Go watch Spider-Man… Seriously.

I am certainly not one who regularly follows comics or superhero movies, but I watched the newly-released “The Amazing Spider-Man” last night and was extremely impressed… enough so that I have decided to take some time to write my first-ever movie critique (no worries, there are no spoilers here).

Unlike what most professional movie critics do, I am not here to review this movie on the nitty gritty details of the acting or the plot line or the special effects. I would simply like to discuss the message of this movie and why I would strongly recommend everyone watch this film, even if superhero movies aren’t your thing… trust me!

As hugely popular as the previous Spider-Man movies were, this one digs deeper into the story of how Peter Parker (Spider-Man) wrestles with his childhood memories of the mysterious occupation of his father and the disappearance of his parents. Without going into details, this movie quickly evolves into a science fiction thriller, although it should not be merely dismissed as nothing more than science fiction. The story is one strongly grounded in human emotion and the pressing issues of scientific advancement. Questions that plague legitimate, real-world scientists formed the primary themes of this movie:

How do we make the biggest impact on the world for the greater good?

What are the limits to scientific progress – if any – and how does it relate to human happiness?

Is more scientific research – regardless of application – necessarily better for society?

What is the role of ethics and morality within the realm of science?

Are the risks caused by human ego and imperfection too great to safely pursue certain avenues of science?

These questions certainly are not science fiction! After having recently returned from a national science policy colloquium in Washington, D.C., these questions weigh on my mind routinely. Little did I know that of all things, Spider-Man would be the “person” to help bring these issues to light!

Good intentions, when amplified in the presence of selfish ego, can be a dangerous, powerful combination. As the former increases, the latter must simultaneously decrease or else there could be dire consequences.

Dr. Curtis Connors, the villain in this movie, is a perfect example of a good-intentioned scientist with a human flaw that we all posses – a desire for perfection that is beyond our control in the face of adversity. Rather than accepting our flaws and adapting, we often go to great lengths to force something to happen without fully understanding the unintended consequences. We all have those moments, and this movie vividly points that out to us. Combined with the raw human realities of Peter Parker, from his awkward high school moments to extremely well-placed humor throughout the film, we are left with a movie that graphically taps into our own internal struggles in order to teach us a lesson. In the words of Rhys Ifans, the actor who portrays Dr. Connors in the movie:

Curtis Connors is a great man who makes a bad decision… [T]hat’s the whole magic of the Spider-Man idea. These people are the embodiment of our flaws and our desires that lead to tragedy… He’s a geneticist who wants to help people, like him, who are limbless. In his eagerness to advance that science, he makes a mistake and that’s an occurrence we’ve seen throughout time, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes to our detriment… He is a broken man who wants to fix himself… I’m not portraying a villain in any sense. Connors does feel cheated by God, and he’s looking for answers in science.

As I prepare for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam in meteorology this fall, I must endure months of re-deriving and memorizing the most complicated differential equations of atmospheric physics and fluid dynamics – not unlike the complexity of the “equations” featured in the movie. Although I won’t be trying to biologically engineer myself a new limb, there will be “mad scientist” moments as I stare at my whiteboard filled with nothing but Greek letters and symbols. “The Amazing Spider-Man” takes this elusiveness and romance of science and distills it down to a heart-wrenching tale of how the “Ivory Tower” can have enormous implications for society – both good and bad.

Science has been the source of everything from light bulbs to computers, from machine guns to nuclear bombs. Now, we stand at the threshold of the ever-growing, controversial topics of geoengineering and biological engineering. Together with the global threat of climate change, how are we to navigate the increasingly fuzzy area between objective science and subjective humanity? Between the pursuit of basic knowledge and its moral implications?

Overall, this movie is spectacular – both exciting and intellectually stimulating. This has honestly been the only time a movie has ever left me totally breathless. Literally. I had to consciously realize that I was not breathing during the climax of the movie and to quickly remind myself to inhale.

Near the end of the film, the most hard-hitting, profound life lessons were conveyed in a way that deeply struck a chord with me. I’m not gonna lie… I teared up at the end. No, it was not because it was sad. It was not because of a dramatic, mushy-gushy ending. It was simply because the closing words were some of the most profound, philosophical statements I have ever heard so neatly packaged into such a tangible, human message to which we can all relate. They will resonate with every single person who has ever suffered any difficulty in life: Obstacles are nothing more than gifts in disguise. It is up to us to discover and unwrap them.

For those who have not yet seen this movie, please… please do yourself a favor and go see it. But go into it with a different mindset than perhaps the other times you’ve gone to the theater. Sure, it is an action movie filled with intense moments of drama, suspense, and thrill, but watch “The Amazing Spider-Man” for more than just entertainment. Watch it and pay attention to all the life lessons that are so intricately conveyed throughout. Don’t just see the movie for its “acting quality” or for the “plot twists.” Think of it as an adventure, jam-packed with life lessons waiting to be discovered – as long as you are able to make the connections. Reflect on this simple yet profound question:

“Who am I?”

When you walk away from the theater, you may actually bring with you a new idea to approach some challenge in your life right now. I especially recommend every scientist, science educator, and policy maker watch this movie and seriously ponder the questions posted at the beginning of this blog entry. Our world would be better for it.

So hats off to you, Spider-Man! Thank you for teaching me an important lesson about science, humanity, and the future of science policy. I would not be surprised if years later, I find myself attempting to apply this somehow to my career… thanks to a comic book superhero.

Wow.  I never thought I would ever say such a thing.


(Psst… be sure to stay through the first part of the credits at the end…)

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