Though recent entries in the genre have evinced little interest in exploring it, dual identity is the common thread that unites all of the very best superhero stories, which derive their power not from colorful clashes between heroes and villains but from the tension between ordinary men and their extraordinary alter egos. This tension has rarely been as central as it is in the best series of superhero movies ever made, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. The first installment, 2002’s Spider-Man, revolves around three different dualities – or four, depending on how you look at it. First, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is paired with his heroic alter ego, Spider-Man; then the villainous Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is paired with his own alter ego, the Green Goblin. Moreover, the two men, Peter and Norman, are positioned as foils for each other, and so are their respective alter egos.
The parallels are layered on subtly, but we are clearly meant to read Peter and Norman’s scenes against each other throughout. Despite their radically different circumstances – Peter is a nerd in high school, Norman is a successful businessman – both characters are subject to apparently unmotivated cruelty from those more powerful than them. Peter is bullied by popular classmates; Norman is bullied by the military brass who want to take away his funding and give it to his competitors. Both of the scenes establishing this dynamic are set in laboratories where science gives Peter and Norman the power to turn the tables on their tormentors: Peter is bullied in the lab where he is bitten by the genetically engineered super-spider that turns him into Spider-Man, while Norman is bullied in the lab where the performance enhancers that will turn him into the Green Goblin are being developed. Raimi draws his parallels most elegantly in the way he overlays Peter and Norman’s transformations into their respective alter egos. A feverish Peter, newly bitten, falls unconscious in his bedroom, and Raimi’s camera zooms into him, visualizing what is happening inside his body with some (endearingly dated) DNA shenanigans. We then transition to the Oscorp lab, where Norman undergoes the experimental process that transforms him into the Green Goblin. When Norman’s transformation is complete, Peter wakes up with a start, as if from a nightmare. It is almost as if Norman’s transformation happened in Peter’s head. As Peter becomes Spider-Man, Norman becomes the Green Goblin, and so too the temptation to use his power selfishly – to be like the Goblin – awakens within Peter.
The Goblin is the proverbial devil on Norman’s shoulder; in a clever touch, when he speaks to it, the Goblin mask sits atop the shoulder of his armchair, so that it would literally be looking over his shoulder if he were seated. In Norman’s dialogues with his demonic interlocutor, the Goblin tempts him with fantasies of power, tells him how to inflict pain on others, and taunts him with knowledge of his guilt (“Don’t play the innocent with me”). The film does little to suggest that the Goblin is an actual demon, though; rather, it is an exaggeration of the internal voice that has always urged Norman to selfishly seize what he wants (“Power beyond [his] wildest dreams”). When Norman listens to the Goblin, he is listening to the worst parts of himself.
I bring all this up because, while Peter never literally talks to Spider-Man, the way Norman talks to the Goblin, one of the film’s best scenes suggests that he is in a sort of conversation with his own alter ego.
Almost immediately after one of Norman’s talks with the Goblin, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) visits Peter in the hospital, where he is watching over an injured Aunt May. Their conversation soon turns to romance; M.J. is currently dating Peter’s best friend, Harry, but confesses to Peter that she is in love with Spider-Man. Embarrassed, she is reticent to even say Spider-Man’s name aloud, but Peter is quick to understand. Though he is Spider-Man, which means that Mary Jane has, in a sense, just declared her love for him, Peter’s reply – “Oh, him” – conveys a hint of resignation, disappointment, as if Spider-Man is a rival by whom he is hopelessly outmatched. At the outset, the scene creates a distance between Peter and his alter ego. The rest of the scene will be spent navigating the tension between these dual identities.
“You’re laughing at me,” Mary Jane accuses, but Peter demurs: “No, no, I understand… He is extremely cool.” Given that Peter is Spider-Man, this could come off as a bit of cheeky self-aggrandizement, but Maguire delivers the line shyly, awkwardly, self-deprecatingly, as if Peter really is in awe of Spider-Man. When they start to discuss Spider-Man, Peter – who has been looking intently at Mary Jane’s face throughout the scene – begins avoiding eye contact with her. Instead, he keeps looking at the bottom left corner of the frame, and does not look her in the eye until he begins to close the distance between Peter and Spider-Man: “I know him a bit.” Indeed, the separation between the two collapses for a moment. When Mary Jane asks what Spider-Man said about her, Peter begins with, “I said…” before switching to, “He asked me…” As Peter talks “to” Spider-Man, he again looks at the bottom left corner of the frame, avoiding eye contact with Mary Jane, until the conversation returns to her: “He asked me… what I thought about you.”
Mary Jane enters the conversation with a light, easy, bantering tone; she is laughing at herself to disguise her self-consciousness over her crush on Spider-Man. This gives way to undisguised eagerness and curiosity when Peter assures her he is not laughing at her, and now, at this point, when she asks him what he told Spider-Man about her, she speaks quietly, earnestly, searchingly, her self-consciousness forgotten. Her interest is now divided between Spider-Man and Peter, for she is curious as to what Spider-Man thinks of her, but Peter’s answer will also reveal what he thinks of her. As a silly crush, Spider-Man exists mainly as an idealized figure in Mary Jane’s imagination, while Peter is a flesh-and-blood being right in front of her who is about to disclose how he really feels about her. He says:I said, um… “Spider-Man,” I said, “The great thing about M.J. is, when you look in her eyes, and she’s looking back in yours, everything feels not quite normal, because you feel stronger and weaker at the same time. You feel excited and, at the same time, terrified. The truth is, you don’t know what you feel, except you know what kind of man you want to be. It’s as if you’ve reached the unreachable and you weren’t ready for it.”
