Question: When is it acceptable for a young man to pretend to respect authority but not actually do so; get revenge on people who embarrass him; break promises just because he doesn’t like them; believe himself to be smarter than everyone else; act as a vigilante instead of working within the system; sneak his girlfriend out against her parents’ wishes; and steal the identity of innocent people so he can get what he wants?
Answer: When he is the Amazing Spider-Man. Being a superhero, it seems, covers a multitude of sins.
There was a time in which superheroes put their true personality on display. Who they were when they put the mask on matched who they were when they took the mask off. The recent movie Chronicle did a great job showing how power magnifies who we already are, and for that reason must be used with caution. The ordinary moments matter. Not so with the new and improved Amazing Spider-Man.
Here’s the thing about Peter Parker in all the other tellings of his of origin: Peter is a really good guy. He is smart, hard-working and devoted to his aunt and uncle. He usually makes the right choice. When he doesn’t stop the thief who eventually kills Uncle Ben, Peter realizes that a lifetime of good choices can be wiped out by one lapse of judgement, and he spends the rest of his life making up for it. Whereas Batman was driven by vengeance, Spiderman was driven by guilt and then responsibility. In the Ultimate Spiderman arc, Peter is killed while saving everyone on his block. As he dies he tells his aunt May, “It’s ok. I couldn’t save uncle Ben, but I could save you.”
The Peter Parker in this movie gets his powers by breaking the rules. He allows a store to be robbed because he is mad at the clerk for enforcing store policy. He takes no personal responsibility. He goes after his uncle’s killer for vengeance, and there is never a sense that he eventually realizes the emptiness of revenge. At one point he slams people up against lockers in anger, and even though he was clearly out of line, he never apologizes. He breaks a promise to a dying Captain Stacey in which he promises to leave his daughter alone. (The comic book arc shows him to be prescient about the danger Spidey poses to Gwen). This Peter is a mix of Twilight’s Edward and Bruce Wayne. He is brooding, mean-spirited, and full of anger. Even his quips feel mean.
The first Spiderman trilogy ended with Peter saying it was his curse to be alone. This Spiderman ends with Peter saying that he doesn’t care about promises or the risk that Gwen is taking. He just cares about himself. The new breed of superhero can apparently be self-absorbed, arrogant and dishonest when the mask is off, then transform into someone awesome when the mask is on.
Two scenes stood out to me. In the first scene, Spider-Man stands framed in front of the American flag. It was a great movie shot, but I wonder: what did Spider-Man stand for that mirrors the American Dream? Arrogance? Self-aggrandizing? Dishonesty? Revenge?
In the second scene, Aunt May says, “If there’s one thing you are, it’s good.” Really? Brave, sure, but good is not the same as brave. In order for that statement to even make sense, I had to draw from the older version of Spider-Man, a hero who was kind, honest, empathetic, and sincere.
Another superhero once received some great advice: “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.” Well said.
Being a superhero is a burden and a privilege. Since it magnifies sins, weaknesses and failures along with strengths, the truly heroic seek to become better people in the ordinary moments of life. There is no better marker for learning who you will be when the great moments arise.
(A version of this post appeared originally on empiresandmangers.blogspot.com: http://empiresandmangers.blogspot.com/2012/07/superpowers-and-sins.html)
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