Spider-Man series stands out from the crowd of comic book movies, and not just due to better writing. Like most comic books, the super-power button in Spider-Man is clearly labeled “freaky science side-effect.” But whereas X-men, Batman, and Superman rarely return to the topic of science once their respective genetic, technological, and extra-solar superpower justifications have been established, Spider-Man returns to scientific topics repeatedly. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) focuses his education on science, becomes Spider-Man on a science field trip, and crosses paths with over-zealous scientists who become his super-foes.
Yet Spider-Man is not just a Tolkienesque movie alleging the dark, dehumanizing results of scientific progress. Instead, director Sam Raimi masterfully interweaves science with sexuality. The main character’s name, “Peter Parker,” indicates what these movies are really about—his initials are the name by which small boys are taught to refer to their genitals. In the Spider-Man movies, science and phallocentrism take center stage, and Spider-Man embodies the noble and innocent pee-pee, trying to find his footing as a budding scientist in the aftermath of the sexual revolution.
Raimi in the Spider-Man series literally merges science and humanity as we witness the creation of the superhero and super-villains. Each amalgamation of man and science takes place under different circumstances and signifies divergent approaches to science and its application in society.
Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) becomes the first super-villain, the Green Goblin, when he tests experimental performance enhancers on himself. This character is the prototypical scientist/inventor as famous, wealthy entrepreneur; he is a modern Thomas Edison. But unlike Edison’s Menlo Park labs, Osborn’s Oscorp hangs by a thread of fiscal solvency. Research must proceed immediately, and financial pressure leads to cutting corners. The result is the premature human trial that creates the Green Goblin. Osborn approaches science like he approaches life: manipulating it to his supposed advantage. In this paradigm, science provides the means for controlling nature, while nature is seen as existing to fulfill human desires and is thus treated recklessly, cavalierly, as something to be conquered.
In Spider-Man 2, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) also suffers a transformation in the course of an Oscorp experiment with his fusion reactor. In this case, the tables are turned: Technology takes control of man as Octavius’s prosthetic arms are inextricably wed with his body. When put to the test, this once good scientist sacrifices everything for his experiment—or, more accurately, for its support of his reputation. His noble-sounding purposes are subverted as he is driven to a life of crime, his life seemingly taken over by his four prosthetic arms.
Fusion, energy’s holy grail, forms the perfect backdrop for this maligned venture. In the world’s quest for energy to fuel its economy, fusion remains the one possibility that may eliminate the supply and pollution problems inherent in existing energy sources. On one level people drive the search for fusion, but they are compelled to do so by their own energy-hungry technology. Octavius, unbalanced and occasionally controlled by a device of his own design, embodies this ironic situation. In this view, technology—perhaps inevitably—supercedes the will of man, and further investment in technology (recreating the fusion experiment) is required to justify his very existence.
The counterweight to these villains (one willful, one arguably inadvertent) is, of course, Spider-Man. The innocence that Peter Parker exudes when spouting stamp-collecting arachnid trivialities while on a science field trip emphasizes his scientific naiveté. The dialogue emphasizes his status as star science student before his encounter with the transgenic spider turns Parker into a science experiment all his own.
His passive transformation and response is a contrast with the villains. Initially surprised, curious, and clumsy with the super-powers, he eventually becomes the self-questioning hero, spouting the series catch-phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility.” His novelty is in being a scientist who becomes one with his experiment through happenstance and, more importantly, who continues to be conscious of the way his understanding of nature influences the world around him. Such self-conscious science is best seen in the sexual undertones in the Spider-Man series.
Some of the strongest images in the Spider-Man series arise from sexual subtexts. What better way to confront the social implications of science than through sexuality, and what better symbol for this than a spider? Black widows famously eat their mates following copulation, a biological fact that infuses the sexual experience with danger and dread for anybody paying attention. Welcome to the twenty-first century, Spider-Man. The sexual revolution is a fact of life, and sexuality continues to evolve thanks to new scientific and pseudo-scientific findings—novel diseases, contraceptives, pleasure-enhancing techniques, and social, ideological, and technological movements.
Matthew Kirby describes the sexuality in the first Spider-Man in his Metaphilm essay, but additional focus on the imagery of employment as related to sexuality will lead to wider themes within the series.
