"With great power comes great responsibility": Central psychoanalytic motifs in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2

by Robert M. Peaslee

July 20, 2005


This study analyzes the many crucial psychoanalytic motifs present in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. The first section analyzes the many Oedipal triangles present in the narrative, with special emphasis on that which is set up between the alter ego, the female, and the superhero. The second section posits that the female, while a clearly maternal character in Oedipal terms, also fulfills other Freudian roles such as the madonna/whore and an Oedipal role of her own. Finally, this paper will also look at the overarching construct of the conscious/unconscious split as it is so plainly illustrated in many characters, both heroic and villainous. The paper concludes by making some observations on the importance of a psychoanalytic interpretation, primarily given its utility in exploring the changing nature of the superhero genre.



I. Introduction

     At the very beginning of Spider-Man (2002), a teenage Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) relates in narrative voice-over that this story is "all about a girl," a girl that he has "loved since before (he) even liked girls." The girl is Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Peter’s ultra-popular longtime neighbor, who despite this proximity has remained out of the reach of the nerdy Parker. From the outset, the audience is given, in very clear terms, the parameters for understanding what will become an enormously fantastic narrative: this is a love story. While there are many features of this film and its sequel, Spider-Man 2 (2004), which lend themselves to a psychoanalytic interpretation, it is the fixation of Parker on Watson, the first love, which drives the films and, in turn, the following analysis.

     Watson, who is generally called "MJ" throughout the films, is the axis around which most plots and subplots spin. While such an operationalization of the female lead may be said to be characteristic of the superhero genre, her presence in these films is of a more crucial nature given the lack of mothers anywhere in the span of two films. The role of mother in the lives of major characters is one either ignored or fulfilled by a surrogate. The first part of this discussion, then, will analyze the several Oedipal triangles which are set up in the films, with special attention paid to the patriarchal role played by Parker’s omnipotent half, Spider-Man himself.

     But MJ’s role is a complex one. As a "mother" figure, MJ also acts as a catalyst for the many revolutions in the character of Peter/Spider-Man. Specifically, an analysis of the triangle set up between Peter, MJ, their mutual friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), and, later, John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), will illustrate a number of dynamics theorized in Freud’s essay "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life" (1912). I will posit that MJ, while a clearly maternal character in Oedipal terms, also fulfills other Freudian roles such as the madonna/whore, and finally, exhibiting her own agency in the narrative, an Oedipal role of her own in seeking to possess the omnipotent father figure.

     Finally, this paper will also look at the overarching construct of the conscious/unconscious split as it is so plainly illustrated in many characters, both heroic and villainous. Specifically, I will consider the ego/repression dichotomy as portrayed in two villains – Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Otto Octavius/Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) – one ambivalent character (Harry Osborn), and, of course, the hero himself. Each of these characters offers different levels of psychoanalytic complexity, and none more than the hero himself. For there are many important questions to ask of Parker/Spider-Man from a Freudian perspective, questions which address, I think, the changing nature of the superhero in popular culture.

     Writers of superhero texts, finally, are no doubt familiar in various ways with Freudian concepts; that this awareness should be harnessed in the creation of these characters, therefore, is not surprising. What is most interesting to me is the degree to which super characters are created in this way by necessity – that is, is it necessary to address these themes because audiences respond to them in specific and largely circumscribed ways? Are the lines that form for these films on opening days in the U.S. and abroad the clearest indications that superheroes work out Oedipal issues, unconscious desires, and other motifs paramount to psychoanalysis in ways that other texts cannot? This is a larger question than I might address here, but the analysis of films with regard to psychoanalytic themes is a crucial one in the ongoing literature concerning heroes and villains in American cinema. That writers are aware of how they construct characters, or that characters are not consciously and freely acting agents, is therefore less important to this study than an understanding of these characters and films as coded texts which, taken as a whole, shed light on our national cinematic discourse, what it values, and what it rejects.


II. Couching superheroes and psychoanalysis

     The superhero in American culture, as one of that culture’s most immediately recognizable tropes, has been theorized largely as a product of historical and ideological circumstances. Various periods of upheaval (e.g. the Great Depression, war, Watergate) are often said to be behind the initial appearance and continual evolution of these characters who, in their extremity, outline the borders of human activity, aspiration, and understanding. According to these analyses, the movement from a sure-footed, morally upright, and distinctly American Superman to a more ambivalent, sometimes openly hostile Spider-Man, reflects an ongoing sea change in the mass audience’s understanding of and interaction with the American capitalist ideology. Despite the American origins of this character type, however, a discussion of the superhero as a device which expresses a broadly psychological in addition to a nationalistic dissonance has maintained itself across diverse paradigmatic and disciplinary boundaries. Perhaps what can be said about the variety one finds in reviewing this literature is that the role of the superhero in cultural texts is one which functions in a particularly multinodal fashion, illustrating conflicts within the social sphere while expressing at the same time eminently individual and unconscious desires and needs.

     Areas of emphasis within the literature addressing superheroes in more psychological terms may be divided into four sub-categories. These areas can be termed as, first, the superhero as a place of wish fulfillment (the return to primary narcissism); second, the "mythic" function of the superhero, both in an American and supra-national context; third, what E. Ann Kaplan (1990) terms the "material pressures of social institutions" (3) or what we might more succinctly call "morality"; and, fourth, the ongoing discussion of the superhero’s Oedipal function and, related to this, the role of the superhero in the field of feminist Lacanian psychoanalysis. The literature outlined thus concerns the superhero as presented in both the comic book and the film. Much of the richest scholarship on the topic has been conducted in studying the former, while most examples of the latter are simply, in the most literal of terms, re-presentations of earlier print incarnations.


