jane’s saying that she and Peter are only half alive when apart) and transcended as the image gives way to the far more glorious reality. Peter’s seemingly irreconcilable dreams come true at once, and all is well, and all manner of thing is well. The fire and the rose, at last, are one.
Peter’s response to this eucatastrophe is perfect. It is, in fact, the only proper response to a gift:
Thank you, Mary Jane Watson.
Spider-Man 2 is a gift. I could scarcely be more thankful for it.