The film’s connection of work and sexual prowess is stark. Peter shows up outside Mary Jane’s (Kirsten Dunst) work, begging for the scoop on her “job.” She rewards him with a quick flash of her uniform from under a trench coat. After Peter sells his first photograph, he triumphantly brags to the secretary, “I’m a photographer,” with camera draped prominently at his waist. She eyes his member/camera and smiles, “I can see that.”
If jobs are libidos, Norm Osborn begins the first film facing castration. The feds aren’t satisfied with his progress and are ready to pull their financial support. To keep this from happening, he administers the experimental performance enhancers to himself, steals the company hovercraft, and sails off to prove to his employer that he can sustain his career—and for longer than he ever imagined! All thanks to Viagra. Norm reacts so viscerally to the potential loss of funding because work is far more than just employment. It is sexual identity.
Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) has been laid off from his job. “The plant’s senior electrician” is now reduced to changing light bulbs in his kitchen. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) assures him that “I love you and Peter loves you,” but all the condolences in the world don’t change his inability to provide for them/sustain an erection.
Spider-Man the crime-fighter is born when Uncle Ben dies. Ben’s death is the turning point that makes Peter realize that the old sexual/employment paradigm of work, reward, and retirement is over. Sex is no longer only for the sake of reproduction; work is apparently needed for more than simply feeding the children until age eighteen. Norm Osborn, transformed into the Goblin, has subscribed to the new paradigm and intends to continue working (screwing) well into old age, with the help of science.
Peter Parker’s employment record reinforces the webbing-as-masturbation theme Kirby described so eloquently. Peter knows he doesn’t want to simply throw himself into the “job market.” Offered a position by Norman Osborn, he turns it down so that he can become a “self-made man.” He finds employment doing freelance photography, selling pictures of Spider-Man. Pictures of himself. Could the autoeroticism be any more blatant? He is his own boss, and all he does is photograph himself in acrobatic positions. Clearly, Spider-Man at this stage is the onanists’ superhero: self-conscious, racked by guilt, and preoccupied by fantasy. Authority figures persistently misunderstand his actions, insisting he must be up to no good despite all evidence to the contrary.
The conflict between the Green Goblin and Spider-Man does not arise as they fight over a limited pool of potential mates, but rather because Spider-Man will not join the Goblin’s crusade. A thin sheen of sexual innuendo hides the deeper conflict between Osborn and Parker, which originates with scientific progress and a new sexual revolution.
In the first sexual revolution, birth control empowered young women (of child-bearing age) by giving them a means of control over their reproductive functions. This change resonated beyond the bedroom, fueling women’s liberation and helping women enter the workforce. In the new sexual revolution, Viagra revitalizes older men so they need not retire and thus prolongs the dependence of their young. Retirement is neglected at the expense of “investing” in children: car, college tuition, down-payment on that first house, and so on . . . It takes a couple hundred thousand dollars to turn a child into an impotent thirty-year old!
In Spider-Man, Viagra helps Norm do exactly this. After vanquishing his competition in business, the Green Goblin turns immediately to controlling his family. During the Thanksgiving scene Norm hands his son, Harry (James Franco), impotence by insulting Mary Jane with his intentionally loud “gold digger” talk. Afterward, Harry has no choice but to stick up for his father, claiming, “If I’m lucky, I’ll be half the man he is.” Harry knows his role as dependent, and he is resigned to wasting his youthful vitality. Thus, the Green Goblin is able to extend his scientific philosophy of control from his laboratory into society at large.
There is a clear parallel between the scenes where Osborn offers Peter a job and where the Green Goblin tries to convince Spider-Man to “join him.” In both cases, the older generation is offering the younger an entry into the neo-Puritan work ethic of never-ending toil. But Peter, denied the gift of wealthy parents, is also unconstrained by material dependence and free to choose his own course. He has witnessed the seeming demise of his uncle’s traditional work/sexuality and is not deluded about the possibility of resurrecting it. Unwilling to forfeit sexuality, however, he searches for another path, and turns to masturbation.
Spider-Man’s rejection of the Green Goblin’s offer creates the background for the climatic battle scene, in which Osborn tries to force his worldview upon Parker. When they meet on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Goblin gives Spider-Man a “sadistic choice” between saving a cable-car full of children (his future) or let Mary Jane (his sexual desires) plummet into the East River. Of course, the hero attempts to protect them both.