Freud, superheroes and wish fulfillment

     Freud (1908) famously relates the activities of the poet – and, by extension, the literary practitioner in general – to the process of daydreaming. The writer, according to Freud, "does the same as the child at play; he [sic] creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously; that is, he invests it with a great deal of affect, while separating it sharply from reality" (45). He goes on to relate that play in childhood "is determined by (one’s) wishes," and that "happy people," in adulthood, "never make phantasies, only unsatisfied ones. Unsatisfied wishes are the driving power behind phantasies" (47). Daydreaming, like the unconsciously created products of its nighttime counterpart, offers the opportunity for the adult, "ashamed of his phantasies as being childish" (ibid.), to explore his or her ideal world and place within it. These "phantasies," according to Freud, exist in the "three periods of our ideation" – the past experience, the current situation, and the future desire (49). "Nocturnal dreams," minus their inherent distortion, "are fulfillments of desires in exactly the same way as daydreams are" (50).

     The poet, then, is seen by Freud to express desires and wishes in much the same way. His or her work is the reification of a daydream, the creation of a scenario in which a phantasy may derive from and take the form of past events, "current" narrative developments, and repressed wishes. One of the principle wishes Freud identifies in literature is the central presence of the hero. Although Freud wrote in a historical and cultural context in which the concept of the superhero as we understand it was unavailable, he nonetheless points out the characteristics of "invulnerability," "good," and attraction of the opposite sex as consistent themes within the hero character (51). These are not unfamiliar to us, and may be said to be the groundwork of the classical superhero model.

     Behind the construction of the pervasive, central hero character is, for Freud, "His Majesty the Ego, the hero of all daydreams and novels" (ibid.). Our identification with the omnipotent hero, in all its manifestations (be it super- or anti-hero, or somewhere in between), rests in two places. First, there is the wish for characteristics of invulnerability in ourselves which we understood well as children. Freud reminds us that these wishes (such as, for example, the ability to fly or remain invisible) are not only endemic to childhood fantasy, but remain with us in our unconscious. Also embedded in the netherworld of our unconscious is our constant propensity to return to a state of primary narcissism. The hero, again, provides a link for readers of literature to attain, either through the sheer omnipotence or the extreme asceticism (often masochistic in nature) of the central character, this oneness with and in the world. This process is achieved primarily through poetic license since, as Freud points out, "only one person – once again the hero – is described from within; the author dwells in his soul and looks upon the other people from outside" (51). Thus, in identifying with a character of prodigious strength and moral rectitude, we play this role ourselves.

     The satisfaction we find in possessing the persona of the superhero can be described in any number of forms. Our narcissism may be satisfied through feelings of power, independence, or physical beauty. In this final sense, the corporeal presence of the superhero becomes crucial. Scott Bukatman (2003) points out that

superhero comics present body narratives, bodily fantasies, that incorporate (incarnate) aggrandizement and anxiety, mastery, and trauma. Comics narrate the body in stories and envision the body in drawings. The body is obsessively centered upon. It is contained and delineated; it becomes irresistible force and immovable object…The body takes on animal attributes, merges with plantlife, is melded with metal. The body is asexual and homosexual, heterosexual and hermaphroditic…the superhero body is everything – a corporeal, rather than a cognitive, mapping of the subject into the cultural system (49).

And while Bukatman is writing here about the print medium, the same is no less true for representation of cinematic superheroes. Director Kevin Smith recalls the importance of the male hero’s costume, especially the codpiece, in establishing his masculinity: "they’re all powerful, they can do no wrong and, apparently, they are hung like (late pornography star John) Holmes" (92). Lawrence and Jewett (1977) offer that

Clint Eastwood, one of the superstars who enacts the role of the cool, violent redeemer, says, "…It’s not the bloodletting or whatever that people come to see in the movies. It’s vengeance. Getting even is very important with the public. They go to work every day for some guy who’s rude and they…have to take it. They go see me on the screen and I just kick the shit out of him." Assuming Eastwood is correct, his screen action amounts to a vicarious gratification for audience members who confront abuses of power in real life (211).

Thus the sexualization and omnipotence of the superhero, coupled with the reader/viewer’s tendency to read the narrative from the point of view of him or her, marks a clear point of narcissistic pleasure for that reader/viewer.1


The Supermyth: Archetypal Understandings of Superheroes

     Though generally connected with the work of Carl Jung2, an archetypal approach to the analysis of myth is not unfamiliar to psychoanalysis. In his Introductory Lectures, Freud understands symbols, which often work in dreams to create distortion and interference for the dreamer, as "not something peculiar to dreamers or to the dream-work through which they come to expression." Rather,

This same symbolism…is employed by myths and fairy tales, by the people in their sayings and songs, by colloquial linguistic usage and by the poetic imagination. The field of symbolism is immensely wide, and dream symbolism is only a small part of it (165).

This is not to suggest the superhero is solely a symbol (though, in most cases, we might conceive him or her to be at least that), but that, for Freud as well as for Jung, the hero or superhero has a history.

