Thoughts on Spider-Man
For longtime readers: did you know this is, in fact, a promised but long-delayed followup to a post I wrote five years ago, around the time I saw the first Spidey movie?
I am one of those nerds that, for some reason, never took to the traditional American superhero comic book. (It took anime and manga for me to get into anything similar.) Even today there is still an instinctive part of me that wants to sneer at the superhero genre. Isn’t it supposed to be simplistic, full of black-and-white characters and dumb plots? Childish art for childish brains?
But dang it, I love–I mean love–the Spider Man movies. Ever since I saw the first one in the theater, I’ve always made sure to go to them on opening weekend. (I’ll be going to the third one tomorrow.) The only other movies that I’ve ever shown that kind of loyalty to are the Lord of the Rings movies. Why? What’s so great about Spider-Man?
I freely admit that there is an element of geek wish-fulfillment at work. I understood this even when I saw the first one and pondered what it was that made me feel so good at the end of it. Maybe it was Kirsten Dunst’s radiant face smiling at our clumsy hero. The whoops of joy as he swings on his web for the first time. The pain of having to to reveal your identity to the one you love, and the knowledge that you caused your beloved relative to die. This is the kind of primal life that those of us who spent way too much time in front of a book or a computer screen dream of. Especially for an angelic girlfriend like MJ.
But that’s true of pretty much every single superhero story. I didn’t react as viscerally to the Batman or Superman movies, though, and the X-Men movies only came partway there. I think there’s something else in Spider Man that works, though, and that’s the fact that in the movie series, we are watching Peter Parker grow and change as a person.
A lot of superheroes are pretty well-defined by the time we get to see them in action: Superman is, well, Superman. Batman will always be the brooding vigilante. X-Men features a large cast, too large to give enough attention to any single character’s internal state. (I really wish they could do a movie just about Rogue.) Spider-Man is the most character-focused of all the major superhero franchises, and Peter Parker’s story is about a very particular kind of coming of age–the coming of age of a gifted person. In that respect it shares some similarities with Ender’s Game, a formative novel of my youth.
The trials that Peter undergoes are specifically moral and existential ones that those with “great power” have to face; that much ballyhooed line, “with great power comes great responsibility,” is not just an admonition. It’s a statement of fact. Peter’s actions are going to matter regardless of what he chooses to do. (In the upcoming movie, it seems, we are going to see what happens when that power becomes a corrupting temptation.) But he is still learning the ropes, so to speak; he still has a ways to go before he even really understands the vast abilities inside him, and still he has to save those he loves without even knowing himself all that well. And that lack of self-awareness is what makes him mess up, with bad consequences.
Peter’s story, then, is the story of a journeyman rather than a master, and that makes him very down-to-earth and easy to relate to. His powers may be otherworldly, but the way he reacts and acts upon them is believable. I think a lot of superhero stories get their power from their allegorical and spiritual resonance (the Christ references in Superman, for instance), and if I could sum up the themes and dilemma in Spider Man, it would actually be with the title of one of Pope John Paul II’s books: Love and Responsibility. Not everyone has the tormented toughness of a Batman, and we certainly can’t identify with being a Christ-like Superman. But virtually everyone alive knows what it’s like to have to be responsible for another’s welfare, and to struggle between competing obligations offered by those whom we love–not to mention our enemies.
Peter’s story, in other words, is a human story and not a mythology about demi-gods. So I’m going to cheer tomorrow night as I watch Peter face and overcome his inner and outer demons.