Importantly, Spider-Man is only able to rescue MJ and the children with the help of society—the crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge and the ferryboat operators. In response, the Goblin flies with Spider-Man to a place where their differing ideologies can be compared without reference to society. Here Norman meets his demise and Spider-Man reveals that consciousness of the world around you (his spider-sense) can triumph over an obsession for control. Natural, cautious sexuality trumps pharmaceuticals; biology defeats chemistry.
But damage is done. Our hero begins to think the only way to protect society is to separate himself (and science) from it. He is thus unable to begin a healthy relationship with Mary Jane. Instead, he takes Joycelyn Elders’s advice and reaffirms his commitment to be Spider-Man, surviving on self-gratification.
Two years later, the second film begins without missing a beat. The pee-pee (Spider-Man) appears resigned to his life of solitude and clandestine sexual expression. Yet the lifestyle choices Peter made in the first movie are beginning to take their toll. While delaying sexuality until middle age is not the answer, he finds that autoeroticism doesn’t continue to gratify him—it doesn’t “pay the rent.”
Peter’s sexual insecurity takes center stage in Spider-Man 2, and it all seems to be about the timing. He is unable to deliver pizzas on time and is fired. Mary Jane is premiering on Broadway, and he lets her down when he can’t make curtain. Even at the cocktail party he’s photographing, he’s repeatedly a moment too late to get a single appetizer. Being late in life is an inversion of his sex life, where he is too early; Peter suffers from premature ejaculation.
This inversion of his private problems takes center stage when he begins to lose his super-powers. Most notably, he is unable to sling webs when he wants, whereas his private problem seems to be an inability not to squirt. This inversion symbolism recurs again when Peter loses his perfect vision (goes blind) when he stops being Spider-Man—when he stops masturbating.
Peter soon finds himself interviewing Otto Octavius, who embodies everything he would like to be. A physically imposing senior scientist at Oscorp, Dr. Octavius has gained widespread recognition for his work and appears to be happily married. Successful in both professional and personal settings, Otto lectures Peter on the basics of his fusion reactor, the role of science to improve society, and using poetry in relationships.
Peter follows the doctor’s advice and tries reciting poetry to Mary Jane. This works out about as well as the trial run of the fusion reactor, during which Rosalie Octavius (Donna Murphy) is killed and her spouse fused with his prosthetic arms, becoming the dreaded Dr. Octopus. A new rival has arisen to challenge Spider-Man at a particularly vulnerable point in his life. His personal life is falling apart and his new role model quickly proves fallible. Peter finds that even a great scientist can be wrong; he has no one to rely on but himself.
Otto Octavius is the antithesis of Norman Osborn. Where the Green Goblin uses cold reason to guide his actions and control his surroundings, Dr. Octopus is driven by his desires. Otto thinks he knows what society (and women) want—fusion energy (and T. S. Eliot)—and he wants to be the crackpot (and sex-pot) to give it to them. To reach these ends he goes to great, well, lengths toward personal augmentation, outfitting himself with mechanical arms hard-wired directly into his nervous system. This represents his role in the new sexual revolution, symbolizing the advent of “mechanical augmentation” such as penis enlargement pills, or “natural” male enhancement. Dr. Octavius has so deluded himself that he thinks his own dreams are what the missus really wants. When he loses his wife during the fusion reactor test, he retreats to an island hermitage, convinced he will get it right if he could only make it bigger next time. Masculine misconceptions about size preoccupy Otto’s activities, revealing that his work is inspired ultimately by self-aggrandizement and not society’s needs.
Meanwhile, Parker is confronting personal demons. Convinced that the effort he puts toward masturbation has led to declining schoolwork, lack of confidence with MJ, and premature ejaculation, Peter decides to stop being Spider-Man. That is, he tries to stop masturbating.
During Spidey’s hiatus, Doc Ock torments the city with his mechanical enhancements. His insatiable desire to make a bigger power supply/penis runs unchecked by self-stimulation/Spider-Man. After forcing Spider-Man out of retirement, Dr. Octopus taunts him, revealing his inadequacy by making him chase a run-away train. What better symbol for overcoming premature ejaculation? However, Spider-Man realizes that he can control the train not by brute force, but by using his mind to find the right technique. Pee-pee has discovered how to control his arousal when alone. The act of “self-abuse” that he turned to in fear and shame during the first movie helps him restore his confidence in the second.
