Drew Edelstein’s review published on Letterboxd:
(TW: Discussion of 9/11)
The first Spider-Man managed to address the anxiety of a nation through coincidence and good timing, nostalgic framing and American iconography painting a picture of power through loss, where our evil could be conquered by good intentions alone.
Spider-Man 2, however, is a different story.
The film doubles down on the collectivist arguments of its predecessor, made from the outset to rationalize the loss suffered on that fateful day through a tale of spandex and moral struggle. Its characters are inversions of one another, both Peter Parker and Otto Octavius being granted extraordinary ability as a twisted compensation for the losses they have suffered. Both men attempt to do all in their power to make the world better; Otto, unhinged in his grief, might be the more destructive of the two, but his intentions to try and better the world through his science and avenge his wife’s death by succeeding in his invention feels remarkably real (or as real as the struggles of a man with robotic octopus arms can feel, anyways).
Peter’s conflict feels similarly honest, the burden of his heroism causing him to crumble under the weight of his responsibility.
Spider-Man, in this context, feels less like a hero and more like a first responder. The character is generally inclined to help common citizens more than most heroes, and when these films spend so much time showing him doing ordinary good, saving people from burning buildings or stopping muggers on the street over duking it out with supervillains, its hard not to view him as the ultimate vision of this ordinary kind of hero. He bears the color of the flag, after all, and his selfless compulsion to help others above all else is the ideal Americas have always wanted to ascribe their “real heroes” with, a desire compounded after the events at Ground Zero.
Telling a story where Spider-Man suffers a crisis of conscience, his emotional disempowerment so deeply effecting him to the point where he is literally diminished as a person, is crucial in reading the film’s interpretation of the American consciousness at the time. After all, a collective ideology so confident in their identity as being the most powerful nation in the world would doubtlessly feel shell-shocked when suffering an attack on their greatest city out of the blue, the bravado of an entire people crushed in one fell swoop. That Spider-Man had the power to prevent crime but lacked the ability to do so echoes so many of the rationalizations common to hear at the time; how we couldn’t stop the attacks from happening despite our defense systems, that for all the swagger we have, when we needed it most we were unable to stop cataclysm from happening.
It’s significant, then, that Peter gains his revitalization and reconciles his heroic identity through his involvement with the city, reaffirming his sense of self through a strange sort of communal healing. This is most obvious in the train sequence, one of the high points of the superhero genre, if not of film itself.
Peter’s ability is reactivated through necessity, an ambush by Otto shaking him out of his slump. The subsequent duel along the path of the train, however, is where his agency is restored; as Otto tears apart the brickwork of the city and chucks passengers to their death from the suspended train (the image of falling doubtlessly invoking among the most scarring from the news coverage of 9/11), Spider-Man averts tragedy through his action. He saves people from their peril, offering a safety net that supersedes the inescapable pull of gravity itself, pushing his body beyond its absolute limit to prevent the senseless loss of life that Otto’s actions entail. The parallels to the day’s events are obvious, but in abstracting the tragedy America suffered and offering an avenue to avert the losses accrued, it offers a vision of the world beyond appealing for the time.
Despite the heroics on display here, it’s crucial to recognize that Spider-Man is in turn saved by the city. In an Christ-like moment, Peter Parker is gingerly passed through the hands of the masses, a savior whose tremendous power is hidden behind the frailty of his human body. Despite his inherent fragility, his goodness is affirmed by those on the metro car, as eclectic a sample of age, race and gender as one could ever imagine in New York. The sequence hammers home the symbiotic relationship between the two groups central to facilitating Spider-Man’s identity; Spider-Man can only exist to serve the “real” citizens, but without the support of the city, Spider-Man’s function is moot. Interpreting this scene on a broader level is remarkably easy when applying it to the faith Americans placed in their “heroes” and leaders after 9/11, a self-perpetuating relationship born out of necessity needed to rationalize the tragedy they faced.
Despite being a film that traffics in macguffins and tropes through the vector of spandex and camp, Spider-Man 2’s empathy puts it beyond reproach in its closing moments. It frames Peter’s heroism through the consequences it brings, collateral damage and suffering the byproduct of his desire to do good. Even as tragedy is averted and evil is stopped, the burden he carries will never go away; in fact, by opening his heart to others, he only further spreads the struggle he faces to those he cares for. His good is a necessity, but even the best people will struggle in a world where evil is always present.
Still, Spider-Man tries. He tries because people needs him just as much as he needs them, because the good in the world is still worth defending even when the odds seem so insurmountable in the moment. He tries because people are worth trying for, because for as messy and sloppy and difficult and awful as the world may be at times, we all make it better by trying. In the face of terror and loss and destruction, there was no better hero to reflect the American struggle than Spider-Man; he was just as fragile as the rest of us, and only drew his power from the faith we placed in him. Through this faith, we made him strong, and empowered each other as a result.
The scars of 9/11 may never fully heal. However, by rationalizing the collective pain of American society on a mass level, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films served an important function. They offered an avenue of logic for people to identify with, and a symbol to place hope in in light of the tragedy of the day. Peter’s ability to accept his pain and to gain power from his self-acceptance poses one of the most interesting and resonant statements on grief in popular culture, and makes the movies an invaluable time capsule for the anxieties of its era.