Spider-Man 2: Philosophically Speaking

Matthew Yglesias takes issue with a central theme of the film Spider-Man 2. Henry Farrell and Brayden King offer thoughtful responses, which cause Matt to withdraw his objections. My own initial post on the movie was much less philosophical.

Minor spoilers in extended entry.

Matt’s essential argument:

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.

Aside from the points Henry and Brayden raise–good ones all–my thought when watching the film is that although, as Uncle Ben (Parker, not the rice guy) rightly notes, “With great power comes great responsibility,” it doesn’t require absolute self-sacrifice.

When, for example, Peter stumbles upon two muggers beating someone up, he has a duty to help. The cost of intervention for someone with the proportional strength of a spider in such a circumstance is small as compared to the potential harm suffered by the person being mugged. Willingly turning a blind eye to an evil one can easily prevent is to participate in the evil.

Conversely, being a hero–even a superhero–doesn’t require that one become a full-time volunteer policeman. It’s simply not necessary to chase after every set of sirens one hears in the off chance that the police can’t handle the situation. It would be one thing if he had seen a news report or otherwise had knowledge of a special circumstance. But simply dropping everything to play good Samaritan is well beyond what’s required to live up to Ben’s credo. One doesn’t let down one’s friends, or disappoint one’s girlfriend, without a specific reason to do so.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andy says:

    My problem with Spiderman, or even Batman to an extent, is that they enable the police forces in their protectorates to be utter and complete crap.

    Seriously, them taking a break for a month or so causing a 70 percent increase in crime means SOMEBODY aren’t doing their jobs.

    I’ll begrudingly accept true ZOMG special powers supervillains requiring superhero’s to stop, but normal crime?

    Take, for example, Batman. I’m not going to go into the VERY tired meme of him enabling his enemies…. but he does enable the police and correctional facilities of Gotham City to be utter and complete crap.

    Batman catches Joker, Two-Face, Penguin etc. they go to Arkham, they escape. Bats catches them again….ad nauseum.

    Suppose there wasn’t a Batman. Eventually they’d do too much damage and voters would demand that these whacko’s be stopped and STAY stopped. Swat units, the military would go in, apprehend them, and take them to non-Arkham (seriously, why does this place still get money?) top-security facilities across the country.