Thursday, July 12, 2012
Whatever a Spider Can: Two Reviews and a Gift
It's really a great time to be me. Honestly, if you had told me when I was ten that in thirty years or so all my favorite superheroes would be topping the box office charts, I would have looked down at the ground, shrugged, said nothing and prayed silently that our conversation would soon end. If you had told me fifteen years ago that Marvel Entertainment Group, then languishing at less than a dollar a share on the DJIC, would soon be making a billion-dollar movie about the Avengers, I would have grinned awkwardly and shuffled away at my earliest convenience. But here we are, in 2012, and every few weeks or so I march out to the theater and watch all my heroes come to life.Like I say, it's a good time to be me. The latest turn at the box office goes to The Amazing Spider-Man, which suffered a fair bit of incredulity thanks to the short span of time between its debut and the close of an earlier Spider-Man film franchise. Toby Maguire's Peter Parker has been supplanted by Andrew Garfield's take on the same; in place of Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson we've been introduced to Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy. Norman Osborne, so prominent in the first franchise, has slipped to the shadows in 2012--still an ominous presence, but so far we haven't seen his face. here. *** Consider a typical day for a junior-high-aged hero. In the tradition of matching initials (from Lois Lane to Bruce Banner), let’s call him Fritz Fryling. Fritz wakes up, tucks his wings into an oversized shirt and walks to school—even though he could fly. As he reaches his gym locker, he hears behind him the first of many taunts from the class bully: “There’s Owl-boy. I hope you don’t lose those Coke-bottle glasses of yours during dodge ball. Hoot hoot!” Then our mutant friend feels the sharp sting of a wet towel snapped against his legs. He knows he could spin his head all the way around to face his attacker; he knows that he could easily fly out of reach of the towel; he even knows that his razor-sharp, retractable talons could quickly shred a bully whom no one would miss for long. He knows that he’s smarter and nicer to girls than the bully; he even knows that in reality he’s stronger and more dangerous than the bully. But he stays silent, and he keeps his secret. That’s just gym class. We, the readers, know what our hero’s classmates, teachers and family don’t know, and we sympathize with his plight. And in a way, we share in his suffering because we are all too familiar with the pain of alienation, of victimization. We know that bullies call the shots in junior high and that one moment of satisfaction in returning violence against a popular, powerful nemesis would open the door to all kinds of trouble. We know this whether we are the bullied or the bully. There are social forces at work in our lives, whatever season we find ourselves in. We are part of a pecking order because fallen human beings operate consciously and unconsciously in power dynamics. When we are weak, we wish we were strong. When we are strong, we fight to retain our strength. I’d like to pretend, for example, that I was always the victim of such bullying and never the perpetrator, but I can’t. I certainly could have been: when I was a child, I was hardly ever in the in-crowd. I was a band geek who collected comic books, for heaven’s sake. As such, I was manipulated into helping pretty girls cheat on their finals, I was called a nerd and a loser to my face, and I was pointed out for public ridicule and threatened with a beating on more than one occasion. And yet, I managed to find a way of asserting myself within the caste I found myself in. My friends and I invented ways of ostracizing people that would cause maximum pain—the most unimaginative being “the group” membership cards we passed out to those people we considered part of our A-list. (Imagine the humiliation of being rejected for membership in a group of nerds.) At my worst, I made a girl cry all the way home from school, and I beat up a boy for being too new to our town. I didn’t have much social power to defend, but I defended what little I did have with ferocity. But back to our hero. Fritz trudges his way through a day filled with occasional humiliations and the constant awareness that at any moment he could overturn the power dynamics in place. That night he hits the streets, with wings spread wide open and talons extended. He is no longer Owl-boy; now he is Night Vision, ready to use his power without restraint against whatever forces of evil threaten the peace. And so are we. Just as our hero has escaped his everyday world to live free as his expanded self, so his readers leave behind the frustrations of paying bills and finishing homework and avoiding trouble and enduring rejection to play hero.