Spider-man made his debut in 1962. Forty years later he was reimagined in a feature film. The basic story remained the same: a geeky teenager named Peter Parker gets bit by a spider, is endowed with superpowers, and becomes the American superhero Spider-man. But what gives the spiders in the two versions their unusually powerful bites? In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the spider is unintentionally zapped by radioactive material during an atomic experiment, whereas in 2002 the spider is the carefully engineered product of a genetics lab, where scientists recombine genetic material from three different arachnid species to invent novel varieties. This subtle detail showcases the flexibility of Spider-man’s hero tale.
According to literature scholar Gregory Nagy,
The human condition of mortality, with all its ordeals, defines heroic life itself (2006, 77).
Yet in order to serve the same purpose of grappling with mortality at different points in time, hero tales have to adapt to their local contexts. Spider-man is a hero of the same lineage as the ancient epic hero Gilgamesh. Comparing the two characters demonstrates that Spider-man’s Christian context shapes the particular way in which he plays out the immortality fantasy typical of many heroes. Likewise, the social criticisms pertinent to mankind’s survival—and conversely its mortality—were different in 1962, when atomic destruction by the communist USSR was the most salient threat, compared to 2002, when personal corruption from unfettered capitalist greed and genetic tinkering disrupting our very genes had become more pressing concerns. Like many American superheroes (Bongco 2000), Spider-man fits the traditional hero archetype— including being raised by foster parents, vanquishing foes, and winning female attention (Dundes 1983)— but his story remains relevant because it morphs to reflect the historical moment. The 1960s comic uncritically condones scientific advancement and capitalistic zeal, while the 2002 movie critiques the very ideals its precursor espoused, suggesting instead that Christian ethics ought to curb these impulses.
Applying Raglan’s scholarly framework for identifying patterns in hero stories is sufficient to convince one that even though Marvel Comics advertised Spider-man as “just a bit … different!” (Lee and Ditko 1962, 9), the “timid teenager” (Lee and Ditko 1962, 8) does in fact fit the same archetype as Odysseus, Oedipus, Gilgamesh, and other epic heroes (Dundes 1983). But being products of distinct cultural milieu, Gilgamesh and Spider-man pursue different versions of immortality. This is necessary for both to successfully indulge their otherwise disparate audiences’ shared psychological impulse to identify with the hero and use his story to fantasize about evading death. Gilgamesh pursues immortality through cult worship: he braves danger to “make a lasting name for myself, I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever” (Mitchell 2006, 95), such that he is “capable of coming back to life … sporadically in the present time of [his] worshippers” (Nagy 2006, 99). Meanwhile, Spider-man is “endowed with a dual identity being simultaneously a super-power while also being ‘one of us’” (Bongco 2000, 91). This bears a striking resemblance to Jesus, who was “simultaneously” God “while also being ‘one of us.’” The use of a dual identity also facilitates “[t]he true hero of the romance,” that being “the ego” of the audience, in its quest to “[find] itself in the hero” (Rank 1976, 70), while also allowing Spider-man to acquire glory under the guise of his superhero alter ego without breaking the Christian taboo of humility. In one episode of the comic series, Spider-man saves a test pilot’s life after an equipment malfunction. After this feat, he runs away yelling, “I’d better make myself scarce! I’d just be embarrassed if everyone wants to congratulate me and make a big fuss about what I’ve done!” (Lee and Ditko 1963, 34). This humblebrag associates the ideal of humility with heroism in a way that is not at all present in Gilgamesh’s tale. Conceived in a predominantly Christian nation, Spider-man does what is right because it is right, not because he wants credit, a concept deeply embedded in Christian thought:
When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret (ESV, Matt 6:3),
says Jesus. This verse is followed with the promise of immortality:
And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt 6:3).
Spider-man’s use of his super-powers to pursue justice, his reputation as a “clean-cut, hard-working honor student!” (Lee and Ditko 1963, 10), and his humility, as facilitated by his dual-identity, all combine to make him an ideal hero for the heavily Christian-influenced American nation. Spider-man possesses an altogether different set of personality traits compared to Gilgamesh—who regularly rapes women and starts fights just for the sake of winning—, yet both live out a common fantasy of immortality. As an American superhero, justice and humility are critical attributes for Spider-man to grapple with “[t]he human condition of mortality [that] … defines heroic life itself” (2006, 77) through his tacit march toward heaven.
Another way in which hero tales adapt to preserve the common goal of considering mortality is through identification of salient threats to survival and the presentation of ideals aimed at opposing these threats. Over time, threats change and for hero tales to remain relevant, their ideals must adapt accordingly. By contrasting their attitudes toward capitalism and science, we can observe this change during the forty years between Spider-man’s original conception in 1962 and his more recent portrayal in 2002.
