The title refers to our previous article, Superman: A mythical American. Spider-Man is another attempt on our part to delve into the popular American mythology, as portrayed by what is referred to in Hollywood as, “the Industry”. At the outset Peter Parker states the premise of the film:
Who am I?
Are you sure you want to know?
The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody told you I was just an ordinary, average guy, not a care in the world! Somebody lied. But let me assure you. This, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl. That girl…the girl next door: Mary Jane Watson. The woman I loved since before I even liked girls.
The Spider-Man’s persona has some universal appeal as it flatters on one hand, a young male’s “ego” and his sense of superiority and on the other hand, women’s romantic feeling of abandonment. Girl meets inaccessible man to be eventually turned down by the super hero. Ordinary men would normally fall prey to their luxurious feelings and sex drive. A noted shortcoming among men, which women exploit with great talent; not Spider-Man.
The movie is foremost a tale, mythical in many respects. Like all myths, it is about super-beings, super-heroes and gods involved in the lives of ordinary men and women. Like most mythical stories it can be divided into a thematic sequence:
The setting…….New York city
The hero………..Peter Parker
The quest……….Mary Jane
The adversary…Green Goblin
The mentor……..Ben & May Parker
The Spider-Man movie is set in a working class neighborhood of New York City. The first movie was released in May of 2002, less than a year after the tragic events of 9/11. The Big Apple, the archetype of the 20th century metropolis, is the setting for the story of our mythical hero.
Prior to its release, the film attracted immediate response when an trailer showed Spider-Man spinning a web on New York’s Twin Towers to catch a helicopter full of crooks. A favorite scene that drew cheers from preview audiences in the United States. However, the terrorist attacks on September 11 had forced a re-evaluation of this scene and all images of the Twin Towers were eliminated.
Unlike Superman, who came from another planet, Peter Parker is a working class boy. Both heroes were adopted. Both have a double identity. One of an ordinary being, the other of a supernatural hero. The former is a journalist, the latter a newspaper photographer. In the 1930’s, the original Superman’s prowess was limited to leaping from tall buildings, similar in many ways to our hero. As time and technology progressed, so did Superman’s powers. Peter Parker in the original comic series was bitten by a “radioactive” spider whereas in the movie he is bitten by a “genetically designed” spider. He becomes “genetically modified”, so to speak.
The character is the brainchild of Stan Lee who introduced his colorful hero in 1962. Soon after, Spider-Man became one of the most popular American icons. Unlike other super-heroes of his day, Peter Parker is a regular guy with “real” teen problems living in a “real” city. A nation-wide poll conducted among college students in 1965 by Esquire magazine revealed that Spider-Man ranked among the top of their favorite idols.
The movie begins with the portrait of a young man running after a school bus that he has missed yet again. Inside is the girl next door Mary Jane with her bully boyfriend, Flash, who entertains the mob inside the bus by making a mockery and an outcast of our hero, the nerd next door.
As the story develops our hero meets his best friend Harry. The rich son of Norman Osborn who owns OSCORP, a research company in nanotechnology doing business for the military. They’re on their way to the museum on a scientific field trip. In one of the labs they are visiting, 15 spiders have been “genetically designed”, one of which is reported missing by Mary Jane. Shortly after, it is seen descending from above to bite our ordinary guy on the hand. As a parenthesis, the Latin word for “super” literally means “above” or “over”. The image of the critter looming over our hero is a forceful image of the “super-natural”.
Back home, Peter Parker is undergoing a mutation generated by the spider’s bite and develops some unusual powers. Meanwhile, aunt May visibly worried, is seen outside her nephews’ bedroom and inquires about any notable changes in him. Peter looking through the window at Mary Jane in her bedroom next door and down at his genitals, replies to his aunty with a smile, that yes there are “big changes” going on.
Peter Parker is undergoing big changes. Some are due to his “raging hormones” and some are genetically designed. Some are related to his infatuation with his neighbor who doesn’t know he exists. Fortunately, he soon gets her attention when his uncontrollable powers get him in trouble with Flash in the school cafeteria. He finally beats up the bully to the ground, to Mary Jane’s surprise and admiration.
Aunt May tells Peter that he’s overreacting and doing too much.
Do you think you’re Superman?….
When you were a child the first time you saw Mary Jane when she first moved next door, you asked me, is that an angel?
But aunt May she doesn’t know who I am?
That’s because you don’t let her. Would it be so dangerous to let her know that you care.
Like any teenager, he needs money to buy a car to impress Mary Jane. He decides to enter a wrestling contest. The prize is $3,000 for whoever withstands 3 minutes of beating from the house villain. For the occasion Peter draws his first ideas for a costume. The night of the fight he introduces himself as the Human Spider but is introduced by the MC as Spider-Man. In the circus on steroids he beats his opponent. However, he is only given a $100 reward since the fight lasted less than a minute.
On his way out of the promoter’s office a thief walks in and robs all the cash. Peter lets the thief walk away as a way of getting even with the manager for ripping him off. He repeats to him what he had been told earlier when he was shortchanged: ‘I missed the part where this is my problem”.
