Tuesday, May 07, 2002


New Yorker, American

Originally published at National Review Online, May 7, 2002

May 7, 2002 12:30 p.m.
New Yorker, American
Spider-Man has perfect timing.

(WARNING: The following column on the new Spider-Man movie contains what might be considered SPOILERS. It discusses a number of themes, scenes, and dialogue. As such, if you haven't seen it yet — a small minority, based on last weekend's box-office figures — you might want to skip the column until you have. Don't worry, we're not going anywhere.)

t's no surprise that war produces heroes. However, what seems to have gone unnoticed is that the shadows of war seem to be the breeding ground for the artistic inspiration that gives rise to the stories of fictional legend.

How else to explain that the greatest archetypal superheroes of the 20th century all emerged during times of geopolitical tension? In 1938, as Europe was becoming embroiled in an emerging threat arising from Nazi Germany two young kids from Cleveland, Ohio created their own "Ubermensch" legend. The story owed as much to the Bible as it did science fiction: A scientist and his wife, confronted with the fact that their planet is dying, launch their only child into space so he may escape their fate. It is, in its own fashion, a reworking of the Moses tale. The baby lands in the United States Midwest and is adopted by an elderly couple. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is the origin of Superman. Out of a sense of traditional American values, mixed perhaps with an inherited sense of noblesse oblige, he recognizes that he has an obligation to use his powers to protect his adopted home.

One year later — as the European situation grew even tenser, another American artist, Bob Kane produced a darker vision. A boy sees his parents murdered in the middle of a robbery and vows vengeance. The orphan becomes Batman, a hero driven by vengeance.

Three years later — mere months before the United States is attacked at Pearl Harbor — the team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon introduce the ultimate patriotic archetype — Captain America. He's a regular, but skinny Army Joe — too weak to be on the frontlines — called Steve Rogers. He volunteers for an experiment that would make him a "super-soldier."

Perhaps not by coincidence, the creators of all of these heroes were all Jewish Americans, in their teens or early twenties. Perhaps that ethnic heritage explains the common themes of abandonment, loss of home, and the existential need to bond oneself to a greater good.

Flashing forward four decades, a metaphorical Iron Curtain is draped across Europe. In 1961, a physical partition separates East and West Berlin. It's the same year that a young American president takes office. Another year passes, and a different type of hero hits the newsstands. Like Superman and Batman, he is in orphan, though like the former he is taken in and "adopted" into a nurturing environment. Unlike Captain America, he is not in the military. He's just a high-school kid who gets bitten (in the original story) by a radioactive spider. Then, through an act of adolescent selfishness, tragedy strikes. Thus, the fourth great superhero archetype is born — driven by a guilt-induced responsibility and painfully aware of what can occur when that responsibility is ignored. His name is, of course, Spider-Man.

(Interestingly, just as the nation feared the atomic bomb in the '50s and early-60s, radioactivity of some sort figures into the creation of many of the early "Marvel" comic book heroes. Cosmic rays create the Fantastic Four; gamma rays produce the Incredible Hulk; a radioactive canister gives the blind Daredevil extra senses; radiation at the cellular level produces the mutant X-Men, etc.)

Like his World War II era counterparts, Spider-Man would also have Jewish lineage in writer Stan Lee. The background of Spidey's co-creator, Steve Ditko, is somewhat shrouded in mystery though the Pennsylvania-born artist is said to have eastern European parents.

This back-story is particularly notable because, as the Spider-Man movie emerges, war and rumors of war fill the American psyche to a degree not seen in decades. At the end of the film, the wall crawler lands upon a flagpole bearing a huge American flag. The feeling conveyed is obvious. Comic books — especially the superhero trope — are a unique part of Americana and the blue-red-webbed hero is part of that tradition. The scene is reminiscent of the end of the first Superman movie as the Man of Steel flies off holding a flagpole with Old Glory unfurled.

But, more than that, Spider-Man is an American hero — a human being — born of a particular American moment. In this movie, the newly gifted teenage Peter Parker, after having beaten up the school bully something proper, is told by his uncle that he is now at the age when "a man changes into the man he'll become for the rest of his life." Ben Parker — though unaware of his nephew's super-talents — nonetheless tries to impress upon him that can't just go around beating up bullies. Whatever gifts he has must be put it to a worthy purpose.

But, remember, this is a Kennedy-era creation. The words "with great power comes great responsibility" were originally written barely a year after the nation's brand-new commander-in-chief vowed in his inaugural address to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Months after those words were spoken, America began its full involvement in Vietnam.

How the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility" takes on brand new context in these uncertain early moments of the 21st century.

Spider-Man always has been the quintessential New Yorker. In fact, it is an eerie feeling, watching Spider-Man swing through a fairly accurate on-screen depiction of the Big Apple. It's not just Manhattan. Queens houses look like Queens houses. Soho diners look like Soho diners. Yet, it is that faithfulness to reality that makes it difficult to watch. As much as one is drawn into the amazing fantasy taking place on the screen, the post-9/11 consciousness forces inevitable questions to perk up. How can those celluloid New Yorkers — having been caught in the middle of two super beings tearing up Times Square — stop to applaud Spider-Man's coming to the "rescue"? There are buildings falling down around them!

However, in the movie's most satisfying scene, the hero finds himself high above the Queensboro Bridge. The Goblin challenges Spider-Man to decide whom to save — his girlfriend or innocent kids in a cable car. "We are who we choose to be," mocks the Goblin as he drops his would be victims off the bridge. The words seem be an almost intentional contrast to Ben Parker's observation to Peter Parker. The Goblin has made his choice. He has chosen power — without responsibility.

The hero, of course, rejects the false "choice" thrust upon him and goes to save all of the Goblin's victims — just as the villain zeroes in for the kill. But then, the tables are turned! In a perfect inversion of the paradigm, Spider-Man himself is saved as a crowd starts throwing things at the Goblin, distracting him just long enough. "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us," screams one New Yorker; it's the "Let's roll" moment — unexpected, yet perfectly exhilarating. Consider too that the vituperative Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson has decided that he can sell more newspapers pushing the idea that Spider-Man is a criminal in league with the Green Goblin. In siding with Spider-Man, the crowd implicitly rejects the media manipulation.

They know who their hero is; they know who the good guy is. But in helping to save him, the average New Yorker manages to become a hero too. It is fitting, as the hero happens, powers aside, to be an average guy. After saving the innocents, he then goes to extinguish the evil that is the Goblin. How can any great power do less?

The message of that scene is that we can't just depend on our "heroes" to be perfect and save our society. All Americans — not just the "heroes" — have to recognize that there are such things as sacrifice involved as great power is wielded. Humility is a virtue that must be mastered and arrogance a vice that must be tempered. America, as a great nation with great power must exercise great responsibility. But, even those without "great power" manage to do something great — or even merely "good" — just through basic human decency.

These are the lessons from Spider-Man. The character is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but like any true archetypal hero, he always shows up at just the right time with just the right message. The superhero reminds us what being American is all about.

— Mr. George is an editorial writer for the New York Post.

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