In one sense, Peter’s description of his “conversation” with Spider-Man is pure fiction, but it is a fiction that reveals Peter’s heart more truly than any other device could. Spider-Man is a fictional person – the person Peter pretends to be, the person Mary Jane thinks she loves – and yet, allow me to suggest that Peter is telling Mary Jane about a real dialogue of sorts.
In How To Be Unlucky, Joshua Gibbs glosses Solomon’s phrase, “Then I said in my heart,” or, “Then I said to myself.” Gibbs interprets this “separate heart” that Solomon converses with as “a man’s teleological self, his final self, a deferred self, the speculated and hoped-for self into which a man is, during this life, always progressing… Every man must come to this self in order to beg forgiveness, to imagine forgiveness possible, to imagine himself virtuous.”
When Norman talks to the Goblin, he is talking to the worst version of himself, but when Peter converses with Spider-Man, he is conversing with the best version of himself. Spider-Man is Peter’s separate heart, his final self, his speculated and hoped-for self. Spider-Man enables Peter to imagine himself virtuous. Spider-Man is the angel on Peter’s shoulder, the voice that tells him to aspire to goodness, resist temptation, and sacrifice his selfish desires. The more Norman listens to the Goblin, the more like the Goblin he becomes; the more Peter listens to Spider-Man, the more like Spider-Man he becomes.
Peter is Spider-Man, but at the same time, he is always aspiring to become Spider-Man, and it is embarrassing for him to talk about Spider-Man with Mary Jane because he is all too aware of the distance that still separates him from Spider-Man. Before his death, Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) counsels, “Peter, these are the years when a man changes into the man he’s going to be for the rest of his life. Just be careful who you change into.” Spider-Man represents the man Uncle Ben wants Peter to change into: a man who embodies Uncle Ben’s maxim, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter is recalling Uncle Ben’s charge when he tells Spider-Man that when you look at Mary Jane, “You know what kind of man you want to be,” for while Uncle Ben sets forth a vision of what it means to be a virtuous man, it is Mary Jane who really stirs Peter’s heart with longing to become that man. The ideal self and the crush (for lack of a more respectable term) perform a similar function in the development of young people, for both beckon a man towards virtue and maturity, offering him a standard by which to judge his actions. According to Gibbs, “The beloved sits upon the shoulder of the man with a crush, judging all he says and does.” The crush is not love, but the work that precedes love. The young man who is not yet virtuous strives for virtue so that he may become the ideal self, who is worthy to love the beloved. The ending of Peter’s speech – “It’s as if you’ve reached the unreachable and you weren’t ready for it” – is nothing more or less than an admission of the distance that still separates him from Spider-Man, and thus from Mary Jane.
Yet here the scene turns on its head. When Mary Jane responds (“You said that?”), her attention is directed entirely towards Peter; Spider-Man has left her mind. “Yeah, something like that,” Peter murmurs shyly, breaking eye contact, again embarrassed by the distance between himself and Spider-Man – but Mary Jane reaches out across this distance to take Peter’s hand. Mary Jane begins the scene in love with Spider-Man and ends the scene in love with Peter. Having caught a glimpse of what Peter aspires to become, she nonetheless loves him as he is.
Mary Jane prefaces her confession with, “You’ll think I’m a stupid little girl with a crush,” and Peter replies with the invitation, “Trust me.” Peter invites Mary Jane’s trust because he knows all about having a crush, having pined for her since the age of six. The crush is the imaginative work that precedes love, and – if I may insist on a subtle distinction – here it turns out that there are not one but two Mary Janes in the scene. There is the flesh-and-blood Mary Jane, who sits before Peter, and there is the idealized Mary Jane, who sits upon the shoulder of Peter’s imagination, judging all he says and does. Just as Mary Jane begins by loving Spider-Man, Peter’s ideal self, Peter begins by loving Mary Jane’s ideal self.
Clearly, Mary Jane is not perfect, yet Peter is not wrong to see her as such. Few theologians have given the phenomenon of the crush such a lofty and weighty consideration as Charles Williams, who suggests, in Outlines of Romantic Theology, that when the lover contemplates the beloved, “However in all other ways she may be full of error or deliberate evil, in the eyes of the lover, were it but for a moment, she recovers her glory… the glory that Love had with the Father before the world was.” The man who looks on a woman with love sees her, albeit fleetingly, as perfect, glorified; he sees her as she is in heaven. The crush is not a romantic delusion but a glimpse of a spiritual reality. When the lover looks on the beloved, a veil is lifted, revealing the divine beauty that attends every man and woman made in the image of God. The excitement and terror Peter feels when he looks into Mary Jane’s eyes is only (as C.S. Lewis puts it in Till We Have Faces) “the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things.”
When Mary Jane declares her love for Peter at the end of the film, telling him, “There’s only one man… who makes me feel like I’m more than I ever thought I could be,” she is thinking of their talk in the hospital, for Peter’s conversation with Spider-Man does not only reveal his heart to Mary Jane; it also reveals “the great thing about M.J.” to Mary Jane herself. Just as Mary Jane inspires Peter to be Spider-Man, Peter inspires Mary Jane to be her ideal self, to imagine herself virtuous, to reach for the unreachable.