Film Crit Hulk has a general maxim for screenwriting: “the end is the conceit.” Essentially, a film’s climactic beats should be more than just the resolution of the story; they should be the culminating point of whatever theme or thesis the film is trying to sell. Think about Sarah Connor driving into the storm or Tony Montana being cut down in a hail of gunfire. Think about “I’m finished!” or “We must not allow a mineshaft gap!” They’re great lines and striking visuals, but they’re also the moments that put the ninety-plus minutes that preceded them into a larger, more resonant context. They’re calls to action, morals of the story. It seems like a simple enough thing — why tell a story if you’re not making some kind of point? — but too often people, you know, do that. But a film doesn’t have to be artsy-fartsy awards bait to be an intellectual exercise; trashy exploitation and big-budget crowd-pleasers can be just as profound as anything else. Take Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, the greatest superhero film ever made.*
Spider-Man 2 doesn’t just give us a villain that actually matters; it gives us a capable and intelligent Female Love Interest with real efficacy. Of course she’s damseled to an extent (she spends a lot of the last act hanging pants-less from rafters), and that’s not great, but she’s redeemed in the end when she brushes off Peter’s self-involved White Knight bullshit and makes a decision for herself. She won’t be protected. She won’t be ignored. She won’t let someone else choose her destiny for her. If the man she loves is Spider-Man, then she will love Spider-Man, too. But it’s hardly perfect: evoking The Graduate, Raimi gives Mary Jane a final moment alone to reflect on her decision, and we learn Spider-Man 2 has far more on its mind than “love your family and it’ll all be okay.” That love costs, it turns out. That love is dangerous and uncertain and holy shit did I really just give up crazy astronaut sex and Thanksgiving dinners with J.K. Simmons for a broke photographer who just discovered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?
*You heard me.