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!