Go ahead, call me a geek: I’m a long-time fan of Spider-Man. When I was a kid, it was the comic I most enjoyed reading every month. This year, somehow, I missed seeing Spidey 2 when it hit the theaters, so the recent DVD release provides a convenient excuse for a review that may be just an eensy-weensy bit biased.
Critics complained of too many plot complications and a muddled storyline. There’s some truth in that. But bottom line: together, Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spidey) and the writers have nailed the character, and it’s the character that kept me and thousands of other adolescents reading the mag when I was younger, whatever the plot-of-the-month might be.
In the pantheon of Marvel superheroes, Peter is the quintessential conflicted teenager. On the one hand, he’s loyal, fun-loving and impetuous, and madly in love with the beautiful and brainy Gwen (Emma Stone), who is equally devoted to him despite his secret identity. On the other hand, however, he struggles with a mysterious past: why did his parents abandon him years ago to the care of his Aunt May (Sally Field)? His super-powers have made life more complicated, not less: no matter how much he tries to do the right thing, he is misunderstood, and someone gets hurt. Why should he continue to fight bad guys, when all it does is bring him pain?
(Warning: serious plot spoilers from this point forward.)
If I were to take issue with the screenplay, it would be for wasting the talents of Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro) and Paul Giamatti (Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino) — though I understand why a character actor like Giamatti might relish playing the Rhino, an over-the-top, scenery-chewing bad guy who spouts corny one-liners with a faux Russian accent. No nuance needed here.
Foxx’s role, however, is more disappointing. Initially, we’re offered a character of promising substance: a brilliant engineering dweeb who is constantly getting stepped on in the ruthless corporate environment of Norman Osborn’s tech company, Oscorp. Max shows signs of mental illness, but idolizes Spider-Man, who once saved his life. What will happen when Max accidentally attains super-powers of his own? At first, he is confused and misunderstood. But his desperate need to be noticed quickly and permanently takes over, and the character becomes flat, driven by megalomaniacal revenge. In the end, he becomes simply one more vaporized bad guy — no inner conflict, no regret, no resolution — as if his only real purpose in the story was to generate the pyrotechnics.
The more resonant core of the movie, however, turns on Peter’s agonizingly complicated relationships. He needs to discover the truth about his father, but Aunt May (who has no knowledge of his alter ego), wanting both to protect and possess, is reluctant to discuss the matter. Peter compassionately rekindles a relationship with his long-lost childhood friend, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), Norman’s estranged heir. But Harry has inherited more than the company. He is dying from a genetically transmitted disease, and convinced that only an infusion of Spider-Man’s blood can save him. Peter, as Spidey, politely refuses; the infusion is far too risky. Bitter at the refusal, enraged at being framed and then ousted by Oscorp, Harry teams with Electro to steal Oscorp’s experimental spider-serum for himself — with the disastrous result that Harry is transformed into Spidey’s vengeful arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin.
But no relationship is more complicated nor more central than that between Peter and Gwen. At the end of Spidey 1, Gwen’s father, dying and knowing Peter’s dual identity, makes him promise to stay away from his daughter, to keep her safe. The two lovebirds eventually ignore the promise. But in Spidey 2, Peter is wracked with guilt and anxiety. The on-again, off-again relationship is finally resolved when Peter wholeheartedly professes his commitment to her atop a suspension bridge — a scene that darkly hints to comic book fans what’s about to happen next.
With Gwen’s help, Peter fights and defeats Electro. But in swoops the Green Goblin, who sees Spidey and Gwen together and realizes Peter’s secret. Feeling doubly betrayed, he snatches Gwen, and in the ensuing battle, she falls to her death, despite Spidey’s attempt to save her.
Some comic book historians mark this as a watershed moment in the genre. Superheroes always had to deal with the problem of keeping their loved ones safe, but never before had the expected romantic storyline been so drastically violated.
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone make a believable and eminently watchable teenage couple, and I expect the franchise is going to miss Stone. I assume the studio will bring in the character of Mary Jane Watson next — but whoever is cast for the role will have quite the challenge.
In this story, what resonates most deeply with me as a Christian is the theme of hope. At the beginning of the film, Peter is battling Sytsevich, missing his own high school graduation and Gwen’s valedictory speech, in which she tells her classmates:
I know we all think that we’re immortal…but what makes life valuable is that it doesn’t last forever. What makes it precious is that it ends… Make [your life] count for something; fight for what matters to you, no matter what. … It’s easy to feel hopeful on a beautiful day like today. But there will be dark days ahead of us, too. There will be days where you feel all alone. And that’s when hope is needed most. No matter how buried it gets, or how lost you feel, you must promise me that you will hold on to hope. Keep it alive. We have to be greater than what we suffer. My wish for you is to become hope. People need that. And even if we fail, what better way is there to live?
As Peter tells Harry, he likes to think that Spider-Man gives people hope. Near the end of the film, however, Peter is lost in grief, and Spider-Man has withdrawn from the public eye. But then he watches the video of Gwen’s speech. Following the example set by his widowed aunt, Peter mournfully packs up the artifacts of a painful past and returns to the present. In the final scene, Spidey is again battling Sytsevich, who has now become the Rhino. We aren’t shown the outcome (the next film may well begin there), but it doesn’t matter — because the “fight for what matters” is all.
From a Christian point of view, Gwen is both right and wrong. Days of darkness, loneliness, and lostness are inevitable, and we need to be greater than what we suffer.
But Christian hope is not the message that we should simply do the best we can with the limited time that we have. Hope is grounded in the belief that even amidst the suffering, God is at work bringing all of creation into a future in which suffering itself will cease, and all will be well. In the meantime, the world needs Christians who bring light to darkness, who take the future hope of resurrection and translate it into renewed life in the present.
We don’t need to be superheroes to become hope.