Peter Parker, even with his Spider-Man powers, can’t deliver a pizza on time, so he’s fired from that job. He hides from his landlord because he can’t make rent. His college professors are sick of him missing class and turning in assignments late. His best friend hates him. He can’t date the woman he loves. And his big fight with the supervillain? Spider-Man loses.
He loses and loses and loses, and it plays brilliantly where the other Spider-Man movies so far (two others starring Tobey Maguire and two starring Andrew Garfield) failed terribly. They never found the balance between superhero and sensitive nerd. Spider-Man 2 lets the nerd stuff prevail, deploying its superhero sparingly. In one scene, Peter throws his costume in the trash.
Michael Chabon, the great novelist who wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is one of the credited writers, so perhaps it’s his insight into humanizing fictional characters that makes the sad-sack stuff so right. Mary Jane practically begs Peter to admit he loves her, and it’s all he wants, but he can’t. That is essence of conflict, cooked perfectly.
This is becoming less true, but special effects were never quite good enough to make Spidey’s web-slinging and wall crawling look realistic. Alan Moore has said his comic book Watchmen should not have been a movie because “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t.” I wonder if the same is true of Spider-Man. He’s Marvel’s greatest hero, so fluid and strong and awesome-looking on the page, but that doesn’t quite translate to film. The costume looks wrong as literal material. Most heroes fly and punch really hard, maybe shoot lasers, which looks great in a movie, but Spider-Man swings and flips in an agile, twisty way no actor could ever copy.
So Spider-Man 2 puts Spider-Man away, except in cases of emergency. The true conflict of this mega-hit blockbuster is small and vast enough to fit inside a human heart. A loser is in love. Poor guy.