The Parker Luck: Re-Interpreting Influences and Why ‘Spider-Man 2’ Remains a High Mark for Superhero Sequels
As a kid, the release of 2002’s Spider-Man felt like the biggest event of my life. Don’t get me wrong, X-Men had been absolutely huge as well. I’d grown up with all of those characters in an age where DC flourished on the big screen, thanks to Batman, and had its heroes plastered all over TV in The Flash, Swamp Thing, Lois & Clark, while Marvel’s only theatrical motion picture had been Howard the Duck, and their last small screen success had been The Incredible Hulk, over a decade before I was born. When the X-Men finally made the leap to the big screen, I could only naturally wonder if there was finally hope for my favorite superhero to make the same transition. Wizard Magazine only fueled that curiosity with constant reports on rumors and development surrounding the Spider-Man movie. When it came out, I went to see it opening day for my 13th birthday party. It was a massive event that I will never forget. I’ll admit, though, that there were things about it at the time that kept me at a distance, because it wasn’t like any of the other comic book movies I’d grown up with. I thought it was pretty much a rule that the costume was supposed to be predominantly black, that the movie wasn’t supposed to have too much color, that it needed to take drastic leaps from the source material. I really thought that at age 13. So while I loved it I initially thought it was “cheating” instead of, you know, doing what you’re supposed to do.
The other thing, though, is that Sam Raimi’s interpretation was based very much on the original Stan Lee run of the book, which was not the era I grew up with, even if I’d certainly read some of it at the time. And even then, there were obvious changes, especially in the fact that Spidey’s webs shot out of his actual wrists and the fact that he did almost no talking in the suit, when quipping is such an important part of the character. So my love of the movie was a kind of reserved love. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t come around on deeply loving the Raimi films—especially the one I’m here to talk about—until I was a little older and had seen many, many other depictions of the wall crawler on the big screen. Now we’ve had so many Spider-Man flicks that his villains are starting to get their own movies. And when I look back over a cinematic history I couldn’t have imagined as a child, one movie (other than the phenomenal Into the Spider-Verse) sticks out.
Spider-Man 2 is not only one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made, it’s one of the best superhero blockbusters we’ve ever had, full stop. It took everything that worked about the first one, subtracted some of the more clashing, extremely early 2000s elements and allowed it to live more comfortably in that ‘60s-inspired, time-out-of-time mood that embodied all of the original’s best moments. Loosely based on the infamous “Spider-Man No More” issue, Amazing Spider-Man #50 by Stan Lee and John Romita, it’s more of a character piece than the first movie had gotten to be, and more than most superhero films had ever been before—perhaps except for Superman II, which this movie is heavily inspired by. What’s great about this, though, is that in doing so, it’s a deconstruction of the character of Peter Parker that feels the closest to his comic book counterpart that this trilogy ever reached.
This is embodied in pretty much every single thing that happens to Peter in the movie, as well as his reaction to it. While fans may argue about its authenticity to the comics in some areas over others, one thing I am absolutely dead-set on is that this is the best interpretation of the so-called “Parker luck” that we have ever had or could ever have on screen. I cannot believe how perfectly they nailed that. And it’s not just a running gag throughout the movie, that’s what’s great about it. It is the movie. Right from the beginning, as the movie opens with Peter racing to deliver pizzas on time to keep a job he desperately needs, not making in time and getting fired, it’s clear that absolutely nothing is going to go right for him. And nothing does. This could easily have been about not being rewarded for heroic deeds, about wishing you could tell the world that you’re the one saving them every day. There’s a way to tell this story that is entirely vain and selfish, and it’s not what Spider-Man 2 does. He’s not quitting Spider-Man because he just wants to be with Mary Jane, he’s doing it because he’s become so exhausted that he physically can’t do it anymore and he just needs to breathe.
Peter can’t pay his rent. He can’t make it to class. He’s failing out of college and that’s not just a big deal for someone who used to be top of the class before a spider came into his life, it’s also a huge deal for someone with no money. He can’t even do his laundry without the colors running together. He’s destroying his closest—and really, only—relationships. Worse, they’re all falling apart for good reasons. Mary Jane is sick of the back-and-forth after all those years of obvious pining for her, only to push her aside when she finally showed an interest. Harry thinks that Peter is protecting and defending the man who killed his father, solely for the sake of his own livelihood. With all of that in mind, it’s not surprising that they’re the only ones who showed up to Peter’s birthday party—which he was too exhausted to even remember—but it is surprising that they even showed up at all.
