Great power in spandex

Spider-Man is a web of contradictions,much like the nation that created him

Written by Alan Scherstuhl | Published: July 2, 2012 3:04 am

Spider-Man is a web of contradictions,much like the nation that created him

In the summer of 2006,as he set aside the task of running the world’s largest tech company to attempt to solve nothing less than the world’s AIDS crisis,Bill Gates wrote,“I believe that with great wealth comes great responsibility.”

Gates might have thought he was paraphrasing Voltaire or something,but any attentive geek or moviegoer knew the truth of the matter: the rationale for this unprecedented attempt at real-life superheroics comes directly from the pen of Stan Lee — and the mouth of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. “With great power comes great responsibility,” the avuncular Ben is said to have told his orphaned nephew,Peter Parker,although in the original run of the comics this moment never actually happens,as Uncle Ben didn’t survive long enough to appear in even The Amazing Spider-Man,issue number one.

As fine a lesson as that is,it’s an impossible thing for a parent — for that’s what Uncle Ben had become to Peter — to be telling a child in 1962,unless maybe that parent suspected that child of secret superpowers. By the time of the first big-budget Spider-Man movie,however,that line was now credited to Uncle Ben. Actor Cliff Robertson,playing Ben,delivers it to Tobey Maguire’s Peter as if the presumption of great power in a teenager is a perfectly natural assumption for a parent to make.

That’s because — in the America that has come to be since 1962 — it is. American children,raised on heroic entertainments like Spider-Man and Star Wars,instructed that hard-toiling pioneers have raised a nation from dirt,and coming of age in a culture that emphasises at all moments the specialness of each young person,are quite literally taught that great power is their birthright — the spoils of what is called American exceptionalism.

The trick,which is taught too rarely,lies in seizing that power,wielding it,living up to it as,say,Bill Gates or Barack Obama — a Spider-Man fan of humble origins — has managed. Schoolchildren are taught that they each have it in them to change the world; what goes unsaid is how that world-changing might be done and what principles should guide it.

For a movie that might appear to have no compelling artistic reason to exist,The Amazing Spider-Man is surprisingly good. Here,just 10 years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man,Hollywood has again spent more money than the US grants in foreign aid to Haiti each year to show Peter Parker transform into an agile,avenging god after getting bitten by a spider infected with science-flavoured comic-book magic.

Again,we see the now-powerful Parker humiliate the jock who once bullied him,lash out at the uncle who doesn’t seem to understand him,and allow,through some ignoble inaction,a stick-up artist to escape from a crime scene and pop that same uncle in a burst of random,all-American gunplay.

And again young Parker discovers that the gifts that have been bestowed upon him through no fault of his own must be guided by something just as powerful within himself: a moral responsibility to those less fortunate.

Of course,Spider-Man is a product of the American 1960s. After that moment of inaction,which leads to the death of his beloved uncle,Spider-Man foregoes his isolationist tendencies in favour of a rugged,hands-on diplomacy. To wit: he starts punching people. As befits the Vietnam era,what Peter Parker feels are heroics are often viewed by others as acts of mad brutality — especially by the hostile press,embodied by J. Jonah Jameson,a newsman as hilarious and representative of his culture as those Evelyn Waugh created for Scoop.

It’s a loser’s game to try to map contemporary politics on to a character who has appeared for so many years in so many iterations and with so many different shadings. There’s a Spider-Man for all seasons: over the thousands of comics,hundreds of television episodes and now four big-budget movies in which he’s appeared,Spider-Man has been a nerd and the husband of a supermodel; a college drop-out and a genius inventor; a violent vigilante and a bleeding-heart softie; a brooding mope and a joke-a-minute spandexed Groucho; a white kid,a white man and,now,in Brian Michael Bendis’s excellent Ultimate Spider-Man series,a black kid. He’s a high achiever and a hopeless bum; a photo-journalist who is pilloried daily by his own newspaper; a world-saver who’s always running late and rarely makes the rent; a man as strong as ten who still gets stomped by the villain once before finally winning the day. In the current issues of The Amazing Spider-Man,scripted by Dan Slott with more wit and freshness than any of the movies,Parker is a highly regarded scientist,has plenty of money,and J. Jonah Jameson is the mayor of New York.

Yet in his mess of contradictions lies exposed something of the contradictory spirit of the nation that created him. He aches to use his great power for good,but often the only way he can think to do so is by clobbering. Perhaps he should start a foundation.

The writer is film editor of ‘The Village Voice’,New York

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