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Long Philosophical Rant About Spider Man 2

This film's gotten nearly universal acclaim in the blogosphere and, indeed, it is a very good time. Lots of funny moments, some touching moments, good acting, a neat "look," one of the best credits sequences I've ever seen, quality emotional dynamics between characters, etc. That said, I think there's a rather big problem with the story. SPOILER.

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. There's a long history in western thought that the moral life and the pleasing life are identical. It dates back to Plato or Aristotle or maybe both. The way the ancients put this, though was pretty counterintuitive, and it had to do with the idea that in some sense you didn't really want what you think you want. Hence all things in moderation and other Aristotelian platitudes. But whatever the defects of this view, it has the great advantage of being palatable, people are much more likely to do the right thing if you promise them that it will also make them happy.

Moving into the Christian tradition, they tie up the untidiness of this view with a little eschatological sleight-of-hand. It certainly doesn't seem like doing the right thing will always make you happy, so Christianity cleans things up by inserting heaven and hell. Going to hell forever would be a very bad thing indeed, and going to heaven a very good thing. Hence, despite appearances, it's in your self-interest to be good. Even Kant felt the need to attach this to his ethical system in order to ensure that everything comes out okay in the end.

But as we move forward into modernity, intellectual types lose their faith. But there's still a desire to come up with a moral system that people will want to follow. Hence we start hearing complaints that normative view X or Y is "too challenging" because morality, apparently, is supposed to be easy and it's just not cool for Peter Singer (and others) to go around telling us that it might suck to do the right thing.

One very interesting element of the first Spiderman, however, is that it rejected what's known as the "doing-allowing distinction" which holds that it's one thing to do something wrong and another thing to stand aside as something bad happens. The former, or so we're told, is much worse than the latter. Clearly, morality is easier with the doing-allowing distinction. It's relatively easy to play by the rules, mind your own business, and not go around killing people. It's much harder to actually do something about the fact that people are dying every day all around the world, often in a way you could contribute to preventing (by donating to UNICEF or whatever). Spiderman had it, however, that by not stopping the man who later killed his uncle, Peter was responsible for Ben's death. "With great power," we are told, "comes great responsibility." It's not just that Peter shouldn't use his powers to hustle people in ultimate fighting competitions, it's that if he fails to do everything he can to help others, then he is doing badly.

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.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell notes that I'm writing about part two of a trilogy here without having seen part three, and that all may well be resolved. Good point!

July 4, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

So, where are we in Philosophy Land if Mr Parker's moment of happiness leads (yet again) to soul-searing tragedy?

Posted by: Mark Wise | Jul 4, 2004 11:16:36 AM

I think you're right, in a way, but at the same time, it's almost a impossible type situation.

I saw it last night, (F 9/11 as well, which is much better than even the liberal critics have mentioned).

You're right about the idea of having to do everything in their power, and if somehow not doing everything, he's doing nothing.

I'm not sure how familiar you are with the whole mythos of Spider-Man, but here it is. MJ has beyond just a love for Peter/SM, it's a damn addiction. Some sort of primal deep thing that just won't go away. It doesn't leave her mind for a second. Peter/MJ, to be blunt, is THE relationship of all comic-bookdom, and possibly all recent pop culture. (Maybe second to Vina Aspera and Ormus Cama, but I digress)

The point of all that, I think, is even though how much MJ says she's doing it for Peter. She's not. That's a bald-faced lie. She's doing it for herself. She recognizes the pain she's going to go through, that she's going to be unsatisfied...she doesn't care. She wants what she wants. Period. Even if it's going to destroy her.

Mind you, you're talking in broad phisophical context, I'm talking in raw emotional context...

To put it a different way, but back on topic. If it's essential that SM does everything he can, then to abandon someone with THAT much raw need, makes him an inherent failure, from both an emotional and a conscience point of view, Peter has absolutly no choice.

The funny thing is, I went through a similar thing with my wife. Because of our distance and everything, she pretty much gave up everything for me, I didn't want her too, thought the cost was too high. She overrode me 'tho.


Posted by: Karmakin | Jul 4, 2004 11:19:25 AM

"So, where are we in Philosophy Land if Mr Parker's moment of happiness leads (yet again) to soul-searing tragedy?"

Exactly. Mary Kay must, must die. Horribly, so Parker can regain his virtue.

Nietzsche, with much greater snark than I can muster, would say MY has internalized the "ascetic ideal."

