With the second installment in the Spiderman movie franchise to be released this Wednesday, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my father when the first film was released. “So what’s the deal with this Spider-Man thing?” he asked, an odd question coming from my father. Odd in that this man who arrived in the States from Ireland in his twenties, making him constitutionally oblivious to American youth culture, was furrowing his brow at a Time magazine article featuring Stan Lee’s creation. Another oddity was how his accent picked up momentum; dusty pronunciations are unearthed when my father says words like Spider-Man.
Granted, he was overawed by the box office receipts, not the character’s cultural penetration. Still, one has to wonder how such an especially bizarre character, even by the genre’s standards, has such appeal. This wasn’t like other characters at all; Peter Parker wasn’t the last son of a distant, dying world like Superman, a mythological god such as Thor, or even Batman, a rich yet super-powerless, neurotic weirdo in a cape with a poorly concealed penchant for S&M. He wasn’t even to be found in a fictional setting like Gotham City or Metropolis, for chrissake. He was from Forest Hills. But that very ordinary Queens origin anchored him in our world and highlighted how small and powerless he often was, despite and at times because of his uncanny abilities.
I haven’t been an avid comics reader since adolescence. My warm and fuzzy memories of greedily pouring over a cache of comic titles like pirate booty had been shelved long ago. That was until I caught wind of Spiderman # 36, where he witnesses the attack on the World Trade Center. Featuring a black cover the issue deals with the tragedy, but as it occurred in real life, without warning or any larger than life individuals stepping in. The story is punctuated by helplessness, a child waiting in the rubble for a parent that will never return and exhausted firefighters filthy with soot huddled in corners to sleep. He is dwarfed by events and his superhuman powers and abilities serve only to make him appear smaller, more useless. A theme that the Spiderman myth retells perennially, a myth that underscores the passage to adulthood: dealing with events beyond your control like a man.
This story, this myth tethered to the here and now, is really very simple and anyone born in the Western hemisphere knows it. A young man orphaned as an infant and raised by his elderly aunt and uncle, grows to be a bookish young man in love with the girl next door but is mercilessly taunted by neighborhood bullies. But here it takes a less familiar turn in that he finds himself bitten by a radioactive spider and obtains its strength, speed and agility. Like any 15 year old would, he immediately decides to use his powers for personal gain, and filled with his own sense of entitlement lets a robber escape who later guns down his Uncle Ben. Filled with shame he remembers the last words his uncle said to him “With great power comes great responsibility.”
I’ve never heard a better or more concise expression of a credo for men and nations to live by, but in a way it’s a bit wasted here, because Peter Parker for all his amazing abilities is never truly in control of the events around him. With all the ink spilt in the psychiatric community over how comic books merely cater to adolescent power fantasies, Spider-Man is tortured by his inability to protect those he loves and falling just short of what the world expects of him. Powerful he isn’t.