Part of a series on some of my “unpopular” opinions.
I’ve watched every Marvel movie barring Ant-Man and almost every DC Comics movie since Batman Begins. I’ve interacted with every kind of comic-book junkie you can imagine. And I’ve spent hours of my life ranking each superhero movie on a list, from best to Green Lantern. And after eleven years, hundreds of hours behind the big screen, and a lot of (LOT of) Internet trolls, I have come to one conclusion.
Spider-Man 2 is the Best Superhero Movie of All-Time.
B-bbbbbbut what about BATMAN? is what typically follows my audacious earth-shattering body slam roundoff back handspring of an opinion every time I get the balls to say it. What about Christian Bale? What about Heath Ledger as Joker? What about Harvey Dent? What about Rachel? Yeah, yeah, I get it. Calm your pants down, lovers of all things darkness and gloom. The Dark Knight is excellent – if you’re looking for a noir gangster thriller. But as a superhero movie? The movie very well challenges the idea that you can even have superheroes, that such things, even if they exist, can truly act upon the burdens a society might give them. Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy loverboy crime-fighter, tries and strives to untie the knot of chaos that the excellently-cast Joker (not played by the lead singer of Thirty Seconds to Mars) entangles Gotham City in. But what is the end result? Rachel dies. Harvey Dent goes mad. A lot of people die – despite Batman’s promise of no killing. And the Batman legacy lives on a lie that the hero is actually the villain. The Joker says, in a critical scene, “Batman… you complete me.” In that sense, The Joker wouldn’t exist – or at least get his fun – without the hero. Which makes me wonder if Gotham ever really needed “the hero” in the first place. The Dark Knight a great movie, but it lacks ideals – it lacks something to believe in. That’s why, as a superhero movie, it falters. There is no moral transcendence, only nihilistic bemoaning.
This moral transcendence is where Spider-Man 2 rises to the occasion better than any other modern superhero movie in history. Think back to good ol’ boy Peter Parker – played by the better-than-you-think Tobey Maguire (don’t remember him only for Spider-Man 3, please). The juggling between his job and his girlfriend – well, friend (cringe!) – and his Aunt May and his college and then being Spider-Man takes a toll on him, such a personal toll that he quits being Spider-Man for good midway through the movie. During this phase, his personal satisfaction with life grows – his grades improve, he rekindles his relationship with Mary Jane, and he maintains the semblance of “normality” he desires. No superhero movie handles romantic tension better, by the way, than this one. After saving a girl from a burning house, Peter is asked the next day by his “friend” Mary Jane if he loves her. But, in a stunning turning point, Peter makes the ultimate sacrifice – telling her no. Even though he does love her. Like… what??? Bro, that was your chance to get out of the freaking friendzone! I shout into the screen. But Peter knows that by expressing how he truly feels about Mary Jane, he exposes her to all of his enemies and risks her life. Because he truly loves her, he tells her that he doesn’t. He understands, right then, that his powers bequeath upon him a responsibility to the people – even at the cost of his own personal satisfaction. This is the ultimate show of moral transcendence.
But let’s talk about the villain. It’s rare in today’s superhero’s movies, to see the hero go through any kind of character transformation, much less the villain. But Spider-Man 2 does both by creating what critics hail as one of the most layered villains of all time, Doctor Octopus. Blinded by ambition, brilliant physicist Doctor Octopus (or Doc Ock, as seasoned Spidey fans will call him) is on the verge of discovering nuclear fusion when an electrical accident destroys his nerve centers. As a result, his four robotic tentacles, programmed to follow his orders, instead take control of his mind and throw away any sense of ethical willpower. He goes to terrible lengths to retrieve the material necessary to finish his uncontrollable nuclear fusion experiment. And yet, at the end, Doc Ock, under the convincing of Spider-Man, realizes the error of his ways, and as his experiment threatens to destroy to city, summons the moral courage to destroy his raging ball of fire by drowning it – along with himself – into the ocean. “I will not die a monster,” he says, as his last words. Both hero and villain experience profound moral challenges – but both transcend them through will and belief.
It’s a fair question to ask: Kenny – bro – why are you so hung up on moral transcendence blah blah blah ethics etc. But think about the nature of the superhero. The first Western formulation of the superhero comes from Jesus Christ – a man with extraordinary ability but also with extraordinary responsibility. (Sound familiar?) Then Freidrich Nietzsche comes in with his “Overman” idea, the man who, through sheer force of will, transcends all laws. The superhero is a man who must fulfill his great responsibility through moral transcendence. The effectiveness of this depiction is the scale by which superhero movies are judged. And Spider-Man 2 nails it. There is no superhero more complex, so mired in adolescent weakness, than Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. It’s why we can relate to him more than any other jacked-up dude churned out by Marvel – because we see ourselves in those puppy-dog eyes, experiencing romantic frustration and academic helplessness, and we therefore admire the man who willingly chooses to embrace that life for the sake of responsibility. By vicariously attaching our struggles to his struggle, we get catharsis when Peter Parker does, at last, transcend his moral paralysis. We wade out of the muck with him. That’s what makes this movie great – greater than the rest. It’s great because its hero is great.
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