More than all of that, though, Peter even nearly loses the one person he has always had in his corner. No matter how much he gets puts through the ringer in this film, whether it be being beaten to a pulp by Doc Ock or losing his job or just having to ride the elevator in his Spider-Man suit, that’s the worst thing that happens, without question. Because it’s the one thing in the world that means the most to him. Peter’s support system is crumbling all around him, even his own body is giving out on him. But then you have the best and most devastating scene in the movie, in which he nearly loses his relationship with Aunt May.
To me, this scene is the emotional crux of the whole movie, because it’s the one thing that Peter can’t lose, the thing he thought he’d never lose, that unwavering trust and faith that she has always had in him. The real heartache, though, is that you can see that Peter knows this relationship is about to be broken. It’s clear from the look on his face before he even starts talking. He finally tells her the truth—or as much of the truth as he can—about the circumstances of Uncle Ben’s death. With every word, her face falls, the tears well up, until finally someone who has cared for him, has always been in his corner, having his back, fighting for him since he was a little boy, withdraws her hand and runs up the stairs and slams the door. It is devastating. That moment more than any other shows you just how much Peter can lose in this movie and, more interestingly, it’s from the section of the film where he has stopped being Spider-Man. One also can’t help but wonder if maybe the cost of this scene stems from the fact that he has not been fully honest. That he could have helped matters by at least admitting he was Spider-Man, but since he can’t tell her the whole truth even now, it only makes it worse. Narratively, this moment is also essential because it’s the scene where Peter has officially lost everything. The last person in the world who would ever turn their back on him just did. The strength to push forward and to stop the threat he needs to face is, from this point, only going to come from within.
Speaking of that threat, we have Alfred Molina giving one of the all-time great comic book villain performances as Dr. Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus. Like Peter, Octavius loses his support system and subsequently loses himself in the process. Peter gives up Spider-Man and tries to ignore injustice when he sees it, even when it’s in his nature to stop it, something he finally can’t ignore when he runs into a burning building even though his powers have not yet been restored. Octavius goes in the opposite direction. His project is designed from the ground up for noble reasons. He’s finally cracked the key to totally sustainable, renewable energy. He knows the risks and he’s confident he’s done everything correctly, and it’s just a single miscalculation that causes his experimental limbs to become fused to his body, destroys his lab and causes the death of his wife, not to mention nearly leveling the block before Spider-Man intervenes.
For Doc Ock, his villainous turn is aided by the AI in his metal arms speaking into his head, but much more than that, it’s about a good man who completely turns himself over to obsession. This machine was his life’s work and not only does he have nothing to show for it, but the person he loved most is dead. He is the total inverse of Peter, who has to stop being Spider-Man because he cannot function with the amount of responsibilities he has to balance. Octavius had one thing, and it went colossally wrong, and so he needs to prove it can work by any means necessary, because if he doesn’t, all of that destruction, all of his actions, his wife’s death, will have all meant absolutely nothing.
As great as this portrayal is, many fans have complained about the comic accuracy of Molina’s Ock, which has never bothered me. Jack Nicholson played a fine Joker despite a drastically different backstory, and that’s just one example. I also honestly don’t think this Spider-Man 2’s version of the character is that far off from his comic book counterpart. First of all, and this is true for just about any character, the comics can be wildly inconsistent. Also, sometimes qualities of the character that define one storyline are put on the back burner for another, just treated as a little aside. Many interpretations of Doc Ock’s origin, including the original, made it clear that he was a decent man before the accident, even that he was something of a mentor to Peter. A brief mentor, granted, but that holds true for the film as well, as Peter and Otto only get to know each other for a day, instantly connecting, before tragedy takes over and he becomes Dr. Octopus. In the early comics, Ock was all about convoluted experiments that could destroy the whole city, usually for some kind of ransom, and that’s not that different here either. His reactor can destroy the whole city and is very convoluted. And even if he’s doing it for the sake of his own obsession and not for money, the end result is still pretty much the same.
