By sheer accident, a scrawny, teenage nerd receives superhuman strength, agility, and the ability to scale walls and sling webs. Does he now have a greater duty to protect the innocent?
Spiderman is the latest movie to chronicle the comic book superhero’s bouts with evil villains and himself. Directed by Sam Raimi (Darkman, Evil Dead), the film introduces Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as Spiderman. Like most comic book characters, he has a love interest, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and a nemesis, the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).
Raimi adheres closely to the original comic storyline, with a few minor exceptions. Peter Parker receives his powers from a genetically enhanced spider (it’s radioactive in the comic) and shoots webs directly from his arms (in the comic he used mechanized webslingers which required web fluid cartridges). His first foe is the Green Goblin, rather than The Vulture, Spiderman’s first enemy in the comic series. Most noticeable is the absence of his verbal quips and witticisms; comic relief comes instead from a timid and clumsy Peter Parker, as well as from a ridiculous costume he dons in a wrestling match.
The action sequences are standard and sub par; the focus and intrigue of the movie lies in what Peter Parker’s newfound powers mean for how he must now live his life. Peter at first does what any kid would do: He beats up Mary Jane’s boyfriend, slingshots himself across the city with his webs, and plans to wrestle for money to buy a new car with which to impress Mary Jane. Meanwhile, he fibs to his Aunt May and Uncle Ben about his whereabouts and begins to come home late at night. His uncle notices and chats with Peter, giving him advice that is repeated several times throughout the remainder of the film: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Ignoring his uncle’s advice at first, Peter neglects to prevent a robber from fleeing the scene of the crime. Soon afterwards, his uncle is murdered and his car stolen. In what becomes the turning point of his life and the movie, Peter discovers that the murderer was the very same robber whom he had let escape. From then on, he becomes Spiderman, “your friendly neighborhood superhero,” fighting for justice, all the while remembering his now deceased uncle’s words.
Herein lies the movie’s greatest flaw: though the phrase about power and responsibility is emphasized many times, its supposed truth is never demonstrated. Its impact lies in the fact that his dead uncle spoke it, not in its actual meaning. Blaming his uncle’s death solely on himself, Spiderman seeks justice for others over happiness for himself to rid himself of his guilt. His sense of moral duty and justice lie purely in his uncle’s death; he establishes no principles as to what justice and morality really entail. Justice and moral duty come dangerously close to being mere means to placate Peter’s grieving soul. Spiderman’s actions react to his uncle’s death, instead of reflecting what he had learned from it.
Further, it is excruciatingly difficult to relate to Spiderman’s decision. He soon finds that his superpowers are hardly a gift. There are no rewards; in fact, he is demonized by the press. His powers invite conflict instead of deterring it, and the lives of his loved ones, including his Aunt May and Mary Jane, are put into great danger. At times, Spiderman seems more to be torturing himself rather than fulfilling a newfound purpose. Combined with the absence of a clarified motivation for justice, the only response is, “Why put yourself through all this, Spiderman?”
Enter Norman Osborne, a.k.a. The Green Goblin, who asks the very same question. In a desperate act to receive the military funding necessary to save his company, Oscorp, Norman Osborne subjects himself to a previously untested human enhancement serum. Though the experiment is successful, it results in insanity and augments his worst quality: the desire for power. When he is unanimously voted out of Oscorp, the Green Goblin goes on a destructive rampage. The Green Goblin cannot understand why Spiderman has chosen the life of a superhero. If Spiderman’s motto is, “With great power comes great responsibility,” the Green Goblin’s would be, “With great power comes the fulfillment of any desire.”
The Green Goblin approaches Spiderman with an offer to team up, cackling: “Imagine what we could accomplish together!” In effect, he presents Spiderman with a common ethical dilemma and demands to know why Spiderman would choose justice over desire. Predictably, Spiderman rejects the offer, yet gives no substantive justification— he seems only repulsed by the Green Goblin’s aesthetic and nothing more. In a manner unbecoming of a superhero, Spiderman’s answer to the question “Why not do what you want?” is at best a mere whimper.
The Green Goblin predictably seeks revenge, Mary Jane’s life is predictably threatened, and an obligatory final battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin predictably ends in Spiderman’s favor. Though the Green Goblin’s actions and vendetta are repulsively sadistic, the film’s conclusion still gives no reason as to why one’s possessing power demands responsibility, other than: “If Spiderman doesn’t, who will save us from evil?” Instead, Spiderman gives a trite description of how Uncle Ben was his true father and how much he regrets not having stopped the man w h o killed him.
It comes as no spoiler of the ending that Peter, standing at his uncle’s grave, unconvincingly chooses the unrewarding life of Spiderman over his greatest desire. He makes this decision not because of a determined and inspired will towards justice, but because he feels like he has no other choice. Peter’s quest for justice becomes a never-ending atonement for the death of his uncle. Insatiable guilt, not inspiration and spirit, motivate his greatness. Instead of offering an inspiring vision of the hero, we get a grim monologue describing Spiderman’s future life. The sole justification? Once again, the overly cited yet still very debatable adage: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Casey Lee is a junior in Trumbull College.