Spider-Man 2: The Utilitarian Soap Opera (Review)

Before Tom Holland in the MCU, before Andrew Garfield in whatever mutated beast Sony had created out of Marc Webb’s attempt at a Spidey reboot, there was Tobey. Good ol’ Tobey Macguire in good ol’ Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.

It was a simpler time for super hero movies. They had only really just started to come out regularly in the form of movies about Spider-Man, X-Men and other miscellaneous Marvel characters, and there wasn’t the overbearing need for these movies to overlap and intersect with each other. These really were the adolescent days for the genre, and for every time-tested banger like Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, there was a huge misstep like Daredevil not too far behind it.

As a film, Spider-Man 2 is great. It builds off of everything that the original did and, despite thematically being very similar to Richard Donner/Richard Lester’s Superman II, is a blast to watch. It’s got everything from an obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo to well-choreographed action sequences and effects that (aside from some faulty blue screen execution stripping color from Spidey’s suit in a few shots) have aged a lot better than one would expect from a 16-year-old movie. Oh, and it’s also a great and accessible run through of utilitarian philosophy.

For 2004’s Spider-Man 2, famed Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi hits the ground running by framing the movie as an exploration of Peter Parker and his relationship with being New York City’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. A lot of the film has Tobey out of the suit and trying to balance his personal life with being a superhero, often to disastrous results. He feels obligated to reject Mary Jane’s clear-as-day interest in him, he’s unable to clear the air with his best friend Harry (who believes that Spider-Man killed his father), and his grades are slipping in College. He also meets one of his idols, Dr. Otto Octavius, who becomes the maniac “Doctor Octopus” after an experiment goes wrong and he’s stuck with sentient mechanical arms on his body.

The major theme of Spider-Man 2 is that of utilitarian sacrifice, and Raimi does a great job of exploring that within his characters. In his constant bid to put doing good over his own happiness, Parker leads an essentially celibate life and can barely hold a job or pay his bills due to spending all of his time as Spider-Man. It’s also noted by his Professor (future Lizard, Kurt Connors) and Dr. Octavius that he’s “brilliant but lazy,” often appearing exhausted when he’s in class. For Peter Parker, he’s decided to essentially live a sub-par life in a dirty studio apartment so that he could protect the city as Spider-Man. Such is his life until we see that Parker is losing his powers, due to rejecting his status of Spider-Man on a subconscious level. In my podcast episode on the movie, I was pretty quick to point out how this reminded me of the psychologist Carl Jung and his theory of the shadow, a subconscious part of ourselves that we have to confront/reconcile with in order to fulfill our full potential. For Peter, this means truly having to accept being Spider-Man and making the sacrifices he was making out of a desire to make those sacrifices, and not just the obligation/knowledge that it’s the right thing to do.

This view on utilitarianism is also found in Doc-Ock’s motivation. His chief desire in the film is to try and create a renewable energy source through fusion. Essentially, he wants to create and harness the power of the sun for the betterment of man kind. After his accident, he finds himself charged with a desire to continue his work and uses this motivation (which is the sort of “greater good” that utilitarianism loves) as justification to rob, steal and threaten the lives of millions of New Yorkers. His motivation of science over morality to solve a very real/genuine problem in the world (renewable energy) is the exact issue that gets brought up against utilitarianism regularly, and serves as a great contrast against what Peter is going through.

But it doesn’t stop there. Other characters also have their own utilitarian dilemmas. Aunt May’s about to lose her home in Queens but makes the utilitarian choice to put Peter’s financial woes/issues above her own problem. Even Harry Osborn has his own issue to work through in his desire to kill Spider-Man for what he believes he did to his father, despite likely knowing/understanding that killing Spidey would toss the city into even more chaos than it was in after Spider-Man had simply quit protecting New York.

I could go on for days about why I love this movie, but it’s that sort of detailed exploration of a popular philosophical topic that draws me to Spider-Man 2. While I am a fan of newer Spider-Man movies and absolutely love the exploits of Peter, Ned, and MJ in the MCU, Spider-Man 2 succeeds due to being an isolated affair. Without a greater universe to connect to, the movie gives it’s supporting characters room to have their own arcs outside of what the main character is experiencing. That’s not to say we get a huge arc for our secondary characters in this movie, but it definitely is a bit more substantial than what you find in movies like Spider-Man Homecoming/Far From Home.

If it’s been a minute since you’ve last rewatched the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, I strongly urge you give them another visit. They each have their strengths and stand out as really fun movies.

And yes, that includes Spider-Man 3. I can’t wait to review that one and explain why I actually think it’s a fine film.

I hope you enjoyed this review! If you did and are clamoring to hear more of my thoughts on Spider-Man 2, why not check out my podcast episode on the film? It’s available on every major podcast player via this nifty link, as well as on YouTube as a full video episode!

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