Greek tragedies, epic poems, comic books, dramatic cinema. Every writer or creator has their own opinion of what makes someone heroic. I myself have written poem after poem about my father in an attempt to explain his heroism, but it never feels sufficient. Aunt May from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004) has her own take on it:
I believe there is a hero in all of us, 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 has been much discourse about the status of superhero movies in the vast landscape of modern cinema, about why figures like Iron Man, Captain America, and Wonder Woman become role models to generations of children. Heroes that kids dress up as for Halloween are defined by their sacrifices and the resilience they show in spite of their losses. They also teach us that those same qualities can be found in the real-life people around us. Aunt May’s speech to Peter shows us that we all can—and should—be heroes. In our own ways and abilities, we can make the world a better place, and for recognizing this, Aunt May herself is a hero.
Much of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy consists of Peter Parker reacting in a human way to all the unexpected sacrifices his superhero persona forces onto him. Spider-Man 2 has stayed with me the most out of all superhero movies because he is the only one who gives up being a hero in order to live his own life. Being Spider-Man cost Peter Parker everything: academic success, professional success, and true love, until finally, he chose himself. As a kid, I couldn’t understand how a “hero” could be so selfish. But I see now that heroism, just like anything, can exist in a gray area. Heroes can also get frustrated and be selfish, or even become resentful of the people they try to help. Even Mr. Rogers had to work at his kindness: in a scene in It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Mr. Rogers hits all the lowest keys of a piano as he is playing, a reference to something he said earlier in the film about that being a way someone can let out their frustration. Sacrifices come with a price that not everyone is always ready to pay, and the true heroes pay that price—even if they are not ready.
Earlier in her dialogue, Aunt May expresses, “Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero.” It might be unfair to force heroes to be role models for children, however, as being someone’s role model can be a double-edged sword. In the same scene, Henry, a young kid from Peter’s neighborhood, asks him where Spider-Man has gone. There is disappointment in his voice, as the hero he looked up to for so long has disappeared.
In Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker isn’t a hero, Spider-Man is. People don’t celebrate Peter Parker for his bravery; they celebrate Spider-Man. Spider-Man, however, gets in the way of Peter’s success, and Peter misses classes, plays, and birthdays while Spider-Man gets all the glory. Yet when there is a building on fire and a child who needs saving, it is Peter who first runs into the building, inhales the smoke, and jumps over fire to find the little girl separated from her family—not Spider-Man. After all, Peter never needed superpowers to be a hero. People lined up and cheered for Spider-Man, but Peter Parker is a hero too.
I spent so much time as a kid praising the superheroes in the movies and television shows I watched. But I think part of growing up is learning that the heroes that you look up to are not the ones who fall in vats of hazardous chemicals or get bitten by radioactive creatures. The arc of Peter Parker throughout Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy can be summed up by the amount he is able to lose and still continue being a hero. So much is beyond his control, but he continues to put on the mask and save everyone he can.
When we see good things being done, we, too, are inspired to spread good as much as we can. The little girl that Peter Parker saves from the burning building tries to stop him from falling off a staircase. The passengers on a subway physically place themselves between the movie’s villain Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man to prevent him from kidnapping an injured Spider-Man. Doctor Octopus himself is only able to save New York City by giving up his evil scheme after Peter convinces him to sacrifice his life’s work for the good of New York’s citizens. Heroism is a cycle of big and small good deeds with a rippling effect.
The hero in all of us does not only emerge in matters of life or death. Aunt May gives Peter $20 for his birthday and insists he take it even though she is behind on her mortgage payments. Peter is able to make it to Mary Jane’s play, his lifelong crush from high school, which is something he has been unable to do the whole film. The very act of keeping a promise means more to her than anything else Spider-Man could do. In real life, Aunt Mays and Peter Parkers are embodied by individuals who come through for other people.
I was a kid who loved cinema, and my world was shaped by what I watched. The best stories reminded me to see the people in my life for the lessons they could teach me. A Bronx Tale taught me that my father was the toughest guy I knew. The Sixth Sense helped explain the full significance of my mother’s closeness to her mother. Finally, Spider-Man 2 showed me that anyone can be a hero if they are willing to make a sacrifice. In the words of Into the Spiderverse, the next-best Spider-Man movie, “Anybody can wear the mask.” This is the recurring theme of Spider-Man and Peter Parker: that the hero in all of us is always present, the result of a conscious choice we make.