The most fascinating disguise in this summer’s blockbuster Spiderman 2 has nothing to do with special effects or characters on the screen. Though the second installment in the franchise packs even more of a thrilling wallop than the first, beneath the gloss and spectacle of this exciting piece of entertainment beats the heart of an unexpectedly adult and emotionally complex story. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars perfecting every visual detail, it’s ironic that Spiderman 2‘s greatest achievement comes from the lowest rung in Hollywood’s bizarre ladder of success: the writers. Considering who was helming the story, however, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise: Screenwriter Alvin Sargent wrote the very un-superhero-esque Ordinary People, co-writer Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and Executive Producer Stan Lee is the most important thing to comics since ink.
Like its predecessor, Spiderman 2 follows the storytelling tradition that Stan Lee pioneered at Marvel Comics in the early 60’s. Sensing that America was no longer interested in ubermensches like Green Lantern, Superman, and Amazing Man who had dominated the genre through the 30s, 40s and 50s, Lee created characters like the Incredible Hulk and Spiderman, regular people who were endowed—usually accidentally—with superhuman abilities. His wary and often nerdy outcasts were uncomfortable with the responsibility such powers demanded. During the turbulent 60’s and early ‘70’s in America, Lee’s cast of imperfect and ambivalent heroes were the perfect tonic.
The fictional comic-book writing characters in Michael Chabon‘s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, struggle with a dilemma that was very similar to the one Stan Lee and his partner Jack Kirby faced in real life: what should they do with their superheroes once there were no more Nazis to kick the crap out of? Prompted by other comic book genres—Westerns, mysteries, romances—that were already exploring the darker and more compelling uncertainties of 1950’s America, Kavalier asks, “What if…that same kind of transformation were attempted on the superhero? If they tried to do stories about costumed heroes who were more complicated, less childish, as fallible as angels.”
Spiderman 2is about one of these “fallible angels,” a man who can’t seem to reconcile his superhuman abilities and responsibilities with his mortal desire for love and understanding. The conflict between these two identities leads to an impotence of sorts that causes his spider powers to slowly fade away, leaving him desperate, confused, and alone. The tension has not only drained him of his powers but also of his life. He realizes he has to choose: does he want to continue being Spiderman or does he want to have his own life?
Spiderman’s alter ego, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire)—as classic an example of Stan Lee’s ambivalent hero if there ever was one—has much in common with conflicted and confused heroes like Sargent’s Conrad Jarrett (Ordinary People) or Chabon’s Joe Kavalier. These are haunted, vulnerable characters of real depth and dimension who are forced to make meaningful choices and face mortal fates.
In one revealing sequence, Peter looks out the window and, in a desperate prayer-like plea, asks, “Am I not supposed to have what I want? What I need? What am I supposed to do?” Peter’s answer comes from his Aunt May, who reminds him that the world is in great need of heroes and that each of us can be one, though often being a hero means giving up our dreams. Like all costumed characters, one of Spiderman’s dreams is to remain anonymous, to keep separate the two identities that caused Peter Parker so much conflict. How he answers that question is what sets Spiderman 2 apart from its comic book-cum-movie predecessors.
Audiences who continue to flock to see it in the hopes of being wowed by Spidey’s superhuman adventures won’t be disappointed, but they may also find they’re more in awe of Peter Parker’s humanity as he struggles to decide if he can lay down his mask for those he loves.