The army is expecting good news from OSCORP and its “human performance enhancer”. A drug to make a superior warrior. Unfortunately for Norman the drug is not ready. The formula has some bad sides effects that result in violence, aggression and insanity. The military are not pleased and inform Osborn that they are thinking of giving their contract to his main competitor QUEST.
Shortly after, Norman Osborn finds out that the board of directors of the company he has created plans to get rid of him in a merger. As a last resort, he decides to test the drug on himself. Following the intake, he develops an evil alter ego and the Green Goblin literally takes over his personality. From then on, the Green Goblin will seek revenge on the board of directors for their betrayal by planning an attack on the company’s corporate merger celebration.
At the “World Unity Festival” our hero and the villain meet for the first time setting the stage for a pyrrhic battle carried to the end. The adversary in any story is at the center of the hero’s own identity. It is the villain that triggers the hero’s appearance. It is he who forces Spider-Man to measure up and become the idol that he is. The “struggle” with the adversary is at the core of every hero’s identity.
After his first encounter with Spider-Man, Green Goblin traps our hero and offers him to join him in his efforts to destroy and to terrorize the people, telling him: “One thing that the public likes more than a hero, it’s a hero that fails.” Our hero refuses to go along creating his mortal enemy in the process. Knowing that Spider-Man is a forcible opponent, the Green Goblin plans to hurt the ones Peter loves in order to get to our hero.
Back home, the changes in our hero is affecting the relationship with his uncle who senses that he is loosing his beloved nephew to a higher calling. Uncle Ben who just lost his job, complains that “the corporations are downsizing people and upsizing profits”. Looking through the classified ads for a job, he observes that even “computers need analysts”.
With great power comes great responsibility
Ben tells Peter on his way to the wrestling match. Our hero who is not in the mood for a speech reminds his uncle that he’s not his real father. Unknown to Peter is that the fleeting thief that he lets go after the wrestling match will hijack Ben’s car and murder him.
No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, the ones I love will always be the ones who pay…
During the attack by the Green Goblin on the “World Unity Festival” Peter Parker finds out that Mary Jane is Harry Osborn’s new girl friend. Our hero comes out full swing to save the day and Mary Jane. Prompting her to ask him:
Who are you?
You know who I am.
At the hospital while visiting aunt May, who was badly injured by the Green Goblin, Mary Jane tells Peter that she’s in love with somebody else. She asks Peter if he knows Spider-Man. He tells her that he knows him since he is his official photographer. She asks if the hero ever mentioned her. Peter replies:
Spider-Man did ask what I thought about you.
And what did you say…
I said…A great thing about Mary Jane is when you look in her eyes and she’s looking back at yours, everything does not feel quite normal. Because you feel stronger, weaker at the same time. You feel excited and at the same time terrified. The truth is you don’t know what you feel, except what kind of man you want to be. It feels like you reached the unreachable and you were not ready for it.
You said that?…
In the final scene Mary Jane is in danger yet again. In the darkness between the bridge and the deep waters below, the Goblin threatens to kill a tram filled with children and our heroin. Divided between the sadistic choice of saving Mary Jane or the children, the super-hero saves both.
That’s why fools are heroes. Misery, misery, misery…That’s what you have chosen.
In the final battle Norman pleads that it is not he but the Green Goblin who is responsible for the evil doing. Osborn’s brief sense of sanity is short lived and he succumbs to the “violence, aggression and insanity” a final time. In his last unsuccessful attempt to kill Spider-Man the villain is killed instead.
At Norman Osborn’s funeral, Harry swears revenge for his father’s death and tells Peter that he is the only family he has left. Unaware that he is confiding to the Green Goblin’s killer.
In the final scene Peter turns and faces Mary Jane as she reveals to him:
There is one thing I have been wanting to tell you when I thought I was going to die. There was only one person I was thinking of and it wasn’t who I thought it would be. I kept thinking, I hope I make it through this so I could see Peter Parker’s face one more time. Really there’s only one man who’s always been there for me, who makes me feel more than I thought I could be. But I’m just me and that’s OK… I love you…I love you so much.
As they kiss we hear Peter Parker talking to himself.
All I wanted to tell her was how much I love her.
Tell you that everything ─ and there is so much to tell.
He tells her instead:
I want you to know that I always be there for you, to take care of you. I promise you that I always be your friend.
Only a friend Peter Parker.
That is all I have to give.
As he walks away from her she begins to cry. Then she touches her lips remembering her kiss to Spider-Man.
Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words;
With great power comes great responsibility
This is my gift this is my curse.
Who am I.
Our hero is seen on top of a skyscraper with part of the US flag visible swirling to the wind high above the city.
