TCS Daily

Spider-Man 2 and the Terror War

By S.T. Karnick - July 12, 2004 12:00 AM

It is only natural for moviegoers to be quite conscious of the fact that Spider-Man 2, like its blockbuster predecessor, is based on a comic-book series. After all, one could hardly avoid knowing about the character's origins.

To stress this point, however, as most critics have done, is to miss the most important thing about the film. It is quite evident that a far more important source of inspiration for this film treatment of the Spider-Man legend is the War on Terror.

The entire film, after all, revolves around the notion that with great power comes great responsibility, a statement the film makes explicitly more than once. Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire), the young New Yorker whose superhuman powers were established in Spider-Man, begins the new film in a good deal of distress. He is fired from his job as a pizza delivery man after am heroic but unsuccessful effort to deliver a stack of pizzas on time. At college, where he is studying to be a scientist, he perpetually arrives late to class if at all, and his professor tells him that he although Peter is brilliant, his failure to concentrate on his schoolwork means that he'll never be a success.

At the Daily Bugle newspaper, Peter is thrown out because of his failure to bring in new pictures of Spider-Man. The young man is months behind in his rent, and he cannot help his beloved Aunt May keep her house, which she is going to lose because of failure to make mortgage payments. And in wooing the beautiful actress-model Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Peter is an abject failure, repeatedly missing her nightly stage performances in The Importance of Being Earnest, which she dearly wants him to see.

It is quite evident that Mary loves Peter, and vice versa, but Peter cannot bring himself to ask her to marry him. His reason, of course, is actually quite honorable: to wed Mary would be to place her life at perpetual risk, as his enemies would be quick to use her to blackmail him into letting them do their evil deeds unmolested by the only superhero in town.

In short, Peter is running himself ragged trying to be a good man, which he takes to mean being all things to all people. Nearly all of us feel this kind of pull at times, and the effectiveness with which McGuire and the filmmakers establish this motif ensures that the film will affect audiences strongly during these sequences.

But of course that is by no means all there is to Spider-Man 2, as is apparent from the inclusion of several long and elaborate action sequences. These relate mostly to a central story in which Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) comes under the control of his own well-intentioned invention, a fusion reactor which manages to turn him into a superpowered cyborg.

This is where the film most thoroughly explores the premise that with great power comes great responsibility. The responsibilities for which Peter yearns -- to take on an ordinary life, enjoy marriage with MJ, and be a successful scientist -- are quite honorable, but by no means great. For ordinary folk to accept such roles is quite laudable indeed, but Peter has been given great power in his gifts as Spider-Man. And as this film makes quite clear, Peter's renunciation of these gifts must result in a great loss not for himself but for the rest of the world. Indeed, when Peter temporarily abjures his life as Spider-Man, crime and other tragedies in the city increase dramatically.

It is, of course, this great responsibility to his community that Peter must not renounce. And this dilemma has a distinct political resonance. The United States, of course, is routinely referred to as a Great Power, and Peter's dilemma is the predicament that faces the United States in the post-September 11 world. America can either turn its back on its neighbors, enjoy increasing bourgeois comfort and pleasures, and earn the affection of Europe, Russia, and the cosmopolites of the domestic media -- or do what most of us see as our duty and fight a lonely, dangerous War on Terror with uncertain outcome.

Seen in this light, the various themes and motifs in the film make much more sense, and their seriousness becomes evident. Note, for example, that Dr. Octavius's goal is the production of unlimited cheap energy. It is, of course, the developed world's need for fossil fuels that has given menaces such as Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein some of their power. Octavius's pursuit, however, results in disaster and nearly brings on the nuclear annihilation of New York City.

Octavius's transformation into the insane, evil Doc Oc involves good technology turning into a horribly malevolent, powerful, and unexpected weapon of destruction, just like the terrorists' use of modern aircraft to destroy the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon. Peter's commitment to his role as Spider-Man also puts him increasingly at odds with his friend Harry Osborne, a business tycoon. This too, is resonant, as the film's numerous images of wealth and luxury drive home exactly what is at risk when individuals -- and nations -- place duty above self-interest.

As noted earlier, Peter's temporary renunciation of his role as Spider-Man results in disaster, just as America's periodic forays into self-involvement have typically allowed international tensions to fester.

The fact that the movie is set in New York City also has great plangency, given that the destruction we see evokes memories of the devastation of that city on September 11, 2001. This is particularly true of the climactic action sequence and a scene in which Spider-Man struggles to halt a runaway elevated train to prevent it from crashing into a barrier at the end of the line.

The train episode concludes with some unmistakable Christ imagery, and other scenes include similar motifs, suggestive of both the outpouring of religion after the September 11 attacks and the religious aspects of the War on Terror. So, too, is the requirement for self-sacrifice on the part of Peter and, eventually, the conflicted villain Dr. Octavius. And of course the names Peter and Mary have strong religious implications.

As in the first film, the powerful newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson makes Spider-Man into a villain even though he knows perfectly well that the costumed crimefighter is indeed a hero. Jameson ignores the truth in a bid to sell more newspapers, on the probably accurate assumption that bad news sells better. The comparison to the American media, whose ardor for the U.S. role in the War on Terror has cooled steadily from the beginning and finally transformed into fairly open hostility, ought to be quite evident.

In addition to all of this, the characters explicitly discuss themes such as honor, duty, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Whatever the filmmakers may think of the War on Terror and America's role in the world, it is quite evident that these issues must have been weighing on their minds as they developed this film. Indeed, how could they not, given the importance of these matters to us as a nation? These issues are the true heart of the film and the important thing that must be said about it.

"With great power comes great responsibility." It is a lonely position, of course, and one that we Americans did not explicitly choose, but this film suggests that we are much like Peter Parker in the greatness of the gifts we have been given. The conclusion, then, is inescapable: If we deny what is best in us, tragedy will surely ensue.

S. T. Karnick is senior editor of the Heartland Institute and an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute.


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