     The most complete work on this subject is, of course, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), but more recent studies have cast greater light on the modern and post-modern role such characters have come to play. Richard Reynolds (1994) offers a "first-stage working definition of the superhero genre" (16), which requires, for example, that the hero be portrayed as outside society, more concerned about innate justice that explicit laws, and extraordinary in comparison both with his surroundings and his alter ego (e.g. Clark Kent). The two former attributes, offers Christian Pyle (1994), are "accepted facets" of a particularly American brand of hero, "as true of Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn as they are of Superman and Batman" (2). The nationalist tendencies of the superhero mythology are addressed by Eco (1972) and Lawrence & Jewett (1977, 2002). Eco points out that Superman is obliged to perform acts of local and civil significance, since taking up the mantle of "justice" worldwide would mean questioning cornerstone American values such as capitalism. Superman is therefore "obliged to continue his activities in the sphere of small and infinitesimal modifications of the immediately visible…each general modifications would draw the world, and Superman with it, toward final consumption" (124). Lawrence and Jewett, meanwhile, offer that the myth of the American superhero is one primarily of deliverance and redemption. Crucial to their analysis is the passive nature of the populace in such narratives, which they see as transferable to the reader/viewer. They contend in The American Monomyth (1977) that

the American monomyth is an escapist fantasy. It encourages passivity on the part of the general public and unwise concentrations of power in ostensible redeemers. It betrays the ideals of democratic responsibility and denies the reliance on human intelligence that is basic to democratic hope (211).

     And so we come back to fantasy. Revenge, redemption, deliverance resurface in the mythological understandings of superhero character types; yet the undercurrent here is that the fantasy is more societal than individual, a collective fantasy of a super-advocate in an increasingly atomized and serialized society. This understanding of the superhero, then, is different in important ways from the fantasy that feeds individual narcissistic tendencies. It is a social fantasy.


"Spider-Man no more": Morality, Alter Egos, and the Conscious/Unconscious Split

     In Spider-Man 2, Parker makes the decision to cease his activity as a superhero due to its inconvenient schedule and the resultant chaos it causes in his "ordinary" life. Most directly, this decision concerns his feelings for the significant other, Watson, and his desire to be with her without secrecy and restraint, but he also sees himself increasingly reviled and feared by the people he has pledged to serve. This plot device is not uncommon in superhero literature and film history; it might, in fact, be termed essential in the sense that truly omnipotent characters have little to fear but their own inequity or selfishness.

     Such confrontations with self are frequent in superhero texts also because of the bifurcated nature of their characters. They most often, as we have seen, live two separate and widely dissimilar lives, the unremarkable and usually socially inept alter ego balancing the prodigious capital of the "super" side. The initial enjoyment of super powers in a character like Spider-Man/Parker gives way to a kind of despondence born of isolation and misunderstanding. This ambivalence of mission is, historically, something which has evolved into the superhero ethos. Jeffrey Lang and Patrick Trimble (1988) point out that

the superhero’s awareness of his place (or lack of it) in society…is one of the few things that has changed about superhero comics in the history of the genre. The new heroes feel ambivalence toward society and their place in it. Not coincidentally, these heroes began to emerge in the early 1960s, an era when many Americans began to entertain serious doubts about the viability of using old methods to solve new, more complex problems. It was an era that promoted self-doubt (167).

Implicit in this encroachment of doubts is a graying of the concept of morality. Bradford Wright (2001) offers that "it is difficult to overstate the impact of…early Spider-Man comic books on the subsequent development of the industry" since the "young, flawed, and brooding antihero" became the new archetype, especially in the work produced by Marvel Comics. Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s (1994) study of the comic The Silver Surfer and Jesse Moore’s (2003) work on the Green Lantern offer excellent historical studies of the shifting moral compass of the comic superheroes. Their cinematic counterparts, coming to screen largely after the cynical impression left by the 1960s, have either followed suit or skipped the moral high ground altogether.

     Where this concerns psychoanalysis is in the very concept of morality itself, since the latter is merely one expression of an ego-driven set of constraints on the unconscious. In the halcyon days of Superman and moral rectitude, the villain in the story represented the unconscious. The hero was repression, "an operation whereby the subject attempts to repel, or to confine to the unconscious, representations (thoughts, images, memories) which are bound to an instinct" (Laplanche & Pontalis, 390). Such instincts might concern lust for power, greed, monomaniacal tendencies, and, of course, sexual gratification, either in the form of seduction or orgiastic violence. And yet, as reader/viewers, we still identify with the hero who has deprived us of these instinctual pleasures because, simply, he wins. The villain is destroyed (either actually or figuratively, as in Superman’s tendency to expose Lex Luther for his pride, vanity, folly, etc.). The reader/viewer is left with little choice but to identify with the power of repression.

     And yet this character must always remain alien lest we imagine ourselves to be omnipotent. Whether from outer space (Superman), a mishap of science (Spider-Man), or the ashes of childhood trauma and the inheritance of great wealth (Batman), superheroes share an originary exceptionalism that allows the spectator to see them as other. The fact that this is generally agreed to be less and less true over time is significant in psychoanalytic terms, since it presents us with a cultural closing of the gap between the conscious and the unconscious. If heroes as "heroic" in the classical sense are less and less believable, and villains are becoming, in their frailty and proneness to instinct, more so, where does the identification rest? Is it enough for the villain to lose, as he or she ultimately does, or has a shift occurred in our cultural relationship with the unconscious?


Oedipal Themes and the Place of the Woman in Superhero Texts

It is difficult to talk about the genre of superhero comics and films without sensing the presence of Oedipus. To name only a few, Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman share the following characteristics:

  • They are all orphans; Superman is brought up by "adoptive" Earth parents after his departure from Krypton, where his own parents perished. Batman sees his own parents murdered and chooses his crime-fighting lifestyle in dialectical conversation with that moment. Spider-Man lives with an aunt and uncle, the latter of whom dies as a result of Spider-Man’s (Peter’s) refusal to apprehend a suspect at an earlier crime scene.
  • All three pine, to varying degrees, for female companionship. Clark Kent and Peter Parker have feelings for women who are not superheroes, and, therefore, are off limits, while Batman’s sexual tension with Catwoman is palpable3.
  • All three superheroes hold an influence over the emotions and passions of these female characters that their alter egos do not.