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 4, 2004 11:23:24 AM

Not really a letdown (it is, after all, essentially what happens in the comics). I don't have a philosophical argument on this count, except to note that in my own personal observation, doing the right thing usually does bring its own attendant rewards. Good people generally have good lives. (Notable exceptions being those who lead good lives and end up getting shot for their troubles -- see Raoul Wallenberg. But it's a rule of thumb.)

In any case, it seems to me that the film doesn't use MJ's epiphany as justification or even explicit reward for Peter's choice to be Spider-Man. Through the film -- note especially Aunt May's monologue on the need for heroes and models -- it is hammered into us that we do the right thing because it's the right thing, not because we get Kirsten Dunst in recompense. And Peter does the right thing on exactly those grounds.

Flip it around and look at it through the lens of MJ herself: Assume that she has herself Done the Right Thing by choosing Peter over the astronaut. What will her reward be? Well, we can fairly say it will be a life of suffering: she will indeed be a target for his enemies (I guarantee that Osborn junior as the Hobgoblin will torment her in Spider-Man 3); she will face the dread and uncertainly of not knowing whether her beloved is alive or dead every day that he's Spider-Man -- which, in all probability, is every day for the rest of his life. Hers will be a lifetime of the wife whose husband is a soldier at war: and this war is never, ever, going to end.

Unless she's a paragon of inner peace and serenity, this will be a terrifically hard road to travel.

All this in addition to Peter's extra torment now that his loved one is hitherto explicitly in the line of fire. Love is that way: when he sees MJ hauled off to certain death by the Hobgoblin, he won't think, "Well, it's been worth the happy times we had together." As a fundamentally noble soul, he'll regret ever bringing her such harm.

So, I think you're being too hard on the film. It doesn't wash out as cleanly on the reward side as you're asserting. There's still a lot of ambiguity there, which I look forward to seeing explored in S3 in 2007.

Posted by: Tacitus | Jul 4, 2004 11:24:32 AM

I would agree with Tacitus.. I was actually struck by the expression on MJ's face in the final scene after Peter/Spiderman has to dash off; she cheers him on and then as soon as he's out the window looks (to me, anyways) unmistakably upset. I can only imagine that it's this dynamic that will dominate the third film -- the first gives us the wind-up, the second the rocky trajectory towards reconciliation, the third confronts the problems of actually maintaing a relationship between the two. While he may have got the girl in the end of this one, it was only for a period of about five minutes on-screen, and it's far from resolved yet. So tune in next time...

Personally, I thought he should've gone with the cake girl next door and moved on a little, but whatever.

What really bothered me was the whole fusion bit. Not the ludicrousness of the science necessarily -- setting up a fusion reaction in a New York brownstone, putting it out with water, whatever -- but the fact that it was totally superfluous to the Doc's arms, which I thought were cool, but which they just kinda dropped in as a side note, origin-wise, to the whole fusion bit. I mean, couldn't he have just developed the arms and left it at that? And what did they do really? Could the guy not have just got a few extra assistants to turn levers, or what? And if he can build these things that can manipulate fusion, why not build a whole big containment thing out of it? And for that matter, he robbed the one bank in New York City where they keep their money in a publicly accessible vault full of gold coins, fine, but what he do then, send for parts out of a mail-order mad scientist's catalog? Ok, I know I know, it's just a movie, it's just a movie...

Posted by: mc_masterchef | Jul 4, 2004 11:43:09 AM

"One very interesting element of the first Spiderman, however, is that it rejected what's known as the "doing-allowing distinction" which holds that it's one thing to do something wrong and another thing to stand aside as something bad happens."

Umm, doesn't the entire superhero genre depend upon doing away with this distinction?

Posted by: Erik | Jul 4, 2004 11:54:49 AM

All you kids who have read the comics have hijacked this from an ethical thread into some kind of determinism thing.

I was actually around and the right age when these first came out, but was buying FF and X-Men and Thor instead. Spidey was too realistic in both text and art for my tastes. So shoot me.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 4, 2004 11:55:26 AM

These are good points. But you didn't really expect them to keep them apart? They can do that on television, where the tension provides an incentive to watch weekly. But movie viewers demand resolution.

I liked the film's distinction between real and phony forms of heroism. John Jameson is heralded for being "the first man to play football on the moon," an accomplishment that requires courage but helps no one. It's glamorous and oh so American. By contrast, PP-SM's heroism requires not only immense sacrifice, but also anonymity and poverty.

Posted by: AWC | Jul 4, 2004 11:59:15 AM

If I knew more about philosophy, I could cite another well-defined issue in philosophy, and say how glad I am that Spider-Man 2 accurately demonstrated it.

