Spider-Man 2

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Sam Raimi

Written by Michael Chabon, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Alvin Sargent

With Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, and James Franco.

Who we are and how we exist in the world are central themes in superhero stories, even if they get overlooked by most reviewers of comic-book movies. It’s a mainstay of the genre that superheroes lead dual lives and adopt split identities. What’s interesting is the play between who these heroes are in private and how they present themselves to the world. Once in his Batman suit Bruce Wayne reveals more of his inner thoughts and feelings than he does as Bruce Wayne: his hatred of criminals, triggered by the loss of his parents in a mugging, comes seething through.

Spider-Man 2, of course, is about the double life of web-slinging Spider-Man and goofy everyman Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), but it’s also about the perks and pitfalls of having a public identity. As in the first film, Spider-Man’s superhero skills are more a burden than a privilege. And here again are sappy lines about self-sacrifice and responsibility that curb the vigilantism of the comic-book original. The film doesn’t apply its insights about identity as searchingly to the other characters as it does to Peter Parker/Spider-Man–a better movie would. It does, however, show us that they’re all defined by a world that both rewards and punishes fame, one that’s slightly but significantly different from the universe of the original Spider-Man comics.

When Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko set the action in New York, they wedded their fantastic stories to realism, with neighborhoods, street corners, offices, and apartments often drawn from actual locations and a protagonist who was cut down to human proportions as well. Director Sam Raimi is good with the details too–the Flatiron Building, an East Village cafe, Parker’s sardine-size apartment where he can barely make the rent. But through subtle additions he does something more here. His New York becomes a city that thrives on celebrity and myth, a place where Spider-Man, with his newsbreaking crime stopping, is just another celeb hounded by the tabloids.

The opening shot is a loving close-up of Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the girl next door Parker’s adored since childhood. Then the camera pulls back to reveal that we’re seeing her face on a billboard. She’s an up-and-coming actress and model with friends in high places: when she gets engaged the film is careful to point out that the groom to be is a headline-making astronaut. The mad-scientist villain, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), also has his sights set on renown–a Nobel Prize, no less. As the film sets him up, there are two Octaviuses, one a loving husband with a healthy personal life, the other a tentacled monster who’ll sacrifice even the love of his life to get ahead.

Spider-Man’s reputation by the start of the story is pervasive, seeping into every corner of Peter Parker’s life. In one well-timed gag he goes out for a walk and hears a street musician playing the theme song from the old Spider-Man TV cartoon. Raimi uses less pop-cultural references to comment on Parker’s double life too: Parker attends a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Mary Jane as Cecily. She says to her would-be suitor Algernon, who’s posing under a false identity, “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.” At that point she looks out at the audience and fortuitously catches Parker’s eye.

Wilde’s stories often concern divided lives, with characters concealing their real natures and motives behind a conventional facade. In Earnest, Algernon assumes the identity of his friend Jack’s brother Ernest, an alleged troublemaker. As it turns out, “Ernest” is a fictive invention of Jack’s with whom Cecily, knowing of him only through hearsay, is smitten. Algernon has to pose as Ernest to woo Cecily. His dilemma is not unlike that faced by superheroes who win the adulation of the heroine while masked but can’t get the time of day from any girl in their workaday lives. Raimi doesn’t push such parallels too far. But the gags and the tongue-in-cheek tone of early parts of the film suggest how easily superhero tales of divided identity can be played as classic comedies of errors.

The opening sequence has Peter Parker, ordinary Joe, rushing to make a pizza delivery on time. Sensing that he won’t make it, he changes into his Spider-Man suit and web-slings his way to his destination–only to have to change back later in a janitor’s closet, knocking over several brooms on his way out. It’s a good joke, setting Spider-Man’s agility against Parker’s ineptitude, but it also reminds us that superhero stories are not merely escapist fantasies. Spider-Man sails past the obstacles of daily life, swinging from building to building; Parker stays stuck in traffic. The split between a superhero and his clumsy alter ego is a little like the divisions we all face: heroes like Spider-Man are caricatures of the confidence and capability we show when we excel at a job, go out on a date, or play at a sport, leaving behind a web of doubts–or at least trying to.

Underlying the mystique of the superhero is the notion that going out into the world–especially when one has a public identity–involves a mix of self-fulfillment and repression. In the most startling scene in Spider-Man 2, our hero loses his mask while fighting Octavius on an elevated train. “He’s just a kid!” exclaims a passenger. Being Spider-Man is an outlet for Peter Parker’s superhuman strength, but it also conceals that he’s only human.