What is crucial in these admittedly reductionary plot summaries is the triad that is set up between the superhero, the female, and the alter ego. It is a clear reflection of the parents/child trilogy that is at the heart of the Oedipal theory. The superhero almost always acts as an impediment to the alter ego’s possession of the female; the superhero is the figure of power and authority, the female is the object of desire4. The tension which has crept into the superhero genre, which we have discussed above, concerning the moral ambivalence of the lead character, is often a direct result of the hero’s wavering commitment to heroism in the face of loneliness or jealously. All three characters, at one or more times in their respective mythologies, let down their guard or unmask themselves to the female objects of desire. It is a metaphorical slaying of the father figure in the triad for the sake of possessing the mother; and yet, this is a perpetually temporary victory. The unconscious, in the form of the perceived moral responsibility of the hero to the society he has come to protect, represses the Oedipal desire and causes the resurfacing of the superhero identity. Spider-Man pulls his jumpsuit out of the trash and returns to fighting crime, subjecting himself to the asceticism that has come to define the modern superhero.

     The female lead of the superhero genre, then, becomes the mother figure par excellence. But while they are often the focal point of desire, they often perform other dramatic roles. Susan Wood Glicksohn (1974) offers that

women…grow increasingly important to the life of the superhero. Usually, their influence is as destructive as the (Black) Widow’s bite. They mess up the hero’s emotions, thus distracting him when he should be fighting, or resting up between fights; they leave him in his hour of triumph, thus emphasizing his loneliness, the price of alienation he must pay for his powers; they hysterically reject his violent alter-ego, or demand attention for themselves, thus depriving him of the sympathy he needs after a hard day of saving the world; and worst of all, they expose him to danger on their fragile behalf, thus threatening him through their own vulnerability. Women are increasingly, negatively, important in the masculine comic world (3).

Laura Mulvey (1975) offers, from a Lacanian perspective on audience reception, the notion of the male gaze, whereby the female characters in film are viewed in a scopophilic manner by both the spectator qua spectator and by the spectator through the patriarchal point of view of lead male characters. Tania Modleski (1988) counters that the "male spectator is as much ‘deconstructed’ as constructed" in such ways, since this form of filmic technique reveals "a fascination with femininity that throws masculine identity into question and crisis" (87). Superhero films, I think, support both sides of this argument. There can be little question that the female form is idealized in such films, and that stories are told largely through the point of view of the superhero/alter ego. Yet the hamstrung nature in which these central characters pursue their mission or their mistress suggests as much uncertainty as it does mastery. Catwoman (both as a foil to Batman and as her own central character) plays a much different role than, say, Lois Lane, and may be seen as empowering. As Orr points out, Catwoman " ‘see(s)’ phallocentrism and patriarchy, and is seen by it, more specifically than Batman" (179). While she may fulfill female redemptive wishes, however, she is also highly sexualized in her black leather catsuit and no doubt performs a different function for the male gaze. Wonder Woman, similarly, is an area of feminist and queer theory subversion clothed (barely) in the red, white, and blue terms of American patriarchy5.

     Mary Jane Watson, then, deserves analysis as a contemporary representation of super-hero femininity. As the girlfriend, to what degree does she represent Glicksohn’s (now potentially outdated) solely problematic woman? As a character in her own right, where does her agency lie? Psychoanalysis, I think, can help readers/viewers to better understand the embedded discourse of MJ, especially as she relates to her male (super- and non-super-) counterparts. This discourse is the bedrock of the two films, as brief plot summaries will make clear.


III. Understanding the Spider-Man films psychoanalytically

Synopses of the texts

     Parker begins the first film as a socially inept suburban-New York high school student fostering his crush on MJ. Parker has lived with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) since early childhood, his parents having been taken from him in a manner which, significantly, is not broached in the course of the films. MJ lives next-door with her abusive, dead-beat father and dates a good-looking jock named, of course, Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello).

     Parker’s best friend is Harry Osborn, the brooding, underachieving son of the spectacularly rich Norman Osborn, head of Oscorp. Embarrassed to be dropped off in the family Rolls Royce, Harry joins Parker on a class field trip to the Columbia University science labs, where researchers are working on genetically-engineered super-spiders. Immediately after Parker nervously approaches MJ for her picture (he is a photographer for the school paper), he is bitten by an escaped spider.

     Later, Peter uncharacteristically avoids conversation with his aunt and uncle and goes to bed feeling horrible. When he wakes up, his formerly poor eyesight is clear and his body, only hours before the very picture of frailty, is now strong and chiseled. Parker begins to discover new powers, such as wall-climbing, web-spinning, and an uncanny "spider-sense" which allows him to avoid danger in super-human ways. These new powers inadvertently land Parker in a school fight with Thompson, who is summarily discharged by Parker’s newfound strength.

     Similarly, MJ at this time begins to notice Parker in ways she previously had not. Sensing this, Parker tries to earn money for a flashy car by signing up for matches in a brutal wrestling league. Winning the match, Peter goes to collect his money, which the promoter declines to give him. Seconds later, a thief steals the proceeds from that night’s matches and Parker, in an act of revenge toward the promoter, allows the thief to escape. The thief then assaults Uncle Ben, who had been waiting outside under the assumption that Parker was studying at the library. Ben dies, and Parker uses his powers to find the assailant and, though he does not kill him outright, watches as he falls to his death. It is at this point that the self-indicting Parker takes his uncle’s words – "with great power comes great responsibility" – to heart, and decides to devote his life to the protection of those weaker than him.

