Your Friendly Neighborhood Adolescent Hero
- America emerges from the teen years on screen -
Spiderman, Spiderman, brings in more viewers than Star Wars can. What's made its web so sticky this summer? It wasn't the movie's side effects. Every movie is saturated with side effects these days, and Spiderman's weren't even all that convincing. Was it the acting? Well, Kirsten Dunst played a pretty featureless Mary Jane, unless you count that cute smile and flippy hair. Willem Defoe spent half the movie behind a stiff mask through which he could only show emotion by cocking his head. Similarly, Spiderman himself has to demonstrate motivation in the form of acrobatics that make one think of Mary Lou Retton with sticky fingers.
Clearly, there's something more to the success of the slinger this summer than the quality of the moviemaking itself. Spiderman succeeds because it strikes the mythological chords of unprepared adulthood emerging out of unaware adolescence. It's kind of like watching Brittney Spears finally admit that there's nothing wrong with sex, if you think about it...
Consider the symbolism of the web-slinger's tale:
When Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, he must do battle with several fathers who compete for his attention. The new hero angrily rejects his uncle, his only earthly father-figure, as a false father, right before he makes his first public appearance as Spider-Man. Through his early, incomplete and false transformation (in a sloppy costume assembled for commercial gain, and selfishly remaining aloof, allowing a criminal to escape his clutches), Spider Man becomes responsible for the death of this earth-father.
The criminal that Spiderman fails to grab as he runs away from a police officer has stolen the money that Spiderman himself hoped to take but was refused. In fact, it is because he himself wanted the money that Spiderman allows the criminal to run free. Thus, the criminal represents the repressed desires of Spiderman, stealing what he secretly desires to steal, using power without restraint, and killing the very father-figure that Spiderman rejects earlier that very day.
This supposed accident elicits guilt in Spider Man, who reacts by completing the transformation by building a new identity which is founded upon the ethical direction provided by his earth-father during their last meeting: "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility". In this sense, the earth-father is psychologically cannibalized by Spider Man, to be consumed on a higher psychological level and incorporated into the new empowered yet ethically restrained self. Spider Man takes on the role/throne/identity of his earth-father in a line of succession after the act of patricide.
Peter Parker's transformation into Spider Man is triggered by the incorporation of a totem animal: the spider, which is described as possessing the power of transcending the ordinary limitations everyday existence. The Spider fertilizes Peter Parker with new genetic material, thus acting as a third parent in addition to his mother and father.
This ability to transcend the limitations of the old self occurs as Peter Parker moves away from home and leaves school, along with all the limitations of childhood. The power of adulthood is exaggerated here. This new incarnation of the self and assumption of the father role is threatened by a figure which represents the dark father motif: the Green Goblin. The Green Goblin represents the shadow self of Spider Man, as if he speaks as a voice of temptation from within himself.
Oh-ho, the sexual symbolism of the web, squirting freely, wantonly from the body of the transformed teenager Peter Parker. If he can learn to control these spirits of spider-juice, he can swing his way across the entire city! He, above all other residents of the city, has the power to transcend the rules of society. The question of his transformation into a one-man superpower is whether he will abuse his power.
The Green Goblin arrives on the scene as a rival superpower. On a literal level, the Green Goblin is an external enemy to be defeated on a physical level. However, the actual power of the Green Goblin rests in the ability to tempt the arch-villain shadow self within Spiderman. The Green Goblin recognizes Spiderman as a kindred self, even though Peter Parker attempts to deny their affinity.
Is it a coincidence that Spiderman is accused of being an arch-criminal just like the Green Goblin? In his heart-of-hearts, Spiderman is tempted by the same dark forces of anger and revenge as his supposed criminal enemies.
Hubba hubba. There's a lot of depth behind that blue and red cat suit. No matter how much the execution of the story is screwed with by a computer-animation happy director, it's impossible to mess with the power that the Spiderman tale brings to the screen.
Is the creator of Spiderman, Stan Lee, a comic book Joseph Campbell? Maybe that's going a bit far. It is fair to say, however, that the Spider Man story is deeply in touch with the psychological power of the transitional period of late adolescence, moving into adulthood.
Spiderman is U.S.
Dare I say that the American national identity is grappling with the same coming-of-age angst as the teenagers emerging from their worship of bopper bands like the Backstreet Boys? Well, I think just did. We're no longer just someone else's colony, or a backwater, or just one of the superpowers. The United States is THE superpower, with no one left to rival it. Just like Spiderman, we are unrivaled, and thus have no one of equal status to fight. In such a world, every war that the United States seeks to enter is, on a fundamental psychological level, a war against its own darker nature.
The question of the day is not how the United States can defeat evil enemies. Rather, the question is whether the United States will use the pretext of war to avoid coming to terms with its own dark, destructive national impulses. Do we now abuse our national super powers to pick on whatever third-rate pipsqueaks get on our nerves?
As we're being led off to a preemptive invasion of a country that has never attacked the United States, maybe it's time that we all tune into our Spider-Sense and figure out where the true danger to our national security lies. Instead of bashing super-evil villains like Saddam Hussein, maybe we ought to be fighting the enemies within: those who are doing their best to destroy our freedoms by appealing to our base lust for war. With great power comes great responsibility, and more often than not, great responsibility means great restraint.