Monday, July 5, 2004

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The philosophy of Spider-Man 2

Matthew Yglesias believes that Spider-Man 2 -- while being a good popcorn flick -- has a hollow philosophical core [WARNING: MASSIVE SPOLIER ALERT]:

The thing of it is that you can't -- you just can't -- make a whole film whose entire theme is that sometimes in order to do the right thing you need to give up the thing you want most in life and then have it turn out in the end that chicks really dig guys who do the right thing and the hero gets the girl anyway. Just won't fly....

For most of the film, Spiderman 2 is very good at dramatizing the reality of this ideal. Being the good guy -- doing the right thing -- really sucks, because doing the right thing doesn't just mean avoiding wrongdoing, it means taking affirmative action to prevent it. There's no time left for Peter's life, and his life is miserable. Virtue is not its own reward, it's virtue, the rewards go to the less consciencious. There's no implication that it's all worthwhile because God will make it right in the End Times, the life of the good guy is a bleak one. It's an interesting (and, I think, a correct) view and it's certainly one that deserves a skilled dramatization, which is what the film gives you right up until the very end. But then -- ta da! -- it turns out that everyone does get to be happy after all. A huge letdown.

Henry Farrell posts a mild dissent, pointing out that this move is only part of a lonfer narrative arc:

[W]hat Matt doesn’t take into account is that this is the second of three, closely interconnected movies. The first movie provides a thesis - that Spiderman has to renounce love in order to fight evil-doers, and take what joy he can from the solitary pleasures of web-slinging. The second is the antithesis - that he can too get Mary-Jane and swing between the roof-tops. The third, one can confidently predict, is going to be the synthesis - the discovery that balancing different responsibilities is a lot more difficult than Peter Parker thinks at the end of Spiderman 2. First witness for the prosecution: the mixed feelings playing across M-J’s face as Spiderman leaves her to chase after the cop-sirens, 30 seconds after she’s declared her undying love, engaged in passionate clinch etc etc.

Having seen the movie myself -- with another philosophically-inclined blogger -- I agree with Brayden King that both Matt and Henry are omitting a crucial part of the philosophical equation:

Peter’s choice really wasn’t entirely his to make. While he may have wanted to do one thing (forsake the love of his life for the good of all), there was another part to this equation that he couldn’t ignore or control - MJ. MJ made a choice that not only cancelled out Peter’s choice but actually turned the equation around, forcing Peter to take her back into his life.

Indeed -- the women who went to see the movie with us -- i.e., our wives -- both said that they liked MJ's rejection of passivity at the end of the film, forcing Peter to deal with her as an equal.

While I suspect that Matt is cool with female empowerment, he dislikes the notion that doing good rarely translates into doing well. As I just posted, however, I'm more optimistic than Matt on this score. Furthermore, as the movie suggests, deriving some sense of benefit from being Spiderman is essential to Peter Parker being able to continue to be Spider-Man.

This does not mean that this tension between virtue and earthly reward is resolved, or that it ever will be permanently resolved. But the tension can be temporarily reconciled, which is what makes the ending of Spider-Man 2 satisfying and incomplete at the same time -- which is what the middle films in a multi-picture arc should accomplish.

posted by Dan on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM


You and Farrell are correct to point out that this is only part of a larger story-arc, but for us comic geeks, the arc is much larger than a trilogy of movies. It's 40 years of comic book storylines. One of the elements that makes Spiderman such a compelling character is that he really does have trouble striking a balance between "doing good" and "doing well".

One of the formative experiences of his early web-slinging career was the death of his first love - Gwen Stacy - at the hands of a villain who had discovered his identity. At that point, he swore he would never take such a risk again. MJ changed that (again, over many years of storylines). However, even with Mary Jane, it has been a rocky road. She vacillated between really digging his super-hero status and feeling neglected and frightened because of it. She did have numerous close-calls with villains who figured out who Spidey was. They had a couple of serious splits in their relationship. And so on.

The point is, the exploration of Peter's personal dilemma is well-executed precisely because it doesn't force an artificial all-or-nothing, good-but-miserable vs. selfish-but-happy, dichotomy on the reader/viewer. Instead, it offers a much more realistic balancing act, wherein Peter experiences moments of happiness and moments of sorrow, along with an ongoing struggle over how far the responsibilities of conscience go.