     Oscorp, meanwhile, has failed in its bid to provide the US military with an unstable performance-enhancing solution. In a last-ditch attempt to get the contract, the ambitious Norman uses himself as the first human test subject for the solution. The volatility of the substance not only turns Norman into the powerful, violent Green Goblin, it also seems to cause a personality split which is played out in actual dialogue between the two sides of the character throughout the film. Despite the Goblin’s efforts to thwart the competition, Oscorp is bought out and Norman is removed from power by his board of directors. The Goblin exacts his revenge in a major public event sponsored by Oscorp, essentially murdering all members of the board before the decision can be made. It is at this point that the Goblin and Spider-Man meet for the first time.

     The ensuing cat-and-mouse game ends with a climactic battle between the two powerful figures in which the villain is dispatched by his own technology and malice. The two foes are unmasked to each other, and Norman’s dying words to Parker ask that he not tell Harry about his father’s alter ego. Spider-Man returns Norman’s body to Harry, who is led to believe that his father was in fact killed by the super hero. Parker stays mum on the Goblin’s true identity. MJ, after a dalliance with Harry, comes to profess her love for Parker, who painfully turns her down in the film’s final scene, as he ascetically chooses the noble path and her unknowing security over his true love.

     In Spider-Man 2, we move forward approximately two years. Parker, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to juggle work, school, and crimefighting, is failing at all but the latter. His skills have improved greatly, but his personal life is in a shambles. It is for his birthday, which he has forgotten, that he is reunited with Harry (now a division head at Oscorp) and MJ (now a stage actress in New York). Harry points out Parker that he still has a chance with MJ, and expresses his anger with Parker (who makes money by submitting photos of Spider-Man which no one else can get) for not revealing the identity of his father’s murderer.

     Parker has no money, and he learns that his widowed Aunt is unable to meet house payments. He lives in a hovel of an apartment with a pushy landlord, gets fired from his pizza delivery job, and continually misses appointments in his battle with lawlessness. Frustrated by Parker’s equivocal romantic posturings, MJ becomes engaged to Jameson, the astronaut son of the ornery newspaper publisher. Harry, meanwhile, has funded the work of Dr. Otto Octavius, a brilliant mind in the area of fusion technology with plans to create cheap, renewable energy for the entire world. When Octavius’ experiment goes afoul, he is fused with the four artificially-intelligent, omnipotent arms he created and attached to himself in order to work with the dangerous technology. An "inhibitor chip" is damaged, giving Octavius no control over the arms and, in fact, putting them in control of him. The arms turn his mind back to his ambition, one which is now unbridled by concern for others. At this point, Otto Octavius becomes the villain Dr. Octopus, or Doc Ock.

     Harry loses untold millions on the failed experiment and turns inward to his obsession with finding and killing Spider-Man. Approached by Ock for the crucial ingredient in his technology, Harry pledges to give it to him in return for Spider-Man, a deal which opens the centerpiece action sequence of the film as the hero and villain duke it out all over Manhattan. Spider-Man is delivered to Harry, who is shocked to find his best friend in the costume. Ock, meanwhile, has completed the technology for his next experiment, one which, predictably, goes wildly out of control and puts the entire city at risk. In the process of baiting Spider-Man, he has abducted MJ, who is tied up, helpless, as the experiment gets underway. Spider-Man, having defeated Ock but remaining helpless to stop the fusion reaction, reveals himself as Parker and appeals to Octavius’ sense of intelligence as a "gift," to which Octavius responds by overcoming the influence of his mechanical arms and sacrificing himself. The reaction is stopped, and the city is saved.

     MJ, meanwhile, finally sees Spider-Man’s true identity, and Parker finally reveals to her that it is because he is Spider-Man that he cannot put her into danger by being involved with her. Jameson, the fiance', returns to collect his missing bride, and Spider-Man reluctantly disappears into the night. The end of the film portrays MJ leaving her astronaut at the altar and finding Parker in his apartment, where she professes her intention to live with the risks for the sake of love. Harry, meanwhile, wracked by conflictual feelings in the wake of his own discovery of Spider-Man’s true identity, suffers the same break as his father, talking with the vengeful image of his dead father/Green Goblin in the mirror of his study. Rejecting his father, he breaks the glass, revealing the hidden arsenal of the Green Goblin and his father’s duplicity. We are left to speculate to what use Harry will put this new possibility in Spider-Man 3, slated for a 2007 release.


Oedipal themes

     In the first film, Parker is lectured by his uncle on the proper use of his power, couched in terms of adolescence rather than superheroism. Parker, in true teenager mode, reacts negatively to the lecture. "I know I’m not your father," Ben says, to which Parker replies bitingly, "…then why are you trying to be?!" The comment clearly stings, and Parker leaves his uncle immediately aware of the gravity of his words. It is at this point that Parker eschews the library for the financial promise of the wrestling match, making these his final words to the man who was, for all intents and purposes, his father.

     The following sequence, as we have seen, involves the escape of the thief – an escape made possible by Parker’s refusal to act – and the resultant murder of Uncle Ben. This crucial moment in the development of Spider-Man displays two moments of parricide, one metaphorical and one actual. Parker, in affirming Ben’s role as only a surrogate father, semantically destroys the father/son bond. In pointing out, rather harshly, that Ben, as surrogate, has no grounds on which to lecture him, Parker reaffirms Ben’s proper role and removes him from that of father. More obviously, a few moments later, Ben is actually killed through a series of events leading back to a key moment of decision on Parker’s part. In this way it could easily be posited that Parker, like Oedipus, accidentally killed his father.

