Study Guide

Spider-Man Themes

  • Identity

    The first words Peter Parker utters in Spider-Man are "who am I?"

    Good question.

    We'll give it a shot: he's a high school senior about to enter the real world, which, let's be honest, is pretty terrifying. He's been in love with M.J. for more than a decade, and he's been keeping his true feelings about her on the DL for just as long.

    Oh, and then there's the little matter of him being your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. Every day is a crisis of character for Peter as he navigates what it means to be a man and what it means to be a hero while meticulously filing away specific parts of his personality and swinging around town wearing a mask that keeps his identity a mystery.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Uncle Ben's death shape Peter's character?
    2. Give three examples of how Harry's family's wealth informs his identity.
    3. Why does Pete spend the whole film hiding his love for Mary Jane?
    4. Plenty of superheroes (and supervillains) have secret identities. Does being a teenager bump up the difficulty level for Peter?

    Chew on This

    Peter's exploration of his superpowers is complicated by his exploration of who he is as a young man.

    As Spider-Man and the Green Goblin both demonstrate, our identities are shaped by our decisions—good, bad, and in between.

  • Sacrifice

    Quick, name a happily married superhero.

    You can't, can you? Superheroes and happily ever after don't really mix, and here's why:

    First, superheroes are married to their jobs. You think Peter can ever just chill out and watch the Knicks game on a Saturday night? Second, their loved ones will always, always be targets. Sure, superheroes can have a significant other, but you can bet your spandex suit that there will be a line of nemeses curving around the block, just waiting to whack their husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend.

    Superheroes like Spider-Man sacrifice their personal lives for the greater good.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. Is it possible for a superhero like Spider-Man to have a personal life? How about a supervillain like the Green Goblin?
    2. What sort of sacrifices does M.J. make?
    3. Why is Peter cool with Harry using his spider trivia to woo Mary Jane during the field trip?
    4. What has Norman sacrificed for Oscorp? Setting aside the whole murder aspect, is he right to be so miffed at Fargas, Balkan, and the rest of the board?

    Chew on This

    Love equals sacrifice—especially for superheroes.

    It's not a flawed batch of performance enhancers that turns Norman into the Green Goblin; it's the indignity he feels after being forced out of the company for which he sacrificed so much.

  • Power

    If you're a good guy with power, it comes, like Uncle Ben said, with increased responsibility. There's a sense of obligation to others less powerful than you.

    For Peter, it's a royal pain in the spider-butt sometimes, as the citizens of New York keep labeling him a criminal. Still, he saves their hides, time and time again, without fail.

    This tricky pairing of power and duty is central to Spider-Man. As the story unfolds, we watch two men, Peter and Norman, deal with it in two very, very different ways. (Spoiler alert: one involves pumpkin bombs.)

    Questions About Power

    1. Was Uncle Ben right? Does great responsibility come with great power?
    2. Is Harry powerless? How does he manage to snag Mary Jane?
    3. How is Norman corrupted by power before he becomes the Green Goblin?
    4. Let's say Harry got bit by the super spider at Columbia, not Peter. Do you think he'd follow the same path as his BFF?

    Chew on This

    Norman's sudden loss of power at the hands of the Oscorp board drives him insane. Literally.

    Peter's greatest source of power is his humility.

  • Madness

    What drives you? Maybe it's a desire to be the best tuba player in the tri-state area. Maybe you want to make your parents proud. Maybe you want to be rich and famous (with or without your tuba skills).

    The point is, everybody is motivated by something, and for Norman, that something is power. It consumes him so wholly that, ironically, it splits him in two. Faced with the prospect of losing his company, Norman goes mad—and the Green Goblin is born. His descent is quick and violent, and the line between Norman and the Green Goblin becomes blurrier with every insult and pumpkin bomb he hurls.

    Questions About Madness

    1. When do Norman and the Green Goblin merge? Were they ever really two distinct personalities?
    2. Compare Norman's alter ego to Peter's alter ego. How are they similar? How are they different?
    3. Is Norman a sympathetic character at all?
    4. Why doesn't the Green Goblin kill Peter when he knocks him out at the Daily Bugle offices?

    Chew on This

    When Norman is ousted by the Oscorp board of directors, the Green Goblin is born.

    Norman Osborn is a tragic figure.

  • Good vs. Evil

    Spider-Man is fueled by his desire to do right. He didn't do the right thing one time, and his beloved Uncle Ben wound up dead because of it. You can bet your movie-loving butt he's not going to make that mistake again.

    The Green Goblin operates the opposite way. He feels wronged professionally, and, for a guy absolutely consumed by his work, that's a big deal. His evil deeds are powered by revenge and feelings of betrayal—by Dr. Stromm, by Gen. Slocum, by the Oscorp board, by Spider-Man—pretty much everybody who won't show him some respect by doing exactly what he wants.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Why is Jameson so convinced that Spider-Man is a criminal? How about Average Joe and Jane New Yorker?
    2. How does Mary Jane fit into Norman's warped view of people?
    3. How do Spider-Man's and the Green Goblin's costumes, weapons, and abilities reflect or reinforce their good and evil natures?
    4. Norman asks Peter not to tell Harry about him being the Green Goblin. How do you think Harry would react if he found out the extent of his dad's amoral activities?

    Chew on This

    Spider-Man only exists because Uncle Ben was killed.

    Norman would've broken bad even if Oscorp hadn't gone belly-up.

  • Coming of Age

    Underneath all its spandex suits and violently interrupted concerts, Spider-Man is a coming-of-age story—not just for Peter, but also for M.J. and Harry.

    Naturally, they don't all mature in the same way or at the same rate. While Peter suddenly finds himself the man of the house after Uncle Ben's murder, Harry struggles to shake the shackles of privilege and neglect provided by Norman. Mary Jane, meanwhile, desperately wants to ditch her combative home life for the stage, but she finds that there's no easy route from Queens to Broadway.

    The teens in Spider-Man inhabit a world where maniacal supervillains are a part of everyday life, but they're still teens who must endure the smaller traumas of young adulthood, too, like broken hearts, empty bank accounts, and infuriating parents.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. How does Spider-Man subvert the conventions of the coming-of-age movie genre? How does it reinforce them?
    2. Why doesn't Harry stand up to his dad more often?
    3. How does M.J. grow over the course of the film?
    4. Give three examples of how gaining superpowers jump-starts Peter's maturity.

    Chew on This

    Of all three teens in the film, Harry experiences the least personal growth.

    Peter's nascent superpowers are a metaphor for puberty.