Nerd Testament #2: With Great Power

Superheroes are a fascinating phenomenon.  Their literary lineage goes back immediately to the pulps, their sires including such stalwarts as Doc Savage, Tarzan and The Shadow, and the family tree goes back to the very beginnings of human literature, to the great champions like Roland, Achilles, David and Gilgamesh.  But the comic book superhero is something quite different from his forebearers.  The secret identity conceit is a key innovation, as are the outre alter egos they create for themselves.  Any burly chump can put on a trenchcoat and punch mobsters and Nazis in the face, but ever since Siegel and Schuster had their lightning-strike, it’s expected that heroes will don colorful tights, masks and capes to do their crimefighting, sporting colorful monikers, wild origin stories, and weird specialties.  This flair for showmanship, and the way it suited the purely visual four-color medium the superhero is associated with, is what makes these characters iconic.  The Man of Bronze might be the apex of physical and mental development, but ultimately he’s a big guy in a suit.  And the whole point of The Shadow is that you don’t see him.  But Superman, he’s a living breathing flag.

And as such, superheroes are more effective as symbols.

Consider Superman.  Doomed Planet.  Last Son.  Kindly Couple.  Speeding bullet.  Locomotive.  Tall buildings.  Mild-mannered reporter.

Never-ending battle for Truth and Justice.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever read a comic book in your life, it’s a safe bet that you know the mantra by heart.  You probably know it as “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” and the absence of that third thing might even upset you, but please note that the American Way was a later, Cold-War-inspired addition.  Superman does stand for the American Way, all that’s best about America’s ideals, indeed he is the living embodiment of them as an adopted immigrant and a small-town boy and a big-city champion, but Superman is also a universal hero, and that’s as it should be.  He possesses nigh-godlike powers, and it is good to remember that God is not American.

But the point is, Superman is a universally recognizeable symbol for all that is good and right and heroic in the world.  He’s an exemplar.  In addition to providing thrilling adventures, for seventy years now he’s also been an impeccable role model.

Consider Superman’s dark mirror.  Bruce Wayne possesses no superhuman gifts.  He was not fortunate enough to be raised by loving parents.  What he does have is a fortune and an indefatigable will.  When his world was broken, he decided to do something about it.  At the age of eight, this child decided to turn his grief into drive, and swore an oath to fight evil.  Like Doc Savage, he’s a modern renaissance man possessing unmatched physical prowess, a keen intellect, mastery of seemingly every discipline on Earth, and the overwhelming urge to make the world a better place.  His methods, however, are more in line with those of The Shadow.  Darkness, disguise, illusion and fear are his weapons.  And yet, he will not kill.  There are rules he abides by, and following them has sometimes cost him, but he, too, is a role model.

Then there’s perhaps the greatest of comic book role models: the amazing Spider-man.  Why the greatest?  Because in the words of the original tagline, he’s “the hero who could be YOU!”

Peter Parker, nerdy teenager.  Social outcast, frail and sickly loser, loved only by his aging aunt and uncle.  A miracle occurs, and he’s granted incredible powers.  At this point, one of the classic heroes of the golden age would promptly swear to start righting wrongs, and head out to find some gangsters or Nazi spies to punch.

Peter Parker jumps into the wrestling ring to earn some fast cash, and from there he gets on the Ed Sullivan show.  He’s eagerly looking forward to a life of fame and fortune.  Which, let’s be honest with ourselves, is what most of us would probably do.  As Guillermo Del Toro notes in the Hellboy commentary track, he would probably use superpowers to steal beer too.

But the four-color world is a harshly moralistic one, frequently driven by simplistic irony.  And complexity is not a requirement for emotional impact, which is why I still get a little choked up when I think about Uncle Ben.  The moralat the end of Amazing Fantasy #15 is a resonant one: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

For forty-seven years now, Spidey has been living by that creed.

And he pays for it every day of his life.

Superman is a golden icon.  Batman’s a billionaire playboy.  The Fantastic Four are wealthy celebrities who live in their own skyscraper and are loved by all.

Spider-man is frequently spit on, accused of crimes, and made the target of hurled garbage.  He can barely make ends meet a lot of the time.  His relationships are always troubled.  The love of his life died in his arms, murdered by a lunatic with a grudge against him.  He did manage to marry a gorgeous supermodel, but let’s face it, their marriage was under constant strain, largely because of the way he kept putting on tights and going out to fight supervillains capable of ripping him to pieces.  The editor of a major newspaper has made it his life’s work to destroy Spider-man’s reputation.  He’s constantly being beaten into jelly, thrown into death traps, buried under mountains of rubble, and having to cope with weird clone nonsense.

But he still does what’s right.  The essence of who Spider-man is and what he’s about can be found in The Amazing Spider-man #33.  Buried under wreckage, the water level rising, he refuses to give up.  He struggles free, not for himself, but so he can save his Aunt May.  Sam Raimi seems to get this, which is why Spider-man 2, one of the best superhero movies ever made, features a climax in which Spider-man, maskless, battered and alone, is crucified on the front of a train trying desperately, and apparently futilely, to save the people inside even if it means being ripped apart.

Raimi includes a number of visual cues in the movies that are reminiscent of the Gospels.  Spidey is taken by the Goblin to a high place, and offered dominion over all the world, for instance.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.”  That, combined with the notion that everyone is your neighbor, is at the heart of Christianity.  The chiefest virtue, and closest emulation of the Christ, is self-sacrifice, giving yourself in place of others.  And this is exactly what Spider-man does.  He takes the sin and pain of the world upon his own shoulders, as much as he can bear.  He takes the kicks and insults, too, and doesn’t expect any other reward.  His creed is that, because he is able to do what is right, he should do what is right.  He does it anonymously, even though that makes it easier for his enemies to slander and vilify him.  And he’ll never stop doing it.

Because he’s a hero.

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2 Responses to “Nerd Testament #2: With Great Power”

  1. It would be interesting to see your point on why Spiderman is constantly crucified by never ressurected. There is no glory on high for Spiderman, no moment where the stone is finally rolled away and triumph occurs. If that is the case then can he be considered a Christ figure? Or rather is he simply the suffering servant.

    The difference being the prophet and the messiah.

  2. crucified *but* never *resurrected*

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