Whereas Octavius initially spouts rhetoric about scientists improving the lives of others, it soon becomes clear that his research goals focus on his own inflated organ/ego. Peter discovered the shallowness of this approach when MJ shot it down. Indeed, it is only men who want engorged salamis; their partners are more interested in the boy behind the mask, who—hopefully—is capable of tenderness, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness. Peter relates this to Dr. Octopus, who chooses to suicidally quench his own sordid experiment rather than go on living in a world where his fantasies are unwanted by others.
The rejection of penis pills in the Spider-Man movies represents more than just the acceptance and affirmation of natural masculine sexuality. The (traditionally male-dominated) natural sciences are confronted with real moral questions in these pictures. Are complicated engineering solutions the best way to confront problems? Parker decides they aren’t, but not for reactionary reasons. He is also a budding scientist, and is very much interested in his arch-enemies’ scientific research. But the repeated need to clean up after the rash decisions of the elder scientists forces the law of unintended consequences into his understanding of the world.
Additionally, the movies build on a feminist critique of the first sexual revolution: that it enabled sex to become commonplace outside of relationships, with the unintended consequence of turning women into objects for the sexual gratification of men. Newer phallic-centered medicines (Viagra and Enzyte) fuel the male desire to treat themselves and their surroundings as objects to be controlled, and not counterparts with whom to coexist. Most (if not all) previous super-hero movies reflect the modernist-masculine approach to nature, as the hero treats the public as an object to be saved, protected, or manipulated. Spider-Man 2 offers a sharp contrast.
This connection is seen most clearly in the train sequence. When Peter finally halts the runaway train, he does so unmasked and vulnerable. Spider-Man is not separate from the subway patrons, but rides the runaway train with them. His actions incorporate the help and advice of those he aids. They encourage and question him as peers and come to his aid when he faints, gently lifting him into the train and replacing his mask in a sequence that carries the awkward tenderness of new lovers.
This scene suggests a new approach to the scientific process, one in which the public is involved in decision-making and included in the scientific process. Conditions from obesity to impotence should not be treated as diseases to be cured with a magic bullet. They are complicated issues to be addressed primarily through lifestyle choices. Such a change in attitude could extend beyond traditional medicine. Healthier attitudes about relationships would make a Viagra culture unnecessary. Problems should not be dissected and addressed as external or fragmentary, but treated as part of a whole. Just as holistic medicine treats diseases and their causes as part of the same human being, holistic engineering must allow for give-and-take with society and address the causes of technological needs.
Certain questions are raised by this approach. Are more energy sources the way to solve the impending energy crisis? Are more medicines the way to improve health? Or would such solutions lead only to the need for more of the same?
The difference between Spider-Man and his foes is not in intent, but in awareness. Only Parker seems to care that what he does (in science and as a superhero) affects both himself and his surroundings. He certainly learned about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in his first modern physics class. This principle states that object (such as an atom) changes when subject (scientist’s laser beam) interacts with it. Truly, object and subject are connected, and it is meaningless to talk of the “state” of one without respect to the other.
Actors influence their audience, and vice versa, as when MJ stumbles on seeing Peter’s empty seat, and again when he finally watches her show. Observer and observation interact. The Enlightenment myth of the detached observer/manipulator is thus a dangerous one—writ large in the fusion of super-villain (and superhero) with experiment.
The true drama begins when the connected object and subject are society and technology. Inventions influence people’s lives and change society for good and bad. Spider-Man’s catch-phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility,” thus takes on new meaning. Scientists in—and outside—the movie must learn their responsibility, not just to “do good” by inventing something useful, but to see the big picture, to work for society as a whole and not the whim of the moment.
Spider-Man 2 concludes with Mary Jane returning to Spider-Man. This time she is not rejected as at the end of the first movie. Peter has come clean to her about his secret activity and she has accepted, even embraced it. In the face of his honesty, she is able to make a choice for herself. He can continue covering the streets with his sticky white substance and return to their relationship when his work is done. Science can embrace society, but only if it does so honestly. When scientists drop the pretension of “we know what’s best for you,” a healthy relationship can really begin.