How spiderman shows a change of faith in America.
Spiderman was always my favourite superhero. Unlike those other imaginary creatures of insane physiques and childish powers that Stan Lee and friends came up with Spidey was a credible person. He had financial problems, he had romance problems, he had boss problems, and he had moral depth.
Spidey was a nice guy in a city of amoral turpitude that wasn’t metaphorical like Gotham or Metropolis. Spidey is a hero of a real place - New York City; and real people -New Yorkers.
Who could forget the wonderful editor J. Jonas Jamieson? Mean, belligerent, small minded: not a villain but the perfect counterpoint to someone playing hero. He doesn’t trust in altruism or heroes. All he sees are angles. Jamieson defines the environment in which Spidey’s heroism is set, making his every act of altruism a kind of resistance to this reality; a small form of defiance everyone could relate to.
The original Peter Parker and friends are what we call today, ‘new adults’. He’s young, inexperienced, starting out, and learning life’s lessons the hard way. Parker’s transition to adulthood begins when his deliberate petty inaction leads directly to the death of his father figure, Uncle Ben.
Uncle Ben and Aunt May are more than background characters, they are eponymous ancestors.
Within them is both the wisdom and the values that have brought Peter Parker to a moment of empowerment through the magic of technology (originally atomic radiation).
Like a prophet to the nation, Uncle Ben reminds us “with great power comes great responsibility”. But when he dies this places the blame for patricide squarely on the adopted son, who in order to expiate his guilt seeks redemption in altruistic vigilantism.
Peter Parker’s relationship with Aunt May also becomes complex. As a patricide he feels awful guilt that his transition to adulthood has effectively been at Aunt May’s expense. But he also knows that May loves him like a mother and the confusion and loss they both feel with the death of Ben is the launching point of many a story line.
This is classical stuff. Homer himself could have written it. Powerful archetypes, big questions about good and evil, wealth and power with a famously amoral city as spectator and backdrop to the drama.
Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spiderman stayed true to all these elements of the original tale.
Tobey Macguire’s Peter Parker /spiderman was the poor nice guy suddenly dropped into momentous choices. His struggle is with the injustice of wealth and privilege (Harry Osborne) despite having the means to simply steal. He struggles too with wanting Mary-Jane but having no resources to attract her interest. Everything is pointing to the easy route of theft except the memory of Uncle Ben — the moral working class backbone of America.
It was a classic morality tale. And then it got stupid.
But because spiderman is the metaphor of the true American hero the Raimi/Macguire journey could not end with the death of Harry Osborne and the estrangement of Mary Jane no matter how apt that was in the lead up to the global financial crisis and following the revelations of Abu Ghraib.
But the real problem was Spiderman was never really an adult story. The whole concept of a masked vigilante with spider powers who travels New York dealing to petty thieves and super villains becomes increasingly lame the older the audience gets. Never mind the references the guts of the action simply seems inconsequential to an adult audience. Who can take it seriously? The answer is kids.
So the search was on to make Spiderman more kid friendly. Unfortunately in doing so the studios have killed everything that made spiderman a classic.
The Amazing Spiderman (2012) became a story of a lost technological inheritance. Suddenly Peter Parker’s dad is a scientist who vanishes into the night leaving the baby to Ben (Martin Sheen) and May (Sally Field).
Andrew Garfield efforts in the lead role to make Spiderman edgier are acceptable but the lost inheritance story unfortunately destroys the classic tragedy of Uncle Ben. From patriarch of the nation Uncle Ben ends up dieing like a sap who got in the way and no matter how great Martin Sheen and Sally Field are they cannot fight a story arc which essentially reduces them to impotent spectators. The climactic battle with Dr Connors is about youth wresting back control for its technological inheritance from the corruption of modern corporations (boo hiss) but is faced with a vast moral chasm at its conclusion. We have the power but no moral compass. What ought spiderman do?
Which brings us to the latest Spiderman, Spiderman Homecoming.
The battle for the soul of the nation is reduced to whether or not Peter Parker gets picked for the pro team by the rich arsehole who runs it. From Homer we have descended to Little Toot.
Worse the rich arsehole becomes a kind of estranged father figure. He indulges himself with his billions while Aunt May struggles, judging Little Toot with no moral platform other than his vast success. America the brave has become America the bootlickers.
The only character with any resonance at all is Michael Keaton as the Vulture. A peculiar echo of Uncle Ben’s working class Prophet his complaints that government-corporate are closing out the American working class entrepreneur are noted but ultimately futile against the rise of a superhero fascist state only Ernst Rohm would have approved of.
But for all its failings as a story it is not actually Spiderman which makes this movie enjoyable. It’s the teen characters around Peter Parker. Vulnerable, smart, funny and down to earth the kids are alright. So when Parker gives up Elysium for them you do get a small sense of the homecoming in the title.
It may not be spiderman as we know it but from a faith in the ancient wisdom of Uncle Ben we are transitioning to a faith in the wit and wisdom of characters like Ned, Michelle and Liz. Untested and uncertain as they are.