The Tangled Moral Web of Spidey-2

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The Tangled Moral Web of Spidey-2

by Ari Armstrong, July 9, 2004

There's a reason why Spider-Man 2 is well-reviewed and hugely successful: it's a good movie. Who'd have thought it was possible to produce an understated comic-hero digi-driven action movie?

Indeed, my main criticism is that I found the movie to drag a bit when Peter Parker (played nicely by Toby Maguire) went through his "stepped on" stage. Frazzled from a secret life saving everybody, Parker loses his job, disappoints his professors, annoys his true love, and generally makes a mess of things. Meanwhile, his aunt is having troubles of her own with bills mounting.

Dr. Octavius, the bad guy with mechanical arms fused to his spine, is nearly reduced to a sub-plot, a backdrop to Parker's personal struggles to get his life on track. Confidence is one key to Spidey's success: without it, Parker is impotent to spin his webs.

As the previews reveal, Parker considers giving up life as a superhero. Would his life be better as a normal Joe? I suppose at this juncture I should warn the reader that spoilers lie ahead, as I grapple with the moral messages of the film.

The great sin of Octavius, as with the villain of the first movie, is unrestrained ambition. The dangers of science: we've heard about this since Frankenstein. Interestingly, Spidey's powers come from a scientific experiment, though quite accidentally. Meanwhile, the great scientists of the movies stoop to abuse their mental powers in some crazed zealotry.

Octavius is made bad, not by his own bad choices or evasions, but by the artificial intelligence of the mechanical arms, which overrides his brain functions. Perhaps that's because unrestrained ambition isn't really the cause of much evil in our world. Instead, most common crime is associated with a lack of ambition. When we think of the great horrors of the world, like terrorism, serial murder, and genocide, those things are caused by religious fanaticism, sociopathy, and racism, respectively (to simplify). Generally, ambitious people are intelligent -- too intelligent to let blind passions guide their behavior. The reason Spidey works is that these villains take a back seat to Parker's personal struggles and his relationships. Stories that focus on overly ambitious monsters just aren't very compelling -- they don't ring true.

Spidey-2's overt moral messages conflict. On one hand, Parker tries to find his true values and balance in life. His struggle to "find himself" is a universal theme to which we can all relate.

On the other hand, the movie speaks of giving up one's dreams for the greater good. The movie compares Octavius, who wants to build some kind of super-energy machine, to Parker, who wants a normal life and romance. Octavius's machine is unstable; therefore, he must give it up so as not to blow up the city. Parker puts his girlfriend at risk if he maintains a relationship with her while fighting the forces of evil. But these cases are not analogous. Octavius's "dream" is crazy. Building an uncontrollably dangerous machine is just plain stupid. Some "dreams" are really nightmares. But, had he remained rational, he might have pursued the technology by safe means.

Parker, on the other hand, faces a true dilemma. He likes being Spidey, and he also likes the girl, and the two values seem to conflict. But the proper moral choice is not between the dream (in this case, the girl) and the common good (whatever that is), but rather between two rational, personal values. Of course, the best option is to try to figure out how to keep both values: be Spidey, win the girl, and work out a way to keep her safe, encouraging her to participate in the decision.

True, in the end (I did previously insert a spoiler alert, remember) the girl takes it upon herself to maintain the relationship with Parker, Spidey spandex and all. Thus, she's the stronger moral hero of the movie: she takes full stock of her values and decides what's more important to her. Parker's relative passivity is a vice.

The next film seems to be set up for something more interesting than the lame premise of unrestrained ambition: revenge. It is a revenge tied to an inferiority complex fostered by an insensitive father. This could be rich with moral significance: the story could critique evasion and rationalization and point to our responsibility to work out our psychological problems.

I fear, though, that the third movie will also continue Parker's wishy-washy approach to romance, caused by vague appeals to transcendent "values." If so, the series would continue to make a mush of morality. Based on the first two movies, though, I expect the basically strong writing will give us more to celebrate than to criticize.

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Even though I've never been into comic books (except for a particular Batman), I've held a fascination for superheroes. At their best, they crystallize the value of heroism, doing the right thing when it's hard. Chris Matthew Sciabarra responded to a column by John Podoretz that asserts comics are "a comforting outlet for those who feel totally powerless." But Podhoretz misses the point. The point is to inspire people to take appropriate control over their lives. Yes, there's a cathartic element to seeing somebody who just cannot be beat, who has super powers. But super heroes must be pitted against super villains, which makes the struggle difficult and relevant.

Sciabarra points to another virtue of superheroes: "Perhaps some people are just so irritated by comics because they sometimes project a youthful heroism and anti-authoritarianism that rubs against the reactionary grain."

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