Spiderman… His Own Worst Enemy?
Just been to see the new Spiderman movie this evening. It’s really enjoyable – another good ‘creation myth’ for a superhero – but left me with some niggling questions, which I’ve been mulling on since.
One of the key questions for films of this genre is ‘how do they become…?’ How does Spiderman become Spiderman. It’s a question of origins, and one which seems to be very much a question for our times. There are a startling number of prequels around, and interest in ‘history’ in general has never been higher.
Before we get to the current film, it’s interesting contrast it with the 2002 version. The previous Spiderman franchise gave us Peter Parker being bitten by a spider inadvertently as he took a tour of a genetics lab a Columbia University. In other words, it’s not his fault. He is at the mercy of the mutations going on inside him, which have befallen him through the perfectly benign pursuit of knowledge on a science field trip. His enemy in this film (The Green Goblin) has a different creation story: Norman Osborn wants power, and takes a ‘super-soldier’ formula devised by a large, rich corporation (that is under pressure from the military) in order to get it, even though the formula is unstable. In other words, there is nothing benign about the enemy’s pursuits of power…
Here, Spiderman has a genuine enemy: an outside force which he must seek to overcome. By doing so, he is symbolising the greater power of learning, of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, of the university over the corporation.
In the new film, the creation story is rather different. Here, Peter Parker is very much nosing around out of bounds at the laboratories of the immediately dodgy, global pharmaceutical Oscorp. He’s lied in order to gain access, but ends up being shown around by a High School friend who, rather implausibly, works at Oscorp too in some capacity. We are already well outside the benign genetics lab of Columbia University. Parker sneaks off and intrudes into a facility that uses genetically modified spiders to create super-strong silk. He is bitten, and undergoes the familiar genetic melding of man and spider – a process which he has learned about through some papers his dead father left behind.
Intrigued by what happens to him, Parker goes back to the lead scientist as Oscorp, the one-armed Dr. Curtis Connors, who is also under pressure from some external forces to speed up his research. It is here that Parker actually gives Connors the missing link to enable humans to benefit from the highly adaptive regenerative capabilities of lizards: he can make his arm grow back. The process is imperfect, however, and Connors turns into a power-crazed and angry lizard-man, whom Spiderman must overcome.
What’s interesting here is that Spiderman has effectively created his own enemy – and admits as much to the love interest in the film. Peter Rollins has explored how, in the Batman franchise, Bruce Wayne’s commercial activities create the dystopia of Gotham as a side-effect…but here we have things one step closer: Spiderman actually creates his own nemesis.
Pre-Spiderman, the city is not presented as an out-of-control crime-fest. Yes, there is disorder, but in a key scene at the Chief of Police’s apartment, Peter Parker has to admit that perhaps the police have things more strategically under control than he might have thought.
It is only when Spiderman is created, and then Spiderman creates his own enemy, that the city enters a state of utter chaos. Spiderman is saving no one – his work in the film is simply to put things back to the perfectly reasonable state they were in before he started interfering. Not perfect, no, but materially in control and not subject to super-natural chaos.
So we have some very interesting subtexts here. Firstly, the real enemy behind both Spiderman and his enemy, is messing about with genetics, and doing so for big business, for money. The film is thus a strangely conservative one: it preaches a message of caution about interfering with nature. Things aren’t perfect, but we’ll create monsters if we push science too far.
Secondly, there’s a fascinating theme here about the super-natural. When a ‘good monster’ is created in Spiderman, a ‘bad monster’ is also created. And it is out of this battle between super-natural good and evil that chaos and destruction are wrought on earth.
In this new version of Spiderman, creating gods creates devils, and all kind of damage is done to the innocent. So, while on the one hand the theme of the film is highly conservative – warning us against playing with nature – on the other hand it is deeply subversive, exploring the idea that religion itself has created the very evils that it seeks to eliminate. This is radically different to the previous incarnation of the franchise, where evil definitely comes from without, and a ‘god’ is required to come into the situation to restore order.
In a way, it’s the tension between these conservative and radical elements that leave the film a little unsettled… Loads to enjoy, but with a troubled heart…