And if MJ is going to be kidnapped anyway, why not let her in on the secret? Come on! Pareto optimality!

Matt, you're wrong. The doing-allowing thing doesn't require PP to be as miserable as possible. Don't worry, we can expect PP to suffer burdens for his altruism in Spider-Man 3.

Posted by: c. | Jul 4, 2004 12:27:10 PM

I wasn't a big fan of the film, but part of the point here is that Peter could not BE virtuous or BE Spiderman without Mary Jane in his life. He tried to get avoid Mary Jane to protect her and live up to responsibility. However, this lead to his Spiderman Impotence. His virtue was ALWAYS driven by his love for Mary Jane.

This is an important point that actually relates to politics. Most of us who want to be virtuous know that, practically, we could be our most virtuous if we completely sacrificed our personal lives and simply dedicated ourselves to important work. However, we can't actually stay sane and do that. That's one reason Presidents are married men with children, and even great activists, senators, and journalists need husbands and wives. It is another reason that people like Nader, who seems to have completely abandoned his personal life for a political "virtuous" one, tend to get detached from the reality of their actions.

Peter Parker needs Mary Jane, and without Mary Jane, he can't really be Spiderman. That tension is necessary for his functioning.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Jul 4, 2004 1:36:00 PM

Uh, Matthew?

I love the blog. Really I do. And I share your frustration with plots that involve the hero making THE BIG SACRIFICE and then, somehow, ending up not having to pay the piper.

But do you know what "virtue is its own reward" actually means?

It means that there aren't any other rewards. The only prize you get for being good is that you were good. It also, of course, implies that that is sufficient reward, but that is, I think, the point of view that Spiderman is endorsing as well.

In other words, it means exactly the opposite of what you use it to mean.

Posted by: Naomi | Jul 4, 2004 1:59:48 PM

"one thing to do something wrong and another thing to stand aside as something bad happens."

The more I think on this, the more interesting it becomes. Would we accept the doing-allowing distinction into definitions of governance? :) Libertarians, beware.

It was a mid-sixties comic book, in which the question of minding your business vs active involvement (civil rights, Vietnam protests) was in the air. And Stan Lee and the Marvel line were definitely considered the leftish alternative to the DC Comics stable.

If Tacitus is a fan, perhaps it is true about the corrupting influence on youth of comic books. Or maybe Lee just created great art capable of multiple interpretations.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 4, 2004 2:05:44 PM

If Matt's correct about what living a moral life entails (and you might be), why the hell would anyone want to live a moral life?!?!

I'm sure it's just a fault of mine (moral monster that I am) but I don't see the motivation to forgo happiness in order to live a moral life (if indeed there's the type of disconnect between the two that Matt's claiming).

Posted by: Luka | Jul 4, 2004 2:35:11 PM

A guy does the right thing and gets the girl and it sticks in Matt's craw. Typical bachelor bile. Get a girlfriend already, Matt.

Nothing is right or wrong but thinking makes it so.

And Plato and his contemporaries were arguing that what may seem pleasing in the short term, you may come to regret. They were not arguing for some higher ideal than pleasing ourselves, just that virtues such as moderation can lead to MORE pleasure. I can enjoy a glass or two of wine every night with more aggregate pleasure, than having a blow-out party every night and ending up dead or unemployed.

PS: bob mcmanus still eschews reality with his apocalyptic view of the threat of terror. Don't worry, bob, Spidey will save you.

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 4, 2004 2:53:14 PM

Re: mc_masterchef's point

I was thinking the same thing :)

The press conference to unveil the fusion demonstration should have had all the reporters saying interrupting with "yeah, yeah, fusion - cool. Now what's the deal again with those arm thingies?!!!!"

Not a nitpick really, as I loved the film, but I couldn't help myself from thinking about it.

Posted by: skippy | Jul 4, 2004 3:21:01 PM

I gotta say, Matt, that aside from the word "eschatological", which I had to go look up, this was a very accessible rant for a non-philosophy person. Not to mention, I found myself agreeing with you by the end.

Congrats.

Posted by: Kenneth G. Cavness | Jul 4, 2004 3:27:01 PM

Hollywood isn't going to present a summer blockbuster with the sort of tragic ending you're describing; the medium almost necessitates that S-M be translated into a comedy. You can be sure that this trilogy (quadrilogy? more?) will end with a marriage. PP and MJ get married in the comics, too, but much later on, and I think she divorces him because he's dedicated to being Spidey or whatever. But anyway, the constitutive female figure in S-M's origin is Gwen Stacy, who does die in the comics. This movie's MJ is an amalgamation of the two ladies I think. I don't know who that little Eurotrash hussie was, but that was a bizarrely sexually tense scene with some awfully apparent pedophilic undertones.