The Medium is the Message
Myth is the medium through which the super-natural is revealed. The language of myth separates the words and actions of the super heroes from the ordinary world. Myth creates a different setting and separates the boundaries between:
the extraordinary vs the ordinary
the celestial vs the terrestrial
the supernatural vs the natural
The separation between film and the audience is what the Romans called the sacrum, or the sacred. No contact is allowed between the sacrum and the profanum, the profane. Similarly, there is a technological partition between the screen and a mesmerized crowd. With the film, the visionary display is located “above” the masses of people located below. The separation is likened to the dichotomy between the super-hero and the ordinary Peter. In an interview with Le Monde, Sam Raimi relates his first experience with the 16mm amateur movies his father made as a child and how they were responsible for his fascination with movie making. Revealing; “I thought movies were supernatural, a gift from the gods. I never got over the wonder that I felt back then.”
Typically, mythical stories come in the narrative form. Before the alphabet and the text were predominant, myth was passed down orally from generation to generation. Changing with each story teller, adapting to the new social an cultural realities with the passing of time. With the advent of the myth as narrative, the story became self contained and carved in stone, so-to-speak. The story became immutable, not open to any changes.
With the movie, however, myth has gone through some technological mutations, in part due to the nature of the medium and in part due to the magic of special effects. Contrary to myth, the film industry is mostly an economic endeavor. Ratings and profits are central to “the Industry”. Consequently, to make a movie more profitable a sequel follows to increase its box office returns. As a consequence, the nature of the medium and the sequel is shifting the message and the ending, postponing the outcome of the story indefinitely.
In the beginning Peter explains that the story is about the girl next door: A love story. At the end our hero has second thoughts about his love for Mary Jane. He succumbs to the love of his own image as a super-hero. His quest for power and responsibility finally overshadows his desire for MJ. As a result there is a reshuffle the in thematic sequence proposed at the beginning:
The setting……..New York city
The hero………..Peter Parker
The quest……….Great Power and Great Responsibility
The adversary…Green Goblin/Mary Jane
The mentor……..Ben & May Parker
In the scene where Mary Jane is stalked by a band of young thugs on a rainy night Spider-Man appears again to save our heroin who wears an enticing wet tee-shirt. Shortly after, he appears in a close-up upside down, his masked face opposite to his girl friend’s. She removes Peter’s mask just enough to allow for a kiss.
Is the image of Spider-Man upside down facing Mary Jane suggests some kind of opposition to the thematic sequence described in the beginning of the movie? The image of our beloved heroes opposing each other in such a way brought back some vivid memories about the symbolism of opposing forces.
Several years ago I visited Coba, an Mayan city locate in the Yucatan area of Mexico, not too far from the paradise setting of Tulum and the better known city of Cancun. During my excursion I climbed the main Mayan pyramid and reached the top. At the peak of the monument stood a small room, in all likelihood an altar, about the size of closet. Above the door of the entrance stood a sculpted image depicting a god falling from heaven to earth, head first.
The image reflects the idea of a plunging god as the sole power in opposition to the rest of pyramid below. The monument represents the world pointing to the heavens to the falling god against its peak. Two opposing forces; one from above coming down and one from below pointing up. A symbol of the supernatural against the natural, an eternal and divine struggle.
The image of the opposing actors suggests a struggle in our hero’s super-natural calling. In order to become “who he is” our hero must give up his carnal desires for Mary Jane and become celibate. She has become an obstacle to Peter’s identity. The girl next door is now an impediment to Spider-Man’s quest for “great power”.
As we have seen in the movie and described above, our hero’s power and responsibility are all focused in the defense of his loved ones from his own calling. As he states at the end; it is his gift, his curse. One interesting point about the comic books saga is that Mary Jane eventually marries Peter. She also supports him financially so he can continue to “serve” the people of New York. So why this concern with sexual abstinence in the movie? Conservatism?? Unfortunately we have no answers except to say that MJ is protected from physical harm and Spidey’s sexual touch.
Raimi’s depiction of our hero’s angelic qualities brings back memories of a cinematographic Paradise Lost. Similar to the themes of It’s A Wonderful Life depicted in Franck Capra’s idyllic movies of the 30’s. Where the US stood at the highest of its moral character, with decades of bright economic future ahead. Unchallenged in its political leadership and respected throughout the world.
To conclude, aren’t we all a bit like our hero, nerds who believe that we are super-men. A well kept secret, never willing to admit to it. Always in search of the opposite sex to impress. And in the course of our search ending up with a woman who will listen to our dreams and see us for what we are. Mere mortals living between fantasy and reality. Childlike or childish in our quest for greatness. As we grow, we transcend our idealized self through the “otherness” of the loved one. Faced with the prominent presence of the “other” in our lives, we become compelled by the reflection of our own true self and destiny.
I cannot help making a last analogy between Spider-Man’s and the Internet users. Leaping from web site to web site interacting together in the other-worldliness beyond our monitors. Fighting the battle against a symbolic Green Goblin, represented by war, fundamentalism, secrecy, control and censure.
By the time this article was completed, Spider-Man 2 was released. The sequel has basically the same thematic sequence as the first movie. Except for the ending where Mary Jane abandons everything for the sake of Peter, taking control of his life, ending our hero’s indecisiveness. Making MJ the ultimate quest, mentor and outcome of the story.