(Sony Pictures), 125 minutes, PG-13
Directed by Sam Raimi.
Written by Michael Chabon, Miles Millar, Alfred Gough, and Alvin Sargent. Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Peter Parker/Spiderman: Tobey Maguire
Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst
Dr. Otto Octavius: Alfred Molina
The bifurcation of Peter Parker's life is seen in his dual existence as the heroic Spider-Man and as a desperate, undergraduate science nerd skirting poverty, failing his classes, and losing the girl of his dreams. Moreover, his is the conflict between a man devoted to justice, the good of others ("with great power comes great responsibility"), and self-interest. Spider-Man's Kantian superhero, in applying only retributive justice (punishing criminals), thus commits injustice toward himself. (As great as his heroics are, we can't expect him to prevent 9/11 or halt Eliot Spitzer.)
Peter even forgets his own birthday, so absorbed is he in the actions and opinions of others. Has a super-hero ever toiled as a pizza-delivery boy or done his own laundry? To emphasize his lowliness, he labors as a part-time photojournalist for one of the most powerful media figures in New York; somehow this young man is the only one who can get close-up photos of Spider-Man. Moreover, his boss is a comically vile newspaper editor whose tabloid brands the swinging arachnid a criminal menace.
The bifurcation we see in Peter is absent in the villain he must conquer. Appropriately, Dr. Otto Octavius is a well-intentioned scientist who has carelessly turned himself into a monster with four vicious mechanical snake-arms and created a fusion sun he can hold in his own hands. He seeks to be the sun within a universe of his own creation that he is free to destroy.
While the battle between the octopus and the spider provides thrills for even the most jaded moviegoer, the more interesting battle occurs within the soul of young Parker. Peter has superhuman spider powers by virtue of a bite from a radioactive spider. But he can also declare, "Punch me, I bleed." He cares for his aged Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson, the girl of his dreams. He wants to pursue the study of science.
Left to his own choices, the narcissistic Peter Parker briefly denies his Spiderman self. He rejects the slightest inclination to do justice—for example, he turns silently away from a mugging victim. Like the movie's villain, he has become a monster, a human with the soul of a bug, albeit a happy bug.
Providentially, the need to do justice confronts him. Eventually, as in a comic-book ending, Spider-Man and Peter Parker become reconciled, at least for the time being. The movie poster advertises, "Choice, the story continues." But the sort of choosing "Spider-Man 2" proposes is a false one—one between being a god and being a sort of last man, a mere bourgeois. That is no choice at all but rather a delusion and a most demoralizing one at that.
The problem arises thus: the only spiritual elements we see in the movie are god-like science, poetry (mercifully little, though T.S. Eliot is mentioned), and a church (merely a scene of betrayal). We need to be informed not by Rousseaun dreams but by Aristotelian humanity, which links the divine, heroic, and all-too-human, without requiring bites from radioactive spiders while demanding we take action in a life of excellence.