I like Matthew Yglesias' writing, but sometimes he seems to forget that life outside of the philosopher's realm is uncertain and ill-kept. Spiderman's personal issues simply, and effectively, reflect that reality, and that's why so many people identify with his story.

posted by: Matt (not MY) on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Hmmm. A Hollywood movie about a comic book superhero has a "hollow philosophical core".

Who'da thunk it?

posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Aristotle believed that a life of virtue IS happiness even if you are miserable (e.g., because you have to give up the love of your life). I doubt that a Hollywood movie is going to want to make a movie like that.

posted by: MWS on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Indeed -- the women who went to see the movie with us -- i.e., our wives -- both said that they liked MJ's rejection of passivity at the end of the film, forcing Peter to deal with her as an equal.

I kept waiting for this as well. I kept thinking, "Uhhh, isn't it MJ's decision if she wants to accept the risks or not?"

I think Henry Farrell's point is a good one. Peter is probably going to have to come to the realization that everytime the sirens sound he can't go swinging into action.

posted by: Steve on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

A few SM/2 thoughts:

Matt nailed it in the first comment -- Peter's reluctance to involve MJ and make it her choice is necessarily collapsed in the movie arc, but is much harder to understand without knowing about the Gwen Stacy tragedy. Indeed, I believe (Matt, correct me if I'm wrong) that she died in a fight between Spidey and the Green Goblin.

Second, the woman with whom I saw this movie was my 9-year old daughter, who was looking for Peter to "French kiss" MJ. I didn't have the heart to tell her that they're called "freedom kisses" these days.

Third, Doc Ock was unbelievably well done, although I object to his redemption. The guy was a dirtbag.

posted by: Jack on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

I'm sorry, but didn't we already see this theme played out in the Batman movies? As I recall, Batman had a succession of relationships with major babes, all of which would have gone better if he hadn't had to do the suit and the car and the batcave, etc. and had just been able to be your average billionaire.

On the other hand, he could have done that if he really wanted to. As I understand it, Spiderman can't. He's got this radioactive genetic mutation thing going on, with webs coming out of his hands and superhuman agility and all the rest of it. Without the suit, these are fairly good attention-getters, no? It would be hard to hide them forever. So the alternative to being Spiderman is being a feature on Ripley's Believe It or Not, which I can't believe would be good for your love life.

Wait a minute -- suppose Spiderman stopped being Spiderman, and started a blog about what it was like to have all these Spiderman type super powers without being Spiderman? Isn't the Tobey McGuire character supposed to be a writer of some kind? Suppose he went into academia, and while still on the tenure track started this blog. He could run into new super villains who would first appear through nasty posts in his comments section (e.g. "Peter's entry today shows just how naive he is about the liberal media and their aim to destroy the Republican Party and take over the world. I see the danger he ignores, and I will crush it if I have to kill everyone on earth"). Mary Jane could be active and supportive while naggng him about all the time he spent talking to Internet loonies. I don't know how this story ends but it has great movie potential, not to mention philosophical depth.

posted by: Zathras on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]


Yeah, it was the Goblin, and, though it's been a looooong time since I read that issue, I believe the bridge/cable-car scene from Spiderman 1, where he's trying to save both MJ and the people in cable-car, was a re-enactment of the Gwen Stacy death scene. Of course, in the comics, he's not fast enough to save them both, and Stacy dies, thus making his choice between duty and love that much more guilt-ridden.

posted by: Matt (still not MY) on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Virtue is not its own reward, it's virtue, the rewards go to the less consciencious...But then -- ta da! -- it turns out that everyone does get to be happy after all. A huge letdown.

Sounds like Peter Parker's not the only one who needs to get laid. Seriously : how much schooling do eggheads like you and Yglesias go through to be able to miss up the point of a $200 million Hollywood movie? Try this: You can be a normal guy, and a hero. Believe it or not this is a common theme for $200 million Hollywood movies.

posted by: joe shropshire on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

"Miss the point." At least they taught you to proofread.

posted by: joe shropshire on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

You guys have got to be kidding . . . I saw the movie today and it did, indeed, remind of the Spiderman comics I used to read when I was growing up. Peter Parker has problems that guys can relate to. However, let's apply the "KISS" (keep it simple, stupid) concept here.