Conceived at the height of the Cold War, the 1960s comic sends only positive messages about capitalism, the economic institution opposed to the communist threat from the USSR. For example, the key illustration of the amicable relationship between Peter and his aunt and uncle occurs when they tell him, “Peter, you know that microscope you’ve always wanted? Your uncle and I bought it for you this afternoon!” (Lee and Ditko 1962, 16). The word “bought” is printed in bold typeface, emphasizing the use of purchased material goods to demonstrate love. Additionally, after Uncle Ben dies Peter says, “And now Uncle Ben is gone, and Aunt May and I are alone! And what’s worse, without Uncle Ben we’ve no money to pay our bills!” (Lee and Ditko 1963, 23). To the Peter of the 1960s, Uncle Ben is most valuable as a provider and only secondarily as a companion. The implication that money equals love remains constant throughout the comic series, with Peter repeatedly returning to the question of how he can use his super-powers to earn money so he can “save enough to be able to give some money to Aunt May!” (Lee and Ditko 1964, 394). Spider-man of 1962 is not greedy, but he does place his hope in capitalism, as a vehicle to attain happiness, in a way Spider-man of 2002 does not. The heroic impetus behind this capitalist ideal is its relationship to the struggle for survival in the age of mutually assured destruction and, consequently, its tight ties to the issue of mortality.
Rather than uncritically condoning capitalism, the 2002 movie critiques consumer culture for its potential to corrupt. The movie contrasts Harry’s modest but loving upbringing with that of his rich but unhappy friend, Harry Oscorp. Throughout the film, the agonizing emotional turmoil of Harry’s father, Norman Oscorp, is set against the backdrop of his massive corporation and lavish mansion. This sends the message that even extreme wealth cannot guarantee happiness. Instead, Peter’s small family of modest means, who pray and refer to belief in God and the afterlife, is happy. Directly critiquing the injustice of unchecked capitalistic greed, in a conversation with Aunt May, Uncle Ben touches on a salient social concern in 2002: “The corporation is down-sizing their people and up-sizing their profits.” As a consequence, he is unemployed. Though he worries about how he will provide for his family, she is not concerned: “I love you, and Peter loves you. You’re the most responsible man I’ve ever known. We’ve been down and out before but somehow we survive.” This echoes a Biblical emphasis on trusting God to provide:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matt 6:25-34).
Uncle Ben is murdered soon after in an unpredictable carjacking; indeed, worrying about money would not have extended his life. Even though they do not have a lot of money, they have love and faith, so they are a happy family. By contrast, the insatiable capitalist impulse to acquire ever more wealth has Norman Oscorp doubled over with anguish in his big, empty mansion. He is trying to fill a void that no amount of money can ever fill. Ultimately, his greed erodes his very humanity when, motivated by fear of losing his military funding, his reckless human trial of “performance enhancers” (Sargent 2002) transforms him into Spider-man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin. As it’s portrayed in Spider-man, in 2002 the personal battle against greed is connected to the issue of human mortality in so much as greed threatens the capacity to form meaningful relationships—with one another and above all with God—that defines humanity. I do not believe the 2002 movie was intentionally crafted as a response to the earlier rendition of the story. Perhaps more disturbingly, I believe it was a product of the natural arc of history. In the 1960s, in resistance to the uprising of communism, America placed its faith in capitalism, but unchecked faith in capitalism is sure to disappoint. By 2012, as America was still dragging itself out of a severe economic recession, this ill-founded faith had wreaked havoc and left us needing a reminder: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:19-20).
The Space Race era Spider-man comic books champion scientists as the new true heroes in place of traditional warriors. In the 2002 movie, Spider-man has the innate ability to shoot webs from his wrists, but in the 1960s comic Peter must engineer a device to accomplish this task:
“So they laughed at me for being a bookworm, eh? Well, only a science major could have created a device like this!” (Lee and Ditko 1962, 14).
The text suggests to its predominantly adolescent audience that scientific innovation is actually cool. The comic also associates science with sex appeal. By issue #14, Parker’s high school love interest—who rejects him in the first issue—instead gives her former boyfriend Flash Thompson, the high school big shot, an ultimatum against mocking Peter: “It so happens, Mr. Flash Thompson, that you … don’t have the equipment for being an egg-head! Namely, you’re too dumb! It’s the men with brains who run this country – not muscle-bound goops like Y-O-U!” (Lee and Ditko 1964, 376). The comic criticizes teenagers that mock their intelligent peers, instead asserting that in the brave new world of the twentieth century, it is not physical prowess but rather technological savvy that grants power.
