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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

John Shelton Lawrence Weighs in on Spider-Man 2

Dr. John Shelton Lawrence, the leading authority on the role and influence of superhero mythology and heroic fiction in American politics and culture (and a regular Rex Stetson reader), e-mailed to let me know that just yesterday he posted his own take on what Spider-Man 2 really says about the America of 2004.

Lawrence's essay tends to focus on the changing conceptions of "heroism" in their relation to the policemen and firefighters of 9/11, which themselves inspired comic books like Marvel Comics' The Call of Duty, not to mention any number of special issues of ordinary superhero books in which the fictional heroes paid tribute to the real ones of 9/11.

But it looks like the pendulum has swung back the other direction, according to Lawrence: "The current Spider-Man does offer a gesture of respect for ordinary heroism in a scene where subway passengers assist the struggling superhero. But in the end, his secret identity and full powers as superhero are needed to rescue New York from the grip of Doc Ock."

I see what he means, but Dr. Lawrence neglects to mention the moving scene in Spider Man 2 where a powerless Peter Parker rescues a child from a burning building, and gets admiration from the firefighters afterwards- which I took to be a comment along the lines of "man, those firefighters are the real heroes- they do this stuff everyday without the benefit of superpowers." I think Peter seemed more in awe of them than the other way 'round.

But interesting stuff, as always- and a definite must-read for superhero fans and for anyone who likes to analyze pop culture as anything other than pure entertainment.

It's been an interesting few years to say the least, and we've all had to reasess the meaning of heroism, duty, good and evil, risk, and reconcile these concepts to the post-9/11 world.

Unsurprisingly, so has our heroic fiction.

Posted by Rex @ 1:41 PM

Monday, July 12, 2004

Spider-Man 2: Foreign Policy Rorschach Blot?

Forget Fahrenheit 9/11. The big hit film about the War on Terror that everyone's talking about is Spider-Man 2.

My dear pal The Young Curmudgeon thinks it's a metaphor for America grappling with the consequences of finally standing up to face evil". He makes a pretty good case for Spider-Man's problems policing New York being analogous to America's problems policing the world: personal danger, resentment from the people you help, and unfriendly media that attacks him no matter what he does.

S. T. Karnick over at Tech Central Station also shares this interpretation:

The United States, of course, is routinely referred to as a Great Power, and Peter's dilemma is the predicament that faces the United States in the post-September 11 world. America can either turn its back on its neighbors, enjoy increasing bourgeois comfort and pleasures, and earn the affection of Europe, Russia, and the cosmopolites of the domestic media -- or do what most of us see as our duty and fight a lonely, dangerous War on Terror with uncertain outcome.

Frank Rich, at the NY Times, on the other hand, sees it from a more center-left prespective. He still has to acknowledge the "War on Terror" similarities, most notably recalling the "George W. Bush as Gary Cooper in High Noon" meme that was going around a while back:

Spider-Man wants to vanquish evil, but he doesn't want to be reckless about it. Like the reluctant sheriff of an old western, he fights back only when a bad guy strikes first, leaving him with no other alternative. He wouldn't mind throwing off his Spider-Man identity entirely to go back to being just Peter Parker, lonely Columbia undergrad. But of course he can't. This is 2004, and there is always evil bearing down on his New York.

Taking issue with the Iraq war- which the left generally sees as something very different form the larger War, Rich continues:
There's nothing triumphalist about Spider-Man; he would never declare "Mission Accomplished" after a passing victory, and his very creed is antithetical to the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war.

I said it's a "center left" take though:

But neither is he a stand-in for John Kerry. Whatever inner equivocation he suffers over his role as a superhero, he stops playing Hamlet when he has a decision to make. Nor does he follow Mr. Kerry's vainglorious example of turning his own past battles into slick promotional hagiography.

If anyone's a stand-in for John Kerry, it would be the John Jameson character- a decorated military hero figure, poised to get all the esteem of the media and the elites who benefit daily from Spidey's personal war on terror while they tear him down. But you can really read the film any number of ways.

In various comment threads around the web, I've heard this meme analyzed by people from all over the political spectrum, some calling Spider-Man 2 a scathing indictment of the media's complicity in giving aid and comfort to the enemies of America, others calling it a critique of the Bush Administration: "Spider-man doesn't accept collateral damage- he lets the bad guy get away rather than let innocent people be killed". "He tried taking the Dick Cheney/Halliburton route in the first film- trying to use his powers to make money". I even heard someone say something on the order of " Spider Man values his privacy, but John Ashcroft wants to destroy it"...which seems a bit over the top, honestly.

It's a bit of a Rorschach blot, really, like all good mythology. What people see in it is as often a reflection of their own beliefs and values, as much as it is any inherent "message" of the work.

That said, superheroes in general are inherently unilateralist, moralistic, and they see things in simple "black and white" terms of "good and evil". They don't look at polls to decide whether or not to fight evil that day. They may have the support of their community, as Spider-Man does in the film, but they will do what they do even without much support. Even when the media is against them, even when it's tough and there's a lot of personal sacrifices to be made. Sometimes they make mistakes, and should learn from these mistakes. I don't think they should be immune from criticism, but it should be constructive criticism, not the knee-jerk character assassination of the Daily Bugle.

Still, it's a mainstream movie- so it's not surprising that it takes a pretty middle-of-the road centrist view of things, even though it's Pro-unilateralism ( a trait in all heroic fiction, especially pronounced in American works like comics, westerns, crime stories, and of course the superhero genre). Most people in New York support the values that Spidey fights for, even if they don't like him personally for whatever reason: because he does too much, or not enough, or in a way they don't like.

Recommended reading on the American Monomyth, and how Superhero fiction reflects, informs, and influences America's role in the world:

The Myth of The American Superhero by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett

Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil - also by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett

Posted by Rex @ 12:12 PM

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