There’s yet another Spiderman movie coming out this summer, and with it, a fresh reminder that each day we stray further from God’s grace – God’s grace being 2004’s cinematic achievement, Spiderman 2. Not only does the film hold up astonishingly well, it – like a flower in perpetual bloom – reveals new truths with each viewing.
One particular revelation being that this film explores prominent anarchist themes: it challenges hierarchical power by making our “hero” dependent on others – exploring individual agency in the context of mutual aid and collective action, rather than self-serving individualism.
The film opens with Peter Parker racing against the clock to deliver pizzas on time – he’s been consistently late and this is his last chance before he loses his job. Will our hero deliver the pizzas on time? It’s an extremely working class dilemma; many of Peter’s greatest battles in the film are not against some larger-than-life villain, but against the minutiae of his own circumstances.
The entire first act of the film puts Peter in these varying scenarios – disappointing bosses, landlords, professors, friends, and family. He gets called lazy, unreliable, and irresponsible – common adjectives given to the working poor who are victim blamed for their own circumstances.
The audience, however, gets to see more than that. We know how much Peter has on his plate, how he can’t seem to catch a break, and especially how hard he works. We also know he’s Spiderman. We know he’s more powerful than anyone else realizes, and is trying to use his power for good, heeding Uncle Ben’s famous adage, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
And while this is perhaps the most well known line in comic book history, director Sam Raimi adds complexity by pairing it with wisdom from Aunt May, who now takes centre stage as Peter’s mentor.
“I believe there’s a hero in all of us,” she says, “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 most, even our dreams.”
Anarchy, roughly translated, means “without rule,” or more specifically, without rulers. While anarchists differ on what exactly this looks like, the general idea involves challenging unjustified power hierarchies. This would also involve refusing to hold up one person, or group of people as saviour figures.
Aunt May is totally an anarchist.
Raimi uses Aunt May’s sentiment to subvert the concept of the lonely vigilante, highlighting how dependent Peter is on the secondary characters. Their character arcs are so tightly woven that each choice and sacrifice has direct consequences for each other and the plot: Aunt May chooses to forgive Peter and encourages him to continue being Spiderman; Mary Jane must choose to give up class mobility for what she truly wants – despite putting herself at risk; Harry must let go of his desire for revenge to help save Mary Jane; and Otto Octavius – the main antagonist – must let go of his life’s work before it destroys the city.
This film also empowers the background characters, giving them the opportunity to save Spiderman in a display of mutual aid – another key anarchist concept. This is best illustrated by legit one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history, where Peter saves a subway train from crashing off an unfinished track. Once he slows the train to a halt, he collapses from exhaustion – only to be caught by the people he saved on the train. And, as Octavius shows up to collect Peter, they put their bodies on the line for him just like he did for them.
In action movies where extras are often portrayed as helpless bystanders, running away in fright while the hero and villain duke it out, Raimi actually treats them like people capable of making their own choices. This story belongs to them too, and they have power to shift its course.
And finally, Spiderman 2 explores abuse of power – portrayed in the film as individualism. (Basically, a middle finger to Ayn Rand.) And this doesn’t always look the way we think – power can be abused both actively and passively, by any character.
Perhaps the most memorable “villain” from this Spiderman era is not the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus, but J. Jonah Jameson, one of Peter’s bosses, and editor of the Daily Bugle newspaper. He runs the office like a tyrant, belittling his employees, leaving those around him in a constant state of fear. And, rather than challenge and question institutional power, he literally cozies up to it in the gala scene where he and his wife rub shoulders with and flatter various VIPs. It’s not hard to see his active abuse of power, putting his own self-interest ahead of the social need for conflict-of-interest-free news.
It is no coincidence that Peter’s landlord shares similar characteristics to Jameson, chasing down – and shaking down – Peter for rent money. It calls to mind the famous Proudhon quote “Property is theft!” – a critique of private property when used to extort and extract profit from others.
In the second act, Peter’s had enough of falling behind in his personal life and gives up the Spiderman mantle. All the sudden, his personal life improves. He starts attending his classes, he does his homework, and he puts in a serious effort to pursue Mary Jane. Others start seeing him for the brilliant and kind person he is. All he had to do was give up his power, and look the other way.
But this is portrayed as a passive abuse of power, as he lets harm he could reduce continue and proliferate – and allows Octavius to wreak havoc upon the city. Once Peter becomes a “civilian”, he thinks that because he doesn’t have his “powers”, he doesn’t have any responsibility. But, like those who saved him on the train, Peter has to choose whether to ignore his power or act on it – not only as Spiderman, but as a citizen.
The “villain” in Spiderman 2 is not any one group or individual, but selfishness itself. While Octavius starts out pursuing science “for the good of mankind,” his work soon becomes a way to validate his ego, and it harms instead of benefiting others. But by recognizing his ability to make choices, he has the opportunity to become a hero at the climax, choosing to sacrifice himself and destroying his life’s work to save the city.
By the end of the film, each character is arguably worse off. But, by giving up the things they want the most, they have shown how powerful their choices can be, working in conjunction with each other to do something great – like save a city, and each other.
So it must be noted that while Spiderman 2 is a well-constructed movie exploring identifiable anarchist themes, it does so in an extremely limited context. This movie is super white! And there is a misconception out there that anarchism is a predominantly White Thing as well, so I want to address that for a second.
Anarchism challenges power hierarchies of gender, race, class, orientation, ability and so on. People of colour have developed their own networks of mutual aid and reciprocity to survive in the face of state and colonial power for centuries. Trans and queer individuals and communities have likewise been forced to live outside and in between structures built to eradicate them. Though the term “anarchist” is not always used for a variety of valid reasons, threads of anarchy run through many struggles for social justice.
This is why having a black hispanic Spiderman, like Miles Morales, makes a lot of sense for a working class superhero exploring themes of power and responsibility. While I am not familiar with the comic book storylines and can’t comment on their quality, this webcomic by Let’s Be Friends gives you the idea of its potential.
Not to mention, anarchism generally involves a pretty explicit critique of the state and its disciplinary arm – police and prisons. Peter Parker in Spiderman 2, despite being part of the working poor, never has to worry about negative interactions with the police or incarceration – even though he gets accused of robbing a bank. It would be interesting to see if/how the Miles Morales comics explores policing, incarceration, and Spiderman’s position as a vigilante-of-colour.
So there you have it! I hope this blog post inspires you to have a very fun time re-watching Spiderman 2 and perhaps read some more about anarchism. This blog post is obviously hella basic, so here are some articles to check out if you’re interested in exploring these ideas further!
The Anarchism of Blackness by William C. Anderson and Zoe Samudzi and corresponding podcast interview Everything We Need is Already Inside Us: On the anarchism of blackness.
Beyond Prisons podcast with Kim Wilson and Brian Sonenstein
Noam Chomsky: The Kind of Anarchism I Believe in and What’s Wrong with Libertarians with Michael S. Wilson
Indigenous Intersectionality: De-colonizing an Indigenous Eco-Queer Feminism and Anarchism by Laura Hall (more academic than the other ones, but I don’t know another article that explores these ideas in more common language – suggestions welcome!)