In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT!. We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
“With great power comes great responsibility” is the defining mantra of Peter Parker, AKA Spider-Man. Spider-Man: Far From Home offered an opportunity for the audience to really view the weight of the responsibility placed on our friendly neighborhood Spider-Adolescent in a way we have yet to see in all of the previous films.
The Tom Holland version of the wall-crawler takes Spidey back to his roots as a gifted high school student, struggling with the weight of being both a superhero, and also the challenges of being a developing human. Far From Home does an excellent job of showing a realistic and relatable depiction of the emotional development of a high school-age child, reminding us that despite being a “super,” Peter is still an adolescent struggling with emotional and physical maturity, and the term “man” in his moniker is loosely applicable at this point.
The film also shows the difficulties teenagers face as they’re experimenting with their identities and trying to find their place in the world. In psychological terms, this process is known as self-actualization. Self-actualization is a component of human development that’s been conceptualized differently by different theorists, but always retains the central theme of people growing to become the greatest version of themselves. The founders of this philosophy each had slightly different takes on what actualizing means, and this article will briefly introduce each of them and explain how each viewpoint can be applied to the web-slinger.
Kurt Goldstein introduced the idea of “gestalt,” or viewing people and organisms as wholes rather than sums of parts. He imagined a biologically based drive that, at any time the circumstances demand, combines the sum off all a person’s potential into their maximum effectiveness. This is a concept we see in superhero origin stories constantly.
One moment our main character is an average teenager, but after being bitten by a radioactive spider (as seen in the previous films), his molecules reorganize and the hairs on his arm rise up at as he experiences his first “Peter-tingle.” The soon-to-be Spider-Man is suddenly using his increased reaction time to quickly dodge a car by jumping 15 feet above the ground and perch atop a lamppost. A perfect example of this was shown in last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, when Miles Morales first experiences his powers and is able to stick to the bricks outside of his window while shouting, “KEEP STICKING! KEEP STICKING!”
To Carl Rogers, the founder of Person-Centered Therapy, this process was a lifelong pursuit, which people achieve at different times. Many people change their definition and criteria for what it means to be actualized as they move through their lifespans, resulting in changes in values, pursuits, and motivation that may be starkly different from previous versions of themselves.
This is usually portrayed by a “change of heart trope,” most notably portrayed by Peter’s mentor Tony Stark throughout his journey in the early phases of the MCU. He starts off as a billionaire weapons playboy driven by innovation, success, efficacy, and money, with little concern for the outcome on others, to abandoning the weapons division of Stark Industries. He then evolves into post-snap Tony, isolating himself in a cabin and focusing on being a father, before ultimately reverting to his actualized self and saving the world one last time using the gestalt of himself and his talents.
Abraham Malsow is perhaps the most famous person to discuss self actualization. His take on the concept was that there’s a hierarchy of needs that all humans move through to reach actualization. He chose to represent this through a pyramid, with hierarchical levels that move through the following steps: Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem, and then finally Self Actualization.
Maslow believed that in most, but not all scenarios, people needed to meet the needs of the lowest levels before moving up. In Far From Home, we see the impact and fluidity of the stage model as Peter moves through the various threats and plot points .
At the start of the film, Peter is likely in-between the Belonging/Love and Esteem needs categories. The threat of Thanos is gone and he is back living with his aunt in New York, where his basic needs are met. He has Ned and his aunt, and his biggest issues are dealing with his grief over the loss of Tony, competing with another boy for MJ’s affection, and having confidence in his ability to do Avengers PR as Spider-Man.
As soon as he starts to get comfortable in his life as Peter again, though, Happy Hogan delivers EDITH to him, and we see Peter start to struggle with moving from Esteem into Actualization. It could be reasonably argued that despite the presence of Mysterio, Peter’s struggle with self actualization is the primary conflict of the film.
The presence of the Elementals demonstrates the central role of Peter’s struggle with accepting his importance, capability, and deservingness. Once physiological safety is again the primary concern, we see Peter regress further away from actualization and fall back toward the bottom of the pyramid, focused only on immediate safety and survival.
Mysterio appears and starts to take up the positive attention that would have gone to Spider-Man, and since he rejected bringing his suit along, Peter is left to fight an “Avengers level threat” with a clown mask on, while Mysterio comes front and center with a flashy suit and powers to take away the narrative that he is needed as Spider-Man, and is the best remaining hope for the world.
Peter’s initial inability to accept that he’s worthy of EDITH shows a clear deficit in his Esteem needs, which prevents him from Actualizing into what Tony believed he would be. Happy and Nick Fury fail to recognize this and place the huge responsibility of saving the planet on him when he isn’t ready. For Goldstein’s theory (Fury’s viewpoint), this wouldn’t matter, because Peter would rise into who he was supposed to be when presented with the right circumstances, if he truly had the right stuff.
However, from Maslow’s point of view, him not having the resources to move through the Esteem needs phase would prevent Peter from being able to accept his own worthiness. That rejection of worthiness led to the rejection of actualizing into the next alpha Avenger, and deflection of that responsibility leads him to give the most advanced weapons system in the world to the villainous Mysterio.
After the realization that he was duped, we see Peter battle through his emotional and developmental needs on the way to finally reaching the top of the pyramid at the climax of the film. Reestablishing the safety of himself, MJ and Ned, his classmates, and the general public propels him through the rest of the actualization process. Peter starts to believe in himself again, despite Mysterio’s best efforts to tear him down and keep him in a place of self doubt.
It takes Happy’s (and MJ’s) intervention of support to create the catalyst needed to break the barrier from Esteem needs into Actualization. Happy understands that Peter is still an adolescent in need of guidance, and his decision to sit with him, process, listen, and provide reaffirmation provides him with the final degree of support needed to regain his confidence. It’s at this moment we see the power of Peter believing in himself and his own way of thinking to build his new suit and actualize into a fully functional and confident Spider-Man.
It’s only in that moment Peter is able to accept the greatness of his power, and rise to meet the great responsibility of saving the day. Which lasts at least until Mysterio’s final move and the reemergence of a certain adversarial newspaper man sends him straight back to bottom of the pyramid in the last second of the film!
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