Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Superpowers and Sins

 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 from other people so he can get what he wants.

Answer: When he is the new version of 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.  His defining moment is when he dosen'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 vengance, Spiderman was driven by guilt.  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 takes no personal responsibility. The famous "With great power comes great responsibility" does not even make an appearance.  He goes after his uncle's killer for vengance.  He breaks a promise to Captain Stacey - who the comic book arc shows to be prescient about the danger Spidey poses to his daughter. 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 angry.

The first Spiderman 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 one 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?  Good how? And at what, exactly?  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.

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.


  1. While no person explicitly says, "With great power comes great responsibility", it remains a major theme of the movie in which Peter undergoes a difficult process of maturing. When Aunt May says he's a good boy, she is not being naive. The movie portrays a young man with a strong conscience, despite his difficulties as an identity-seeking teen. That's why he feel compelled to stop Dr. Curt Connors "because I created him" (he feels responsible). So yes, The Amazing Spider-Man is truly a hero, but he's a human one, with flaws we all can relate to (hopefully). Reading this article I was astonished you and I are were thinking about the same movie.

    1. As a long time comic reader, this movie set really bad with me. This Peter was nothing like the Peter I have ever read or watched.

      Let's take a closer look at his goodness. He steals someone else's identity to get into Oscorp. This causes somebody, who probably really wanted an internship, to get thrown out.

      He not only doesn't stop the criminal who kills Ben, but accepts stolen milk from him. Why? Because the guy behind the couter was enforcing the store policy.

      When his girlfriend tells him her parents won't let her leave, he says they won't even know.

      Then of course you have him lying to a dead man.

      I think where all this is going is that Gwen will die in the next film and Peter will learn his lesson. Is he heroic? Yes. However, don't confuse being heroic with being a good person. Mythology is filled with heroes who are not good people. This Peter has more in common with Beowolf (sp) than the Peter I've come to know.

  2. I'm not sure where you see a strong conscience peeking through. Sure, he has difficulties as a teen - I understand that :) Yes, he decides to stop Curt Conners, and that's a good lesson in taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions. But the movie did not show how this morphed into fighting crime on behalf of everybody. I got the strong impression he liked fighting more than he developed a social conscience. If he really was becoming a responsible person, he would not have broken his promise to the captain.
    I remain puzzled by Aunt May's comments. They seem incongruous with what I saw in the film. If my son acted like Parker, he would be in a lot of trouble. Flaunting authority at school (the skateboard scene), reveling in revenge and not apologizing for it; sneaking his girlfriend out of her house; arguing with the police when he clearly was a vigilante who interfered with police work; slamming people up against lockers - and no sense of remorse or apology for any of it. He has the bravery and power of the heroic, but I remain unconvinced his character has kept up.

  3. It's easy to name examples to support your case, especially the way you put them, but why is nobody mentioning the things that count against this view in order to reach a more nuanced picture of the character? How about scene, in the beginning, where he stands up to the school bully on behalf of someone else, even though he has no powers at the time to defend himself? In my estimation, that's pure self-sacrifice. That's the goodness Aunt May is talking about.

    And that's the person he really is--and is inspired to become through the process of the movie. And I guess that's my real issue with these reviews: You name the incidents anachronistically, not taking into consideration his journey, his search for identity, his gradual maturation. This is not the Peter Parker you recognize from the comics? Well, I do. But that's because this is the origin story--it's the issue #1--of how he became the Peter Parker we know him to be. In that story, he's young and selfish as well, but he grows through the death of Uncle Ben. And the line spoken by his Uncle Ben in this movie about how "one should help someone, simply because one can" corresponds to the comic's line "with great responsibility". Webb avoided using it because it had already been done so much in the previous Spider-Man movies, but the ideas remained. The ethic is internalized by Peter throughout his struggles and makes him the person we see in the end of the movie.

    And by the way, we don't actually see Peter breaking his promise to the captain. We see him keeping it to an extreme degree of even avoiding funerals. He's not even telling Gwen that it's because of her father (though she guesses). He's being very unselfish here. The real lesson of this situation, however, is not that you shouldn't break promises (I believe there's a time when breaking promises can be justified), but that "you shouldn't make promises you can't keep". Indeed, you shouldn't. Making that promise to the captain was a mistake.

  4. I think the second movie could redeem the first one for me. If all the things you say are true, and they show up clearly as the series unfolds, I have no problem revising my current opinion. In fact, I would love for that to be the case. I actually liked the gritty feel of this movie better than the previous trilogy (in terms of the art of making a film, I preferred this one).
    But at this point, I remain unconvinced. The bullying scene at the beginning felt like it was more about the bully than the victim. You don't see Peter following up to make sure the victim was okay. You do, however, see Peter humiliate the Bully and never forgive him. Even when the Bully tries to be nice, Peter cannot bring himself to apologize for throwing him up against the locker.
    In fact, I saw very little contrition for anything - humiliating the Bully, lying to his uncle and aunt, arguing with his girlfriend's father, disrupting a police sting operation, stealing another kid's identity....
    And with Gwen - he's not being unselfish. He is endangering her. He is putting her at risk. If you have read the new arc, you know what's coming for Gwen. Her father warned Peter away because Peter would endanger his daughter's life, yet he once again refuses to acknowledge the advice of authority figures in his life.
    Now, this could all catch up with him in the next movie - and that would make for a fantastic morality tale, and I would update this post with a huge "mea culpa".