Spider-Man 2 is one of the greatest superhero films ever made. It is incredible how it manages to have Peter Parker confront one of the most common dilemmas we all face–time management–and still keep a quick pace; Alfred Molina as Doc Ock was possibly one of the best casting decisions of all time; and the whole ‘comic book flair’ that was introduced in the original Spider-Man just seems a whole lot more ‘hearty’ this time. So what on Earth does Sigmund Freud have to do with anything?
Join me as we take a deeper look into some psychological concepts and Spider-Man. I’ll analyze how it approaches Freud’s common theories and how it links with pop psychology nonsense all in the bid of finding richness in the film. Films are whatever you make them, so why not make Spider-Man 2 100% more Freudian?
For those who don’t know, Sigmund Freud is largely attributed to being the founder of modern psychology, among Jung, Pavlov and all those other 20th Century cool kids. His theories ranged from abstract thinking to how the conscious, subconscious and unconscious interact to the ways in which sexuality is developed throughout life. Personally, I don’t agree with everything that Freud argued but his thoughts about the id/ego/superego are incredibly applicable to modern superhero films, especially Spider-Man 2.
The ‘id’ is basically the primitive part of ourselves that operates on the ‘pleasure’ principle, desiring instant pleasure from food, sex, etc. It’s the first part of ‘us’ to develop. Next comes the ‘ego’ which governs on a ‘reality’ principle, basically one that attempts to compromise and fight off the urges of the ‘id.’ The final piece is one that develops well into teenagerhood, the ‘superego’: the piece of our brain that functions on the ‘moral principle’ which attempts to find the ‘good’ and stray away from selfish solipsistic perceptions of the world.
Arguably the only superego in Spider-Man canon is Uncle Ben. In less than six words he instills Peter with a sense of outright moral compulsion. This happens in Spider-Man 1, but in Spider-Man 2 Peter, in a dream sequence, rejects his Uncle’s words and turns inwards. The film is his redemption in trying to find his greater superego once more, despite the sacrifices he will have to make along the way.
I began thinking about applying Freud to Spider-Man 2 a good while ago and particularly picked up on some dialogue exchanges between Aunt May and Peter involving heroes and kids. Aunt says herself that “I believe there’s a hero in all of us” and that “Kids like Henry need a hero.” One 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 the most. Even our dreams.”
There’s definitely a Freudian thrust behind this speech. The hero in all of us is the superego, that there truly is one in all of us that keeps us morally centered. “Kids like Henry need a hero” may be a nod to the need to have balance between all of the forces, which the superego brings when it is finally formed. Peter’s selfish retreat away from his superhero duties complicate Aunt May’s speech, as he has to realize that he cannot function without a superego and must fight to claim it back, even if it means sacrificing his dreams.
Let’s take a hammer to what seems to be the film’s central focus: control. Harry Osborn lacks it after his father’s death, Doc Ock loses it to the not-hentai-metal tentacles and the psychological impact of his wife’s death, and Peter attempts to find control through compromise. What we have is a constant array of battles between id, ego and the superego — “a hero in all of us” — as Doc Ock seems to find his way to attain pleasure by trying to create a sun.
Harry’s own psychological trauma is one of the bravest steps the film takes forward. It could so easily switch into a power revenge fantasy in which Harry hires some mercenaries and doesn’t do anything, but instead he slowly succumbs to his id too and creates an alliance with Doc Ock. The big reveal of Harry peeling off the Spider-Man mask was used in a lot of television trailers here in the UK to drive up tensions, and it’s definitely one of the film’s best moments. It’s incredibly interesting to notice how James Franco portrays Harry’s bemusement as Tobey Maguire just rips rope off of himself effortlessly. This is essentially the manifestation of the embodiment of a selfish id confronted with the superior, fully developed superego.
But the hero within Peter Parker just seems a lot more interesting, doesn’t it? This is young adult Peter trying to find his superego, his moral compass, and mid-way through the film he bins it in order to try and truly focus in his life. It seems his ego is in control in trying to see a reality, but in reality the superego that belongs to him, his Spider-Man alter-ego, now belongs to the city too. Peter goes through what Freud might’ve coined a ‘psychological ghetto’ (he totally would’ve used those words) in refusing the balance between ego, id and superego.
Spider-Man 2 approaches this directly by having its superhero actually fail quite a lot. The entire opening act seems to be pretty much dedicated to Peter’s misery, and when he throws the suit away you understand his thinking. Even his struggle with Doc Ock is only resolved by Peter managing to remember a few words. There has to be bumps on our road to redemption. One could say that Aunt May’s speech of “pride” in death might be the reason Peter chooses the suit over his own life; an attempt to die as a martyr for great change in the city. “Pride” in death also comes into play with Doc Ock’s final minutes.
Peter’s superego eventually triumphs and the film almost explicitly says this. The mask itself represents the superego, as soon as Peter dons it again his entire mental hygiene changes. Harry however sees everything underneath the mask as important — “Let’s see who’s behind this mask” — a mirror of his own psychological imbalance. His father’s dreams triumph within Harry, but Spider-Man ultimately wins the day.
Doc Ock is told point blank by Peter that sometimes we have to give up our “dreams” to do “what’s right”. Spider-Man 2 is ultimately about this force of moral control in the face of what might give us personal satisfaction. Ultimately it delves into superhero psychology more than a lot of modern fodder and ultimately shows Peter’s progression from id/ego/superego to id/ego and then back around to restore balance to his own psyche.
It’s interesting to note the actual physical change that Peter undergoes. He has to put his glasses back on after tripping in the ‘Raindrops’ scene, which is just a lovely montage, and this most definitely displays the full-scale of the changes inside Peter. His very perception of himself has changed. The bruises, cuts and struggles towards the end are Peter’s bumps in order to attain his superego again, similar to the inner turmoil that adolescence brings, Freud said the superego came about in teenage years. The marriage with a comic book carnival of young adult inked-imagery with psychological growth is incredibly well realized.