     After this moment, Parker is the lone caretaker of his Aunt May. In Freudian terms, he has achieved the unconscious desire to remove the patriarchal figure and possess the mother. Indeed, for most of the duration of the two films, Aunt May is continually, though reluctantly, looking to either Parker or Spider-Man for assistance, a responsibility Parker takes with the utmost seriousness. It is the attack on Aunt May, in fact, by the Green Goblin that sets Parker’s mind against a union with MJ, since it becomes clear to him that his identity had been learned and his loved ones put in danger as a result.

     Another interesting Oedipal triangle is established in the first film by the relationship between Harry Osborn, his father Norman, and MJ. Harry’s mother is never mentioned. One can only assume that Norman, immersed as he appears to be in his business affairs, alienated her in much the same way he has Harry. But Harry remains fiercely loyal to his father, anxious to please him however he can, especially after Norman, a scientist as well, takes a liking to the intelligent Parker.

     Shortly after Harry and MJ begin a romantic relationship, the group – Parker, MJ, Aunt May, Harry, and Norman – gather in Parker and Harry’s midtown apartment for Thanksgiving. Parker and Norman, fresh off a battle between their alter egos, both arrive late, and Parker unknowingly reveals himself to Norman by displaying a laceration that Norman recognizes as having been sustained during the recent scuffle. Norman, shocked by the discovery and pained by the loss of his preferred "son" – leaves abruptly, but not before telling Harry to separate himself from MJ. He bitterly describes her as, essentially, a gold-digger (a view, one is led to believe, he had toward Harry’s mother), well within earshot of the group. MJ protests Harry’s unwillingness to defend her and Harry, confused, takes the side of his father.

     The preceding sequence illustrates the problem as it is presented to Harry. He is horribly inept as a male partner, offering nothing to MJ but his money. His conflicted feelings toward his father – a true love/hate relationship – leave him unable to deal with women. It will be necessary for him to remove his father in order to achieve the personal happiness he desires, and one gets the impression that at least part of the anger Harry feels toward Spider-Man for his father’s murder is that of having the opportunity taken from him to do it himself. Now, without a father to slay, Harry is trapped in the shadow of the omnipotent patriarch, a position illustrated in the aformentioned scene in the study. Here, as we have seen, Harry again tries to slay the father by throwing a dagger through his image in the mirror, only to reveal the trove of his father’s alter ego. In his inability to kill his father, we are led to believe, Harry is destined to become him.

     The Harry-Norman relationship, however, is problematic in Oedipal terms for its lack of a mother. We could, as we have seen, substitute MJ here, but her presence between them is more catalytic than as an object of desire. An interesting position one might take here is to posit a homoerotic competition between Harry and Norman to possess Parker. Both have strong feelings of affection toward Parker, and Harry’s rage at Parker’s choice to protect Spider-Man rather than reveal his identity has all the drama of a jilted lover’s despondency. Thus his abject horror at finding that Parker and Spider-Man are one. This triangle is further complicated by Norman’s appeal to Parker in the scene of his death. "I’ve been like a father to you," Norman pleads, "be a son to me now." Parker replies by reaffirming Uncle Ben’s status as his true father, thereby slaying another patriarchal pretender. Norman’s final words, "Don’t tell Harry," serve then as much to keep his illicit love for Parker a secret as they do to keep quiet his identity as the Green Goblin.

     The most elegant and fruitful triangle to explore in Oedipal terms is, however, that between Parker, MJ, and Spider-Man himself. In the first film, as we have seen, Parker submits to the will of Spider-Man in the sense that he rejects the advances of MJ and commits himself to a life of superheroic service. Clearly, the admonishment against selfish sexual satisfaction and the adulation of repression act here to reify the conscious dictum against parricide and incest, for there can be little doubt that MJ, whose first name after all is Mary, acts as a mother figure in this triad. She is enthralled with Spider-Man, who saves her life on two occasions. The hero is in full libidinal possession of her, as a highly erotic kissing scene – whereby Spider-Man hangs upside down, half-unmasked in the pouring rain – reveals. And yet her feelings for Parker, more tender than erotic in nature, also intensify. At the conclusion of the first film, Parker has withstood the passionate desire for the mother and submitted to the will of the repressive patriarch, Spider-Man.

     In the second film, however, Parker’s situation becomes increasingly untenable. He comes to resent his omnipotent alter ego for its imposition on the consummation of his feelings for MJ. As MJ drifts away from him, Parker sees a doctor in hopes of explaining a mystifying inability spin webs (more on this later). The doctor tells him that his problem, pointing to his head, is "all up here," and reminds him that he has a choice. The doctor, of course, has no idea of Parker’s alter ego, but nonetheless his advice makes Parker’s path clear to him. He must reject, abandon – in fact, kill – Spider-Man in order to possess MJ and be finally happy. This he does, rejecting the dream-sequence pep-talk of his deceased uncle, and pledging to be "Spider-Man no more."

     Parker then sets about making things right with MJ, who by this time, as we have seen, has agreed to marry another man. Despite a considerable decrease in his powers (eyesight, strength, etc.), he is visibly unburdened by this decision. He is ultimately successful in his pursuit of MJ, but, interestingly, a talk with his primary mother figure, Aunt May, reestablishes the primacy of the authoritarian, patriarchal Spider-Man as necessary to society. In Freudian terms, we can also posit the sudden realization of the proximity of sex with the mother, the immediacy of the possibility of the act itself, as a catalyst for the return to repression. Peter in any case rethinks his position, rejects once again the utterly confused MJ, and returns to crime-fighting with renewed vigor once MJ is taken hostage by Doc Ock. In the end, the mother figure, MJ, consents to a menage-a-trois of sorts, accepting both Spider-Man and Parker – both father and son – as her lovers, a decision the wisdom of which remains clearly in doubt.