Peter Parker/Spiderman is conflicted between what he feels is his responsibility as hero, and his desire to lead a normal life as a college student. Peter solves his conflict, after hearing a soliloquy on the importance of heros delivered by his Aunt May, immediately followed by Doc Ock kidnapping MJ.

MJ goes through the movie conflicted by her feelings for Peter Parker. She learns Spiderman's true identity and she decides to take matters into her own hands, professes her love for Peter, which sets up a great conflict for the third installment.

This is Hollywood, boys . . . lots of action, good-looking love interest, bad villains, happy ending.

Sam Raimi directed this, Ingmar Bergman is dead, and lets all agree that this movie was worth the money.

posted by: John Caccese on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

I didn't get that from this movie at all, Dan. Sure there was the surface theme of the dream against duty but there's something higher than either duty or dreams, which is destiny. The central point of the movie is not Spider man's angst at his struggle to live as Peter Parker as well but the denoument or revelation of his "secret identity", not to just MJ but his best friend and to the city dwellers of NY city.

With the revelation of "who he truly is" to those that matter most to him, he no longer is living a dualistic life. As Spiderman was weak and could not keep on going without Peter Parker, so too Peter Parker found that he couldn't turn away from Spiderman. In the end he is both, running around in the costume but symbolically his mask is removed. He is unmasked as his true self, Peter Parker AND Spiderman.

Once that happens, MJ can love him for himself because he has finally "let her in". The city dwellers also agree to keep his secret, because they understand that this is the only way to keep him as their champion. In short the movie begins by battling back and forth between Spiderman and Peter Parker, but in the end it takes both to win.

Without Spiderman's unique abilities, Peter is unable to rescue the girl. However it is Peter Parker who is able to reach out to the residual humanity in Doc Oc and discuss things as a rational scientist to find a genuine solution to the problem. It is not Spiderman who saves the day in the end, it is Peter Parker even if Spiderman was needed to get him there to the end to make the difference.

Weren't you paying attention at all Dan? I'm surprised you failed to see the movie was setting up and then resolving the false dichotomy in his identity split. As such it's quite natural that he get's the girl in the end, because the girl was in love with both Spiderman and Peter Parker - and her other bf only was a cheap substitute trying to combine both sets of qualities - once she realized she could have everything she wanted - both Petie and Spiderman - well what the heck was she waiting for? The astronaut guy was just a cheap imitation compared to that. It was therefore entirely reasonable for him to get the girl, once he resolved the split identity and false dichotomy of his lifestyle.

posted by: oldman on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

I think you can count on MJ being killed in the next movie.

posted by: aaron on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

That might cheer Yglesias up a bit.

posted by: joe shropshire on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Philosophical depth rarely is inherent in a work itself, it has to be inserted by overly-concerned observers.

In that light, the virtue gets rewarded myth is a requirement for civilizational survival. If everyone were to realize that virtue not only goes unrewarded, but is actively disadvantaged, the civilization fails for lack of virtuous behavior. Whether it be in this life or the next, it is necessary that we believe we will be appreciated if only we do the right thing. No matter how often we experience otherwise.

By the way, what do women REALLY want?

posted by: raf on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

I'd just like to point out that Ingmar Bergman isn't actually dead - just retired.

Thank you.

posted by: Anthony on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

ok just answer me this, how the hell did the little girl pull him out the fire? is this gonna be a futuristic spin-off, like the daughter of vivica a fox in kill bill? what did the little girl symbolize?

posted by: alma on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

"[MJ's] other bf only was a cheap substitute trying to combine both sets of qualities - once she realized she could have everything she wanted - both Petie and Spiderman - well what the heck was she waiting for? The astronaut guy was just a cheap imitation compared to that."

I don't agree, oldman.

The "astronaut guy", John Jameson, seemed like a stand-up guy to me. I just don't think that Mary Jane really loved him. She knew all along that Peter was her soulmate.

Granted, John wasn't a particularly well-developed character, but I think it's a credit to both the intelligence and the decency of the filmmakers and screenwriters that they do not try to discredit him in any way.

Just one man's opinion.

posted by: Ken Longo on 07.05.04 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

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