The focus placed on Ock’s empathy, on the good qualities still lingering within him, aren’t too far off from the character of the comics, as he would occasionally have those moments that made it clear that he wasn’t in it for the thrill of the evil, like so many of his counterparts. There was one instance, in #44 of the 1999 Amazing Spider-Man series, in which Ock actually helped Spider-Man to save civilians, because he wished to see now harm come to them, while also leaving Spider-Man to die. In the infamous 9/11 issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Ock stops his fight with Spidey to look on in horror at what’s happening. This continued long after Spider-Man 2 as well, though one could argue that at that point these traits were influenced by the film. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Dr. Octopus decides to leave the Sinister Six and his whole life of crime, announcing that what he has become is an utter disgrace to his scientific gifts, which he had only ever wanted to use to better the world, and he completely failed. This is moments before Norman Osborn beats him to death. Then, of course, there’s Superior Spider-Man, perhaps the most overt example of Ock’s capacity for good, as well as his narcissism. After killing Peter Parker, he takes over his body to prove that he could be a better Spider-Man than Peter ever was, and he becomes Spider-Man. He’s not better at it, because his instincts always lean more aggressive and tactical, but he really does do some good.
Some fans have long argued that, despite the clear influence of Stan Lee’s original era on Amazing Spider-Man, the movie doesn’t really evoke that look, feel, or sound. I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s an exact translation. It does look different, sound different, the film is—like the first—a great mix of old and modern palates. Though Spider-Man 2 certainly leans into the past a bit more. I don’t think there’s anything that could be more emblematic of the Stan Lee/John Romita era of Spider-Man than having Peter look out the window, looking virtually right at us, and saying out loud “Am I not supposed to have what I want? What I need?” That could absolutely have been ripped from a ‘60s comic book page. But it’s true, at the same time, the movie doesn’t always look or feel like that specific source material, and that’s because those early comics are far from the only influence Raimi brought to the table on this one. That’s one of my absolute favorite things about Spider-Man 2. It takes those concrete inspirations from a specific era, even certain story lines from the comics, but it also marries those influences with cinematic influences from the same period.
Films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s are just as important in framing the cinematic blueprint of Spider-Man 2 as the ‘60s comics. So much of the downbeat humor surrounding Peter’s mishaps, the Parker luck that follows him through every single scene, be it his laundry, his landlord, or an usher, are darkly funny and feel so spiritually in synch in their with things like Harold’s repeated “suicides” in Harold & Maude, even the bumbling antics of The Pink Panther if you simply replace Clouseau’s incompetence with a more cosmic kind of slapstick. The banter between Peter and Mary Jane throughout the movie screams of films like The Way We Were and Love Story. But the biggest, most obvious cinematic influence would absolutely have to be the ending. After being told that they can’t be together for the zillionth time by Peter, MJ refreshingly ignores him to make it clear that she has some say in things as well, abandoning her own wedding to tell him that she’s willing to accept the risks if it means they can finally be together. This is Spider-Man 2 doing the ending of The Graduate. It becomes brilliantly obvious as it gives us the sweeping romance and the happy ending we known and expect from a Hollywood blockbuster, Mary Jane looking out the window and watching him swing into action, and holding that shot just long enough for the “Oh my God, what have I done?” look to creep into her face. This is not only directly lifting the end of The Graduate, it’s actually reversing it. This time, instead of the young man crashing the wedding to confess his feelings for the bride, we’re getting everything from the would-be bride’s perspective, and the look of terror we’re left with is hers, not his. This is perfect for the only Spider-Man movie that even tries to make MJ as important to the story as Peter.
I know I don’t really need to sell anyone on what is still widely considered to be one of the greatest superhero sequels ever made. But I also know that plenty of people dismiss all of the Raimi films because they’re campy. And I get that. It’s not the interpretation I grew up with, Tobey’s not even my favorite Spider-Man, but I love the movie all the same. When people call it campy, they’re undeniably right, but I’ve always considered camp an indicator of style, not quality. And embracing that style, as well as seeing these influences, how they affect the story and why, how they accentuate and lift up the incredibly strong core themes, all of that has not only made me love the movie more and more over time, but come to consider it one of my favorite films, full-stop. If you’ve never given Spider-Man 2 a chance or haven’t seen it in a while, I urge you to give it another go, especially with its anniversary right around the corner. If you already love Spider-Man 2 and need no convincing that it’s one of the best superhero movies we’ve ever had? Well then I’m simply here to tell you that you’re right. I swear you’re right, swear you knew it all along.
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