What is with all these superhero movies? Iron Man. The Hulk. Captain America. Thor. Do we really need yet another version of Spider-Man? Okay. We get it. Peter Parker gets bitten by an enhanced spider while visiting a science lab. His uncle is killed by a criminal whom Spidey could have stopped if he hadn’t been self-absorbed. He's misunderstood and mistreated. He gets the idea for his costume from a wrestling match. And he can't have a girlfriend because he has to save the world. The story has become so familiar, it isn't even Amazing anymore. So why do we have a new Spider-Man every other year?
The cynical answer is that superheroes are box-office gold. But I think there is more to the superhero craze than simple economics. Every culture has its myths — larger-than-life stories that reveal the community's values, hopes, and fears. Superheroes are the American equivalent of the Olympian gods. Like the Olympians, they have human desires and human foibles. They can be lusty, angry, vengeful, and capricious. But today's superheroes are quite different from the gods of old. They no longer want to be worshipped. In many respects, they just want to be left alone.
Much can be revealed about our evolving culture by examining the evolving superhero. The latest version of The Amazing Spider-Man is quite good. The special effects of Spidey flying through the sky, somersaulting onto ceilings, and hanging from buildings are — OK, you knew it was coming — amazing. His arch nemesis, a lizard-man mutant, is well-developed and complex. The story is satisfying, amusing, and tense, especially in 3D. The casting is superb, especially Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker. His gangly youthfulness and spindly physique evoke the angular appendages and lightning speed of a spider. He’s cute, but somehow creepy and unpredictable too.
Even more interesting, however, are the metaphoric and mythic underpinnings of the new story. In many ways the superhero is a metaphor for adolescence. It's no coincidence that Peter is experiencing his first romance at the same time that his body is developing new powers and abilities. He is literally growing new organs, with goo that shoots out of his hands unexpectedly when he gets excited. Like many teens, he doesn't know his own strength, slamming doors and breaking handles with his new muscles. Moreover, he is self-absorbed and self-interested, experiencing pure joy in his own new powers. Superheroes of the previous century had an innate, almost Christlike sense of mission and nobility, but today's young superheroes revel in their newfound abilities. Like the teen mutants in February's Chronicle, Peter reacts joyously as he combines strength, speed, and gymnastic agility to fly from the rafters and swing from the buildings.
Myths always include a conflict between good and evil. A close look at mythic heroes and villains will therefore reveal much about the cultural fears and character values of a generation. In the original comic, Peter is bitten by a spider that has been exposed to radioactive particles. Like other mid-century science fictions, Spider-Man embodied a generation’s fear of the atomic bomb and radiation. In the 2012 version, the laboratory is studying interspecies genetic engineering, revealing a new generation’s fears and concerns about unintentional consequences to genetic meddling.
Another mythological mainstay is the quest for self-discovery. A moment of such discovery occurs directly as Peter enters his English class. His teacher tells her students, “A professor once told that there are only ten stories in all of fiction. I contend that there is only one: ‘Who am I?’” She may be wrong about the number of storylines, but she is certainly right about the importance of self-discovery in literature. It reaches all the way back to 500 BC, and Sophocles’ foundational play, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus discovers who he is by discovering who his parents were. The current story also starts as a quest for self-discovery, as Peter sets out to uncover secrets about his father.
When Peter settles down to thwarting criminals, his motives are far from altruistic. He is no Superman, fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He just wants to find the man who killed Uncle Ben, and if he ties up a few other criminals along the way and leaves them for the cops to arrest, so much the better. Eventually, however, he accepts his mission to fight crime and protect his community. Could we really expect to see a superhero who is not expected to “give back”? As a voice from the dead, Uncle Ben tells Peter that when you are given a great talent, you have to share it with the world.
But this time he doesn’t have to do things all alone. Most revealing is director Marc Webb's treatment of the community at large — the people of New York whom Spider-man is trying to protect. Unlike the inhabitants of Superman's Metropolis or Batman's Gotham or the Avengers' Manhattan, they don't stand around looking up and pointing while the superhero does all the work. They get involved, helping Spidey help them. I love this newfound push toward self-reliance, even if it is a self-reliance that “takes a village.” (How I hate that metaphor!)
Over all, Webb has created a satisfying new version of this cinematic mainstay. I still don’t know why we needed a new one, but it held my attention, even though I know the story inside and out. Myth has a way of doing that.