Degradation and impotence

     Another interesting Freudian angle to take in consideration of these films is in the continually evolving nature of Parker’s feelings for MJ and, in turn, MJ’s evolving role in the construction of those feelings. The central metaphor in such a discussion is Spider-Man’s web-spinning ability, the raw material for which (the webs themselves) serve as a clear metaphor for semen throughout the two films. Parker’s initial discovery of the substance in the school cafeteria, where his inadvertent adhesion to various objects gets him into conflict with Flash, illustrates the embarrassing first discovery on the part of the human male of his ability to emit such a substance. The silky, white, sticky nature of the substance is a clear corollary to its reproductive counterpart, a comparison which makes Spider-Man’s later inability to spin webs an equally clear representation of psychical impotence.

     Freud asserts that such impotence stems from the incestuous desire of the male to have sex with the mother, a condition which leads to a bifurcation of filial and sensual love. The former is reserved for the mother or sister, the latter for presumably unattached females encountered during and after puberty. "The sensual feeling that has remained active," Freud relates

seeks only objects evoking no reminder of the incestuous persons forbidden to it; the impression made by someone who seems deserving of high estimation leads, not to a sensual excitation, but to feelings of tenderness which remain erotically ineffectual. The erotic life of such people remains dissociated, divided between two channels…Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love ("The most prevalent form…, 177).

Freud goes on to posit that, in those individuals for whom this bifurcation remains – must remain – solid, the need surfaces to view those with whom successful sexual relations might be had as somehow "lower" or "inferior." One manifestation of this lowering is to see the woman as attached in some way, thereby generating an "injured third party." In this way, the male, according to Freud, is able to see himself as erotically involved with a lower woman, involved as she is in the cuckolding of another male. Moreover, the male in this subversive position often sees himself in the role of a perpetual savior, constantly shepherding the lower women from danger. It is in the context of the latter two points that I would like to consider the impotence of Spider-Man and its relationship to the Parker/MJ dynamic.

     Spider-Man experiences no problems with vitality in the first film. In the initial episode, he rescues MJ from mortal danger on two occasions, and partakes in the aforementioned rain-soaked kiss despite her ongoing relationship with Harry. Parker, for his part, attracts the love of MJ, but is forced to renounce that love for the sake of his alter-ego. Spider-Man has thus, essentially, cuckolded not one but two competitors for MJ's attention.

     In the second film, however, the combination of Parker’s resolute refusal to consummate any erotic feelings he might have for MJ, along with the eventual disappearance of Spider-Man, moves MJ into the arms of Jameson. It is at this moment, immediately after it becomes clear to Parker that MJ has accepted a proposal from this new man in her life, that he first falls as a consequence of his inability to spin webs. This inability continues sporadically throughout the film until the very moment when, first, Peter is about to kiss the betrothed MJ and, second, she is abducted by Doc Ock (thus putting her once again in mortal danger). At this crucial time, Spider-Man regains his focus and is once again at full strength.

     This short timeline serves, I think, to illustrate a clear need on the part of Spider-Man/Parker to hold MJ in a very particular position. Parker’s tender feelings, running back many years into pre-pubescent childhood, no doubt necessitate the kind of lowering Freud posits. The "injured third party," whether in the role of Harry or Parker himself, serves this purpose for Spider-Man. Once he himself becomes the injured third party, however (at the moment of MJ’s engagement), his impotence sets in. Later, when he is able to see himself once again as both subversive lover and as savior, his vitality returns.

     The savior motif, however, is somewhat complicated for Spider-Man/Parker. Spider-Man, as we have seen, is able to restore his prowess largely through the physical act of salvation – doing battle with Doc Ock, performing acts of great strength and skill, and lifting the heroine to safety. On the other hand, Parker sees himself as saving MJ through his denial of their romantic relationship, since in his view such a relationship would bring her into the cognizance of his enemies. Perhaps it could be said that the eventual reunion of Spider-Man and Parker into one person, effected through MJ’s realization of their/his true identities, achieves the kind of fusion of "tenderness and sensuality" Freud finds so uncommon in human love relations (180).

     Finally, it should be pointed out that MJ’s role as the madonna/whore in Spider-Man/Parker’s sexual life is supplemented by her action as an Oedipal agent in her own right. As the daughter of an abusive patriarch, MJ sees in Spider-Man an apt representation of her father. Though he acts in diametrically opposite ways toward her (saving her rather than condemning her), she is nonetheless attracted to the vitality of Spider-Man as a symptom of her larger desire to possess the powerful patriarch. Since there is no mother in the way, MJ moves her way past a number of lesser male suitors (Harry, Parker, and Jameson) in her quest to conquer the hero. That she succeeds in doing so is met, as her ambivalent gaze out the window to close the second film illustrates, with some level of apprehension and disappointment.


The conscious/unconscious split

     Norman Osborn, though distracted, ambitious, and largely absent as a parent, nonetheless reifies traditional Protestant values such as a rigid work ethic, advancement and accumulation through wisdom and frugality, and responsibility. His alter ego, the Green Goblin, is by contrast without restraint and appeals to Osborn’s sense of pride, entitlement, and revenge. The Goblin, created as he was with faulty, aggression-heightening performance-enhancement drugs, is a powerful, vicious, remorseless creature, an uber-mensch with the power to destroy those who would stand in his way. He is a clear representation of the unbridled ego, cackling at one point that "no one says no to me!" Were it not for the presence of Spider-Man, New York, at least, would be lost.

