Mild spoilers follow. If you really have no clue how it ends, you might want to see the movie first.
Simply put, Spider-Man 2 is the superhero movie par excellence. Its effects are amazing, the action is thrilling, but beyond that, it actually transcends its comic-book origins, and succeeds as a moving human drama. I had the strong sense that 2002’s Spider-Man wanted to do the same, but failed. Whenever it seemed it was getting close, the Green Goblin would pop in, and Bam! there we were in cartoon-land again.
Thankfully, the villain in Spider-Man 2 is more believable and sympathetic. Alfred Molina’s masterful portrayal of Dr. Octavius is refreshingly human and appropriately chilling. Rather than being simply mad or evil, Octavius (Doc Ock) is actually a good man, but ambition and carelessness has caused him to lose control, and his mechanical arms now control his actions. As in the Matrix movies, machines symbolize the inhuman side of our passions, a mechanical force that keeps going of its own accord, using the human being just to power it (as in The Matrix) or just taking it along for the ride as it does here. Mechanical arms furthermore suggest the reach of amoral, inhuman ambition.
The superhero as spiritual warrior
But of course, Spider-Man / Peter Parker is who the movie is really about. What is so refreshing about this movie is that it shows the trials of the superhero in surprising detail. The superhero is a metaphor for the “spiritual warrior”—those who dedicate their lives to conquering the evils of fear, arrogance, violence, anger and greed in the world. In the comic book, these are usually depicted as external things, the superhero is already perfect.
In reality, spiritual warriorship is a learning path; the warrior first must conquer him/herself. While Superman showed the infant Kal-El as performing miracles from the time he came down from heaven, the Bible points out that Jesus waited till 30 to begin his ministry. Similarly, the Buddha spent years practicing yoga before he awoke, and even then, hesitated to teach what he had found. No matter how sudden the transformation may occur, work precedes it and it takes dedication to live the awakened life.
Christians are urged to “fight the good fight,” and Buddhists are taught to become bodhisattvas, and vow to save all beings. It’s a tall order, and Spider-Man shows the human struggle of the spiritual warrior very honestly. True, many spiritual warriors have been monks, nuns, and hermits, but far more have had to take on the call to be “in the world, but not of the world.” These spiritual warriors live in two worlds, the spiritual world of prayer, meditation and the awareness of what is really going on despite appearances, and the day-to-day world of bills, work, school, and relationships. Peter finds it impossible to be Spider-Man and attend properly to his life in the ordinary world. He is behind on rent, can’t hold a job, is failing his classes, and is about to lose Mary Jane forever.
His motivation to be Spider-Man largely stems from guilt—his uncle’s last words to him were “with great power comes great responsibility,” and soon after that, his irresponsibility caused uncle’s death. Spider-Man is slipping; except in life-and-death situations, his webs fail, he slides off of walls, and his vision blurs. Even his heroic, life-saving actions are slammed by the Daily Bugle which rants against him as “a public menace.”
Peter Parker ends up doing what most of us would do in such frustrating circumstances—he quits, and throws his costume into the trash.
There’s no going back
At first, Peter has a tremendous sense of relief in just being Peter Parker. But he cannot forget who he has been, nor what he could do, when he turns away from someone being beaten in an alley, or when he hears sirens tearing down the street. Finally, he can bear it no more—when he sees a burning apartment building that has a child trapped inside, he rushes in to save her. And the little girl ends up saving him.
This is just one of several instances that show Peter he must be able to accept the help, forgiveness, and advice of others. A doctor tells him that his loss of powers is probably psychosomatic. His aunt forgives him for his part in her husband’s death—and with what seems to be a knowing twinkle in her eye, she reminds him that heroes are vital to the world.
Behind the mask
Peter picks up his Spider-Man costume again to stop Doc Ock from destroying the city. In a stunning fight sequence, Spider-Man endures an agonizing crucifixion on the front of a speeding train. Instead of nails, his own webs stretch out his arms to save the innocent. As he falls exhausted, the passengers on the train gently pass him back and make room for him to rest. And since he lost his mask in the battle, everyone is astonished to see that the miraculous superhero is an otherwise ordinary, human, mortal youth.
It’s easy to believe that the savior is different from us in kind, since even when their deeds are known, they themselves are not. To anyone who didn’t know the shy, klutzy geek named Peter Parker, Spider-Man seems a being from another world, like Superman, with nothing in common with ordinary folks. Knowing the humanity of the hero is the difference.
Many Buddhists prefer to offer chants and prayers to the Buddha, rather than seek his enlightenment. Similarly, Christians are generally are more at ease worshipping Jesus as God, and largely forget about a Jewish kid named Yeshua who realized who his Father was—in fact, only a single story from his youth has been preserved. The ancient Christian teaching of theosis, that the consummation of the Christian life is to become Christ, just as Jesus did, is ignored by most churches. We prefer to trust him to lead the Christian life for us, and while he does, the call to awaken still sounds: “Awake, O sleeper, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph.5.14) With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a little bit scary. No wonder we keep haloes on our saviors, and capes and masks on our heroes.
But the hero also wants the mask, which represents the anonymity of the bodhisattva/spiritual warrior. True spiritual warriors don’t seek glory for themselves. Jesus repeatedly asked persons he healed not to tell anyone about him. But usually there comes a time when the mask has to come off. This can be frightening, but it’s also an opportunity for the warrior to gain the support he or she needs. Jesus needed the disciples, Gautama needed the sangha, Francis needed his brothers, Dorothy Day needed her friends. Similarly, awakening people need teachers and friends. In doing so, we discover that not only is there is a great, invisible communion radiating the love of God, an invisible web (yeah, web!) connecting all who have the Christ-mind or Buddha-mind, but there are also friendly faces ready to help us here and now.
The warrior’s victory
As Zen master and spiritual warrior Vernon Kitabu Turner wrote in Soul Sword, a modern classic on spiritual warriorship, the warrior seeks to save both the victim and the oppressor from whatever evil forces are bringing suffering into the world. A beautiful moment in Spider-Man 2 is Dr. Octavius’s redemption, as Peter (unmasked) is able to bring him back to his senses. Octavius declares “I will not die a monster!” and destroys his machine (and himself) before millions of innocent people would be killed.
In this scene, too, Mary Jane realizes that Peter is Spider-Man and that he’s in love with her. The painful secret is destroyed, and Spider-Man has a mate to help him in his difficult mission. As she says to him, “Isn’t it time someone saved your life?”
Movie stills © 2004 Columbia Piactures.