In the posters that appeared in the summer of 2001 hailing the forthcoming release of Spider-Man, the costumed hero looks down upon New York City, the twin towers of the World Trade Center reflected in his eye. Those images were withdrawn after Sept. 11, and Sony rushed to pull the movie’s teaser trailer, which showed a bank robber’s escape helicopter caught in a giant web stretched between the two towers. But no scrubbed marketing campaign can erase the intrinsic connection between the superhero and the city he is sworn to protect. Spider-Man doesn’t just live in New York, like Tony Stark or the Fantastic Four; he’s a New Yorker born and raised. Not in some Midtown high-rise, but a working-class neighborhood in Queens. While Superman soars over his fictional metropolis and the X-Men chill in their suburban boarding school, Spider-Man swings down the city streets, skimming just above the heads of the people he still belongs to.
The World Trade Center never appears in Spider-Man, and by the summer of 2002, the collective trauma of Sept. 11 had receded enough to make the movie a massive hit despite a pivotal battle in which the debris of a collapsing building rains down upon Times Square. But in the sequel, which went into production in the spring of 2003, the echoes of 9/11 were not accidental. Faced with telling a story about New York’s greatest champion in the wake of the city’s greatest tragedy, director Sam Raimi built Spider-Man 2 around the idea of a hero who wants to live an ordinary life and a city that needs him to be extraordinary. But underneath that is a more profound and unresolvable question: What does it mean to be a hero in a world where tragedy happens no matter what you do?
Loosely inspired by the “Spider-Man No More” storyline from the comics, the plot of Spider-Man 2 finds Peter Parker (played in this incarnation by Tobey Maguire) rejecting the mantle of crime-fighter because it’s making his personal life a mess: He’s failing his college classes, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is on the verge of losing the family home, and, worst of all, his lifelong love, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), is drifting away from him. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the mantle rejects him. As he’s consumed with regret, Peter’s spider-powers begin to fail him. His web shooters give out mid-swing and send him tumbling to earth, and his body starts to feel the toll of wading into battle day and night. Peter takes the hint. He throws his Spidey suit in a trash can, starts doing his homework, and even makes MJ’s Off-Broadway play in time for an 8 p.m. curtain.
For a while, Peter steels himself against the knowledge that without Spider-Man, crime in the city is surging (up 75 percent according to the Daily Bugle—although the tabloid’s track record of accuracy with regard to its publisher’s nemesis is not a strong one). Police cars speed down the street, sirens flashing, and Peter turns his head in the opposite direction. He’s put in his time, and now it’s someone else’s job. But when he comes across a building engulfed in flames and hears that someone is still trapped inside, he knows that this a job no one else can do. He rushes in, finds a terrified child hiding in a closet, and squires her to safety. Spider-Man is back! Except for one thing—the figure who runs into that building isn’t Spider-Man, a nigh-invulnerable hero with nothing to fear. It’s just Peter Parker, an ordinary young man whose heroism lies in his willingness to risk himself for another.
In the years after 9/11, the bravery of the first responders who rescued people from the World Trade Center was codified in a simple phrase: While others were running out of the buildings, they ran in. And what are superheroes if not the ultimate first responders, our best and most noble impulses made more than flesh. Spider-Man doesn’t just protect the people of New York City. He is them. When Peter is dangling over the flames, it isn’t a radioactive spider-bite that saves him but the little girl he’s come to rescue, who reaches out her hand and seems, through movie magic, to lift him back to solid ground. It’s a fleeting moment of pure dream logic, when the movie reaches down to the elemental simplicity of comic books and ignores the piddling realities of gravity. It’s the little girl’s faith that gives Peter the strength to survive. Like Tinkerbell, he exists because others believe in him.
The peak of Spider-Man 2 comes not at its climax but in the sequence that precedes it, the battle on an elevated subway train which has justly been called the greatest action scene in the history of superhero movies. Spider-Man’s fight with Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the movie’s villain, takes him around, inside, and through the subway’s cars as frightened commuters look on helplessly. Eventually, his opponent realizes that Spider-Man’s Achilles’ heel is his need to protect others. Doc Ock sabotages the controls so that the train starts hurtling towards the end of the line with no way to slow it down, and though Spider-Man eventually manages to stop it, it takes a tremendous physical toll. Peter, who removes his mask because of an errant spark in the eye, splays himself in front of the train car and takes the full force of its forward motion into his body, his outstretched arms bulging as the webs he’s attached to nearby buildings pull impossibly tight. Metal screams as the front of the car begins to collapse until it eventually grinds to a halt—and the instant it does, Peter Parker, utterly spent, collapses and starts sliding to the ground several stories below.
Once again, he is saved by the people, the New Yorkers who pass his battered body above their heads with a solemnity that makes it seem as if the whole world has suddenly gone silent. He’s a fallen hero, one who’s given everything he had, and as he is laid to rest on the floor of the subway car, the people stare at him in disbelief. Without his mask, he’s an ordinary person—“just a kid,” one man remarks, “no older than my son.” Losing his secret identity has been Peter’s greatest fear, since he believes it’s the only thing keeping the people he loves safe. But it only binds him closer to the people he’s saved, who agree, without a word, not to tell a soul. Two small boys approach, one handing Peter back his mask, the other promising, “We won’t tell nobody.”
The audience knows that Spider-Man can’t die, of course, but for a moment the movie lingers on what it would feel like to learn that the hero you’ve admired from afar is someone just like you—and that you, in turn, can be like him. That realization is put into practice in the very next instant, as Doctor Octopus returns to take on his now-depleted adversary. But instead of looking on in fear, the subway riders step between the supervillain and his prey. “You want to get to him, you gotta go through me,” one beefy man says as he steps into harm’s way. “And me,” adds another. “And me.” It’s funny how the years since I’d seen Spider-Man 2 had edited what happens next out of my memory: Doctor Octopus smirks, says “Very well,” and shoves them aside as if they were nothing. This is a superhero movie, after all, and it ultimately falls to the hero to save the day. But the riders’ willingness to sacrifice themselves isn’t just a symbolic gesture. It’s a reminder that the dilemma Peter has been wrestling with for the entire movie, the choice between whether to be an ordinary person or a hero, is a false one. What defines him is that he is both.
Decades of adventures have taken Spider-Man to the far corners of the galaxy and the space-time continuum, but he’s a character fundamentally rooted in the everyday—the only superhero who owes his existence to a high school field trip. Spider-Man 2 underlines the idea that while his powers are superhuman, his bravery and his determination are not. We can’t all stop a speeding train, but we can run into a burning building, or at the very least honor those who have.