Note: My favorite narrative device in superhero storytelling is the exploration of identity, so this is the first in a series of posts I’m writing that will analyze my favorite tv and film adaptations to utilize this concept.
“What about this friend? Why does he climb these walls? What does he think of himself?”
“That’s the problem – he doesn’t know what to think.”
“Gotta make you mad not to know who you are. Your soul disappears. Nothing is as bad as uncertainty.”
“I believe there’s a hero in all of us – that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”
When we left off with Peter Parker in Spider-man 1, he was in a bittersweet place. His role and place as hero within the Spider-man persona was well-established and celebrated, and he had stopped the Green Goblin from wreaking any more havoc on the people of New York. But the successes came at a price. His secret life as Spider-man was infringing upon his relationship with Harry, especially given his role in Norman Osborn’s death. And the still carried weight of his responsibility for Uncle Ben’s death.
The second Spider-man opens on much of these threads, and more. It swiftly establishes a Peter Parker much less sure of himself in the Spider-man persona. While the figure is still celebrated and beloved by New York, it’s severely infringing upon his other life. It’s actively preventing him from holding down a job, keeping up with work at The Daily Bugle, getting in the way of his school life, his personal life with family and friends, and it’s hurting even the cost of day-to-day living.
In a very real sense, Spider-man is – in every possible way – preventing him from being able to live the normalcy of his Peter Parker life. And this becomes the crux upon which the movie turns – the story’s central conflict. It would be a mistake to label Otto Octavius as the antagonist, or posit that he’s the primary source of conflict. Because in this story, those elements come more directly from Peter Parker himself.
And while Peter starts off in a bad state, things will only get worse. His failure to show up in time to support MJ for an important event (as Spider-man once again gets in the way) is one more nail in the coffin of their flagging friendship. The money troubles dogging both him and Aunt May seem to compound with every passing week. And Harry’s own time with Peter suggests a growing rift – built on a longtime loyalty to Peter that’s become divided by his hatred of Spider-man.
And while Octavius does not provide the central conflict (he’s more the impetus for its resolution) he undergoes some thematically similar events to Peter. His pride is what ultimately causes him to fail – in spite of his noble goals – and the cost takes everything from him: including all of his work and his wife. When the Doc Ock persona takes over, it’s reflective of this. He can’t accept the failure and move on into the future – instead, he clings to the past and dream of his work, and strives to complete what he started, even if it means destroying half of New York. His pride is too strong to let him do anything otherwise.
It’s the same kind of internal dilemmas dogging Peter, particularly as his powers start to fail him. There’s a growing dichotomy within his character: on the surface, between Peter Parker and Spider-man, but deep down further emphasizing his desires for a normal life. And his inability to let go of the past. Or as Aunt May might put it, his inability to let go of the life he thought he would have.
As his aunt describes it, a hero is essentially someone who’s willing to sacrifice everything for the good of others. This can mean not just the big ones – like one’s life – but a lot of the more personal, emotional desires. It’s not just normalcy Peter has to give up to be Spider-man – it’s also the ability to be a Peter Parker that still has the same life and relationships he did before acquiring his powers.
It’s this inability that drives the heart of the film. Everyone has hopes and dreams, and desires for how they would like their life to play out. To be able to give those up for the good of others is an enormously selfless thing to do. That the film is so invested in showing how hard that can be is what makes it emotionally resonant; and that it lands with Peter ultimately reaching that point of revelation is what makes him extraordinary.
And while Peter clings to that past – and that dreamed-for future – the dichotomy grows. He still wants a friendship with Harry and MJ like he used to have, and the ability to rely on the normalcy of his aunt. But too much has changed. Uncle Ben died, and there’s an unrealized rift between him and May because of it. Harry’s future with Peter will never be uncomplicated because of Spider-man’s role in the death of Harry’s father. And even things with MJ can’t stay the same: given their reciprocated romantic feelings, they either need to move forward with a relationship, or he’ll lose her altogether. In a very real sense, Peter is holding onto the past and unable to accept change. And his dual-life of Spider-man is a key driving point in that dilemma.
His powers fail him more and more the worse the situation for his Peter Parker life becomes. So for a time, he decides to give it up altogether. He won’t be Spider-man anymore. Let someone else be the hero for once. He’s going to concentrate on the normalcy in the hopes of fixing what’s still left to be fixed.
But in some respects, it’s already too late. Even as he makes steps toward moving into the future within that normalcy – owning up to Uncle Ben’s death to Aunt May, and trying to kindle that romance with MJ. Neither can ever really succeed for him because he sat on his laurels for too long, especially in regards to the latter. He’s also mistakenly told himself that there’s no way for a future in which his life as Spider-man and a romance with MJ can co-exist.
What’s more, the pressure for him to be Spider-man again starts to build. Where for a time he was happy to leave the crises to someone else, Peter’s been too changed by what his powers enabled for him. When he recognizes a scenario in which others are in need, he can’t help but spring into action. The needs of him as Spider-man start tugging at his normal life, even after he voluntarily walks away from it.
It is, of course, Aunt May who gives him the sense of absolution he needs. Sometimes we have to let go of the past – and just as importantly, we have to let go of the life we dreamed we would have. It makes it easier to accept the reality of the life that is in front of us. And for Peter far more than others, this means a lot of personal sacrifices. But it also means being true to the hero that he’s become.
Octavius then forces his hand, providing that last bit of jolt he needs to rediscover the entirety of the Spider-man persona within him – powers and all. And when it comes to defeating Doc Ock, it’s not about who wins in a physical contest of wills. Instead, it’s allowing Octavius to discover within himself what Peter has resolved himself to. Letting go of the past and embracing a better – and more selfless – life for the good of the many. It’s why Octavius is definitively able to overcome the influence of the AIs, and why he – in his own way – is able to die a selfless death.
And fate is kinder to Peter than he anticipated. MJ finally learns the truth of who he is. And far from rejecting him, or needing to create further distance between them, she closes the gap. She takes the active step – now knowing all the cards of the table – to finally instigate that longer-desired romantic relationship between him. At the end of the film, Peter has successfully been able to reconcile the two selves within him, and better embrace whatever future that brings. And as he learns, letting go of a dreamed future for unpredictable reality doesn’t necessarily mean it will all be for the worse.