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 ...
Matthew Yglesias believes that Spider-Man 2 -- while being a good popcorn flick -- has a hollow philosophical core [WARNING: MASSIVE SPOLIER ALERT]:
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.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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