     Similarly, Otto Octavius, though brilliant and equally ambitious, is at pains to lecture Parker, who has been missing class, about the responsibilities associated with the "gift" of intelligence. Again, he preaches hard work and obligation. When Octavius’ experiment goes awry, and he becomes Doc Ock, he loses any kind of restraint in the pursuit of his goal. Needing money to buy equipment for a new fusion device, he resorts to robbing banks. Needing tridium (the magic ingredient in the reaction), he figures simply to take it from Harry. When Harry posits the deal, whereby Ock brings Spider-Man to him, Ock is merciless in his pursuit of the hero. Only by Parker’s coaxing out of Octavius’ conscious self, removing him from the influence of the arms, is disaster averted.

     In both cases, we can clearly see the repressive role of the conscious self at play here, especially in contrast to the explosive, narcissistic ego which emerges through scientific mishap. Osborn and Octavius are clearly framed as the wiser, more sustainable alternatives to their alter egos. The Goblin and Doc Ock are passion, ambition, hate, and pride unburdened by the restrictions of the conscious, social self. They are thus cataclysmically dangerous to humankind, the very embodiment of social impropriety and the rejection of human community. It is immediately understandable, then, that these characters are villains, villains whose exploits must be thwarted.

     Harry Osborn, similarly, vacillates between two poles. As the best friend of Peter Parker, he often works on his behalf, giving him advice about his relationship with MJ, arranging a meeting with Octavius (on whom Parker is writing a paper), and even, in the end, when he has already named Parker to Doc Ock as the conduit through which to find Spider-Man, advocating to Ock’s unhearing ears that he not "hurt Peter." As the arch-enemy of Spider-Man, however, he rejects all feelings of fraternity with Parker and sees him only as an impediment to the fulfillment of his desire for revenge. He drinks constantly, obsessing over the location of his father’s "murderer," until finally relinquishing any concern for human society by knowingly giving the tridium – which he has every reason to believe will produce catastrophic results – in exchange for his moment of narcissistic redemption.

     But Spider-Man/Parker himself (themselves?) complicates this clean split between the morally upright, restrained symbol of consciousness and repression on the one hand, and the omnipotent, childlike superhuman ego on the other. In the aforementioned characters, the ego represents the omnipotence, the ability, potential or realized, to do what one wants. By contrast, omnipotence for the hero, since it is meant ostensibly to be used for "good," represents repression. Being Spider-Man, rather than rejecting him for a normal life with MJ, is presented to Parker as being the "steady" alternative; the rejection of personal desires, one’s "dreams," is posed as the ideal. In this case, then, omnipotence is to be embraced rather than feared, and what is to be rejected is the selfish desire to ignore such powers and be what can only be described as "normal." Might it be posited, then, that the ego is represented in these films not by sheer omnipotence, but by the somewhat simpler construct of selfishness? Even if this is the case, defining what is selfish for Spider-Man/Parker is difficult. In his desire to keep MJ safe from harm, and thus maintaining a position of savior, it might be said that Parker is catering to narcissistic tendencies. Conversely, his abandonment of his super powers in hopes of possessing MJ is clearly a symptom of narcissistic object-love. Finally, the resolution that both sides, in fact, of the Spider-Man/Parker dichotomy get the girl and continue to fight crime leaves us wondering just how we should feel about this character. To whom is his allegiance most securely attached? Us or her?


IV. Conclusion

     In the sequel, Aunt May tells Parker that society needs someone who is "courageous, self-sacrificing" to teach them "how to hold on a second longer." She believes, in one of the tag lines of the film, that "there is a hero in all of us." What might also be intimated here is that there is also a villain in all of us, a conclusion which one might easily draw not only from these films, but from the genre in general. How this apparently ubiquitous hero/villain dichotomy plays out in extraordinary individuals is, I think, meant as a blueprint for how it might or might not play out in each of us. In Freudian terms, then, Spider-Man allows us to see the potential inherent in unconscious desires, and the emancipation which can come from knowing them.

     The bitter irony presented to Parker in this story is that he is able to achieve his desires (the attainment of MJ) only through the confidence he attains from his newfound power. In the end, however, it is this very power which necessitates his refusal, through much of the two films, to consummate the relationship for which he has pined for so long. Staring out a window as he ponders his decision to return to crime-fighting, Parker asks himself, "am I not supposed to have what I want?" If we view the relationship between Parker and MJ in Freudian terms, the clear answer is, of course, no. None of us are, since what we really want is the return to primary narcissism, the disposal of the father, and the possession of the mother for all time. That Parker achieves a middle way in this narrative is thus enormously interesting, both terms of psychoanalytic theory and in terms of the genre. Curious indeed will be the choices made in the development of the next film in the series. Will this relationship be consummated, and, if so, by whom?


End Notes


1 In addition to fulfilling the wishes of the reader/viewer, superheroic characters may also be psychoanalyzed in their own right. Michael Brody (1995), for example, points out that “Bruce Wayne’s vow to fight crime is a compensatory wish” made in response to the loss of his parents to a homicidal mugger (174).

2 See, for example, Jung (1990), Hopcke (1992), and Iacchino (1997).

3 See Orr (1994)

4 I will describe below in greater detail the ways in which this structure is facilitated in the Spider-Man films.

5 See Peters, 2003.


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert M. Peaslee ""With great power comes great responsibility": Central psychoanalytic motifs in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/m_peaslee-with_great_power_comes_great_responsibil. April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 15, 2005, Published: July 20, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Robert M. Peaslee