You can also be sure that we'll see not only Harry Osborne as Hobgoblin but also Dr. Kurt Connors as the Lizard, but I digress.

Posted by: Kriston | Jul 4, 2004 4:08:53 PM

I guess one definition of aging would be to wake up one day and find people discussing Spiderman on the same page with Plato. Leads to questions like, does Classic Comics have an abridged version for people who can't read the Original Spiderman in time for the big mid-term?

I guess I would say that modern young people are being a little TOO adaptable. When the media serve them mush, they don't cry, nosiree, they make lemonade, and what a tasty lemonade we make from mush!

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm more of a Sartre kind of guy. Check it out- when he was told he couldn't talk about anything that mattered, he picked up a submachinegun. I guess they really don't make 'em like they used to.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 4, 2004 4:19:26 PM

Matt, I might agree with you but for two things. One, MJ did have the right to make that choice herself -- I was thinking it even as Peter was saying to her that he couldn't allow her to assume that risk. It was very clear throughout the movie that she was in love with both Peter and Spidey. It was absolutely true to her character, to make the choice she did.

And second, did you see that grim look on her face right at the end, when she watches Spidey zoom off? She knew what kind of devil's choice she was making, and that she had just traded security and some measure of happiness for her heart's desire -- and life threatening danger, and serious heartache.

Not my definition of an unremittingly happy ending. This is the Spidey universe. Nothing is ever as simple as you described.

Posted by: LauraJMixon | Jul 4, 2004 5:17:45 PM

I think that you're trying to hard to see Spiderman 2 as a morality play with no outside elements. There's that aspect to it, certainly, but it's also true that there's a story going on here that's all on its own, without the good vs. evil theme intervening. The point being that Mary Jane Watson is quite clearly the sort of girl who *does* fall for the hero, so it's perfectly reasonable that she would risk her life to be with Peter.

Note that Peter's real conflict earlier is between being with MJ and keeping her safe from harm. In this sense, at the end of it all, he's *not* doing the right thing by allowing her into his life.

However, I don't think that it this means he hasn't learned his lesson re: standing idly by. What it means is that he's learned that he doesn't control the decisions of other, which is just as important a lesson. This is also reflected in the scene on the train where the people come together to give Spidey back his mask and promise not to give him up. Peter was trying to play god, in a way, by assuming that everyone would always do exactly what he expected--Mary Jane would want to stay safe and far away, people who found out his identity would give him up--and over the course of the film he's realized that a man "with great power" is still a man, with no real control over anyone but himself.

Posted by: Nick Simmonds | Jul 5, 2004 12:14:46 AM

Look people, MY included, MJ isn't a prize; she made her own choice, and if you can't understand why a girl would decide to be with a sensitive guy and a superhero, then you're really really dense.

Posted by: Grr | Jul 5, 2004 2:37:23 AM

Power is the dark side of responsibility. How about "with great freedom comes great responsibility"?

Posted by: Powerfull | Jul 5, 2004 2:43:43 AM

Err... the point of the movie is that Spider-Man was WRONG that he had to do everything or else he was a failure, and just as wrong when he gave up helping others completely.

MJ is the balance PP needs in his life. By having someone who supports him and loves him no matter what, even if he does run off all the time and help people, provide PP with the balance he needs to be Spider-Man without destroying himself.

The movie is about BALANCE.

Posted by: Alex Knapp | Jul 5, 2004 4:00:40 AM

Sam Raimi is sticking close to the spirit (if not the letter) of the Spiderman comics, and it might be worth remembering that in the comics, things seldom run smoothly on the Peter Parker wagon.

Spiderman is the original hard luck hero, and that's a key part of his popularity... because he's just like the rest of us, and his virtue is seldom rewarded.

So philosophically I wouldn't worry too much, because I'm pretty sure that in the next film, the Peter-Harry-MJ triangle is going to rip out Peter's living heart and eat it.

Posted by: misterpc | Jul 5, 2004 4:17:32 AM

Just happy to note that several people were evidently as impressed as I was by the final shot of the film, which encapsulated the difference between Spidey 2 and most other flicks out there, comic-book & otherwise.

Posted by: Andy | Jul 5, 2004 10:27:56 AM

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