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When Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man released in 2002, it became the first film in cinema history to break $100 million in a single weekend and was met with huge critical favor, praised for its innovate direction and casting, especially that of Peter Parker / Spider-Man (Toby Maguire), who grounded the character in believability. It proved that the genre still had potential, despite a crushing decade before that saw superhero movies fall to overblown buffoonery. And while the film had many convinced it was the best since 1978’s Superman, there was worry it was a one-off deal and that a sequel would never stick.
Two years later, Raimi did it again, and to everyone’s surprise, was even better, delivering an adventure film that took the characters introduced in the first story and instead of making them props in a visual-effects heavy movie, gave them heart, making Spider-Man 2 what many consider the best the genre has ever seen.
The story follows Parker as he comes to grow into the role of a superhero while struggling to balance his personal life as a university student. That means becoming further estranged with the girl he loves, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), whom he can’t be close with for fear his enemies, if they learn of his identity will harm her. As there’s no money in the superhero business as well, he can barely afford to keep an apartment and maintain any kind of lifestyle, the responsibility of his powers keeping him constantly busy, this time with a nuclear scientist named Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who goes a little mad and becomes Doctor Octopus, a mutated man wanting to kill Spider-Man.
After becoming emotionally distraught over his situation, and his growing distance with Mary Jane, seemingly forever as she plans to marry another, Parker loses his powers as Spider-Man. He tries to make a life without the his alter-ego, even going so far as to save a child from a burning building, though finds out right after that another person perished in the blaze, something that wouldn’t have happened if he’s kept his powers. Thus represents the burden of his abilities, what his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) compared great power with great responsibility.
Peter finds himself alone and lonely in his ramshackle apartment, behind on rent, pondering about what he is supposed to do with all this untapped power if he still can’t have what he wants, a theme that layers the film with tremendous weight, making Parker one of the greats in terms of a hero unlike others, a young man without wealth and a bevy of friends and lovers. It is the lowest point for Parker, the moment in his story where his honor and good deeds leave him in isolation and despair. At an impasse, he has made enemies of friends, seemingly failed those who love him, and now abandoned the hero within him. All seems lost. And then … in walks Ursula (Mageina Tovah).
Ursula Ditkovich is a young woman in her early 20s, daughter of Peter’s landlord, a man with a sour disposition threatening to evict him. Ursula is a willowy, lanky girl with braided pigtails and sallow eyes and a kind heart who sees the warmth in Peter if not his potential. To her, he is just a boy, like herself, trapped in a crumbling home, caged by circumstances, longing for more. But she has great importance.
She comes into his room and immediately realizes she hasn’t knocked and so shyly heads back out, then knocks, to which Peter gently invites her to come in. This is important for two reasons, each suggested by Ursula’s actions, one being her impromptu arrival, signaling a break in his thoughts and then the exit and knock, the opportunity he is waiting for that he must allow in before he can move forward.
At the door, Ursula meekly smiles and innocently says hi and with the most achingly humble of voice, asks if he would like a piece of chocolate cake and a glass of milk. Her delivery is so sincere, it almost pains us to watch. She is all things innocent and pure. Peter, somehow sensing her offer has great value, tells her cake and milk would be nice. These are carefully chosen worlds that have meaning all their own. Not, “yes,” or “sure,” or “thanks,” but “that would be nice.” A simple pleasure from someone not in need nor entangled, if you’ll forgive the wording, in his web of problems.
The scene cuts to Peter then finishing the cake and a smiling Ursula watching him with wide eyes of appreciation. She then collects the dishes and turns to leave, suddenly remembering she has a note with a message from his aunt. Ursula then smiles again and disappears, her part over. It’s a quiet, lilting moment of peace in a movie born of chaos and action.
Now you might be wondering how such a seemingly insignificant gesture in an epic superhero movie could matter so much, but indeed it does. Greatly so. The entire motivation for the scene has us believing it a way for Parker to receive the note so he can meet Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who in the next scene delivers what is widely-recognized as the film’s most emotional moment where she relates the need for Spider-Man, not just as a fighter for justice, but as a hero for those who long for positive examples and mentors. It spins Parker around.
So what does that have to with chocolate cake? Well, a lot actually. Ursula is the transition for Peter, a reminder that there are simple things in life that come in surprising places, gestures that have far larger meaning than what they imply. There is a stirring story of a great Zen master named Roshi Taji, who, on his death bed was served by one of his disciples a piece of his favorite cake, and after watching him slowing eat the desert, his followers leaned in to hear what words of wisdom he would offer as he parted with his mortal coil. And profound words he spoke: “My, but this cake is delicious.” He then died.¹
It doesn’t take much to understand Taji’s meaning, that truth lies in the moment you are in, and in that moment before he passed, only the cake was true. Life is in the purities of what you are doing now. So too is the cake for Peter, a moment to reset, to realize on his own the power of a truth and what it means to be so, not only to those around him, but to himself. In this gentle, reflective moment, Parker sits in the company of a girl who wants only the satisfaction of enjoyment of a cake, nothing more, and Peter tastes the delicious cake for what it is, a message of hope. It’s important that we never actually see Parker eat, only the empty plate and the expression on Ursula’s face. All we need to know is that he has finished it. Peter has accepted this truth, and in the next scene, as his Aunt centers that message, the cake becomes more clear.
The larger truth is that we sometimes must give up what we want the most, even our dreams, to be the better person in the end. Parker understands this as he sits with Ursula and then listens to his aunt, incited to don the Spider-Man suit again and become what he is truly meant to be. Our destiny is often shaped by how we are needed, not by what we want. That cake … is delicious.