Speaking of Spider-Man

I recently regained the electronic rights to my book Comic Book Character, so now I can put portions of it online here. I thought, with the third film in the Spider-Man franchise coming this week to a theater near you, it might be fun to take a look at what about Peter Parker captured my imagination at the time. The following is excerpted from pages 23-24 of the book, under the heading "The Fantasy of Strength":

What is it about superheroes that makes them endure the tedium of normal life? And why do we, as readers, allow it? If we had the powers of our heroes, would we stand for the petty meanness of the average people who bully us? If we knew our friends had such powers, would we allow them to do nothing for us or for themselves?

There’s an unspoken rule among superheroes that powers are to be used only in critical situations. We’re not often told why, but the origin of one superhero gives us a look at what could happen without such self-restraint.

Spider-Man wasn’t always Spider-Man. For most of his childhood he was mild-mannered Peter Parker, an orphaned genius being raised by his elderly aunt and uncle. He was a bookish, withdrawn kid, regularly used and abused by his classmates. . . .

Then one day on a field trip to a laboratory, Peter was bitten by a spider exposed to radiation. Over time Peter discovered that he had appropriated the physical characteristics of a spider—the ability to stick to walls and ceilings; greatly enhanced strength, speed and agility; and (we’re told much later in the 2002 film) the capacity to spin his own webbing. He had always been smarter than anyone in his class; now he was stronger, faster, more talented and quickly more confident as well.

So Peter did what you might expect the butt of everyone’s jokes to do: he started showing off. He picked fights with schoolmates and got quick revenge on the people who had abused him for so long, and he started making lots of money by exploiting his newfound talents as an unbeatable mystery wrestler. He alienated everyone he encountered—his employer, his classmates, eventually even the press—with his rash, defiant attitude. And when he could have stopped a burglary without even exerting himself, he didn’t bother. All the average, immature high-school students got their comeuppance from Peter, but no bad guys met justice through Spider-Man.

Peter learned a painful lesson though. His uncle, who had raised him since his parents’ death, lost his life at the hands of the very burglar Peter had let escape. Peter quickly realized that by his inaction he was complicit in his uncle’s death. And by the end of his first adventure, as he meditated on his uncle’s advice—"With great power comes great responsibility"— he grew up a bit and discovered the proper channel for his abilities.

Peter Parker added an adolescent humanness to superheroes that until his debut in the comic Amazing Fantasy had played a minor role, and he resonated with his readers. We learned that to fantasize about having special powers was all well and good, but there was a corresponding ethic to having such powers, and our fantasies would not play out as we might like if we intended to remain the hero of our own stories. We can hope that someday we will be stronger than we are, better equipped to handle the hardships we inevitably face, but we must also hope that we will use that strength with wisdom and humility.

For Peter, that humility meant returning day after day to school and eventually to work, enduring humiliation as well as he could, and seeking the appropriate balance of power and responsibility that his uncle had pointed him toward. He used his powers only against those whose passions could not be controlled by the ordinary safeguards of law, common decency and moral impulse. He alternately used and hid his powers so that he and the people around him could live as normal and happy a life as possible. Such was his gift, and such was the greatest use of his strength.

Of course, this passage is looking at the origin of Spider-Man, and he's grown up quite a bit since then. The adult Peter Parker we'll meet in 3 faces problems progressively more complex and more grave. This third movie should once again do what the first two have already done: demanded more aesthetically, psychologically, relationally and even morally from the genre. Let me know what you think of the previews you've seen; as for me and my house, we will buy I-Max tickets in advance.


Web said…
I must admit that I cheated and read the "Official Novelization of the Film" last week -- so if the movie holds to the screenplay from which the book was written, then it looks like the film will be pretty good... OK, I'm a super-hero flick fanatic, so the movie will be great! (I hope)

One of the major themes of the movie is battling your inner demons and not letting temptation rule you. Uncle Ben's quote, "With great power, comes great responsibility" especially holds true in this installment of Spidey's big screen exploits -- at least they are according to the book.
David Zimmerman said…
It looks like there's a counter-theme of how power corrupts. My pastor this weekend suggested that faith is always characterized by a "leaving behind"--for biblical patriarch Abraham it was his homeland of Ur and then his adopted home of Haran and all that came with them; for Spider-Man in this post it was the privilege of revenge and the trappings of power. In the film it looks to be leaving behind the enhancements he experiences in the black-suit.

By the way, once again my thanks to Web for helping me with block-quoting in Blogger. Don't know why some paragraphs have giant quotations marks and some don't, but it's much improved over my unfortunate G. K. Chesterton quote of recent weeks.
David Zimmerman said…
My friend Taryn sent me this note:

"I just read your blog, and wanted to ruefully tell you that you don't
technically have the electronic rights to your book until it is out of print."

I thought it was out of print, but I guess that won't happen till every last copy gets bought or burned. So if you haven't bought/burned your copy . . .

Taryn proceeded to grant me permission to post this excerpt, so I'm in the clear. Just a wee bit embarrassed.
Anonymous said…
As a diehard Spidey fan, I'll watch and enjoy the movie without comments like, "It didn't happen like that in the comic book", or "the comics were better".
You know what I like about the movies??? No reading.
Hey... I may even get something out of it, like an insight into the inner turmoil of a hero.
David Zimmerman said…
Excellent use of the Jim Gaffigan reference, Ven.

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