In the 2002 movie, the attitude toward science is more tempered. Rather than the threat of a communist weapon arsenal best combated with science, in 2002 the more salient threat to society was unchecked scientific advancement itself, particularly in the arena of genetic engineering. After he is bit by the spider, there is a close-up shot of Peter sweating and shaking on his bedroom floor, his spider bite swollen and blanched, while ominous music plays in the background, images of skulls flash across the screen, and a voiceover narrates: “In this recombination lab, we use synthesized transfer RNA to encode an entirely new genome combining the genetic information from all three spiders into these fifteen genetically designed super spiders” (Sargent 2002). This scene poignantly illustrates the potential for unintended consequences arising from “playing God” by inventing new species.
Immediately after the dramatic images of Peter’s eyes rolling back in his head while spiders crawl along neural circuits and DNA transforms itself, a new scene opens with the protests of a concerned scientist:
Dr. Oscorp, please, the performance enhancers aren’t ready. The data just doesn’t justify this test.
Whereas in the comic, the Green Goblin is a monster of unknown origin, in the movie he is the product of Norman Oscorp’s negligent scientific experimentation: “risks are part of laboratory science,” he retorts. A military officer has threatened to pull Oscorp’s funding because of too slow progress on his “human performance enhancers.” A wealthy businessman who makes his money off the military industrial complex, Oscorp hastily accelerates to a human trial conducted on himself, in spite of the strong warnings of his responsible employee scientist, who insists they must “take the whole line back to formula” because of the side effects of violence and aggression observed in an animal trial. Monetary greed motivates Oscorp’s haste: “In two weeks we’ll have lost the contract to Quest and Oscorp will be dead,” while a desire to “play God” and insert some intelligent design into the course of human evolution motivates the technology itself: “Forty thousand years of human evolution and we’ve barely even tapped the vastness of human potential.” Because of his haphazard pursuit of control over nature, Oscorp turns into a monster, plagued by violent outbursts and the machinations of a murderous alter ego.
Furthermore, whereas the 1960s Peter wants to be a scientist, the 2002 Peter wants to be a photographer. While clearly well informed about science—on the field trip to the lab he enthusiastically rattles of a series of relevant facts—Peter of 2002 is more interested in observing science than in participating in it. One shot in particular shows a genetically designed super spider from the perspective of Peter taking a photograph for the school paper: literally, science through a critical lens. Whereas the 1960s comic uncritically condones scientific advancement, the 2002 movie is cognizant of the potential ethical concerns and threat to human life, as we know it, implicated in unchecked genetic tinkering.
In the 2002 movie, the Green Goblin symbolizes rampant capitalist greed and negligent scientific pursuit, particularly in terms of “playing God” by messing with creation. One striking scene closely identifies these impulses with a particularly Christian conception of evil. Aunt May is kneeling by her bed praying an “Our Father” when she is interrupted by the Green Goblin crashing through the wall of her house. As she writhes on the floor in horror, he stares down at her with his “horrible yellow eyes”—not unlike those of a serpent— and orders her to “finish it!” While fire engulfs the room, she screams to God: “Deliver us from evil!” This portrays Christian ethics as a response to the evil threats of unchecked capitalism and scientific negligence. Christianity looks kindly on those of humble means:
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Matt 19:24),
The Bible also traces the origin of all life forms to God’s creative impulse. By one interpretation, Christian ethics cast mankind into the role of stewards meant to preserve, not modify, God’s creation:
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over … every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’ (Gen 1:26).
Because of its healthy skepticism of wealth and respect for living creatures, ethical systems based in Christian theology are applicable in addressing the particular social concerns that the 2002 movie identifies. Given the film’s highly Christian context, this is a salient solution to a salient threat, just as capitalism and science were salient solutions to the salient threat of the USSR in the 1960s.
The ideals that the Spider-man tale espouses changed appreciably in just a forty-year period, reflecting the reality of a rapidly changing world. In 1962 Spider-man’s motto, “With great power comes great responsibility,” referred to nuclear physicists and politicians, while in 2002 the same phrase referred to biologists, businessmen, and the broad responsibility of the public to combat personal greed in their own lives through the intervention of grace and to remain abreast of nascent scientific research and its ethical implications. In general, the superheroes of American comic books tend to resemble archetypal heroes and invoke traditional symbols and plotlines (Bongco 2000), including in their treatment of the defining heroic issue: mortality (Nagy 2006). At least on the surface, these “long underwear characters” (Lee and Ditko 1962, 9) tend to be quite similar in nature. Yet because of their flexibility, the medium and its characters have endured, capturing the attention of multiple generations of adolescent males since their debut in the 1930s and touching every corner of American life (Bongco 2000) through salient expressions of the immortality fantasy and thoughtful considerations of the threats to human life.
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