Still Entertaining, After All These Years

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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.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Amazing Spider-Man," directed by Marc Webb. Columbia Studios, 2012, 136 minutes.



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True Community

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When Americans think of “community,” they imagine warm and snuggly things. The word conjures a host of wholesome associations. It reminds us of neighbors sharing loaves of home-baked bread, of children playing in a safe backyard, of grownups meeting face to face to solve problems with good, old-fashioned common sense. The term sounds very Currier and Ives. Until we step back and take a good, hard look at those who use it.

These days, it’s thrown around by people who seem uninterested in grownups solving their own problems. A more honest term for how we’re seen would probably be “herd.” It seems calculated to keep us bunched together too closely to remember that we are individuals. It’s the way our teachers used to speak to us in the third grade. If you put Currier and Ives into a blender with Lyndon B. Johnson and Mister Rogers, this is likely what you’d get.

We elected a president who touted his experience as a “community organizer.” He stands at the podium and lectures us about what’s best for us, as if we lacked the sense to figure that out for ourselves. The impression that unmistakably comes across is that he thought he was far smarter than any of those dolts in the “communities” he organized. And that as president, he is certain the voters are so stupid we don’t see that his own reelection — his glorious little career — is factored into every move he makes.

Recently, I bought a new computer. I’ve been very happy with it, because it does a lot of wonderful, whiz-bang things. But I am unfamiliar with some of its programs. I had a screenplay to write — something I hadn’t done since college — and I couldn’t figure out how to set up my document in the proper format.

I managed to figure it out by myself, except for one crucial detail. Geek Squad wouldn’t simply answer my question, but they’d access my system from headquarters and fix the problem themselves — for 60 bucks. I threw it out to some online groups, and kept getting people who would gladly give me an answer — in exchange for my credit card number. From “the community,” I must admit, I wasn’t feeling much love.

Are our government-anointed “community organizers” right? I began to wonder. Have we lost the capacity to solve even the simplest of problems without their guidance? A whole industry has arisen to do for us, for money, what we know in our guts we should be able to do for ourselves — or at least with the help of somebody who won’t charge us for it.

People resent this, but their resentment is often exploited by those who don’t believe in private industry. Devotees of the government collective cluck their tongues about the hucksters out there who’ll take our money to answer questions with which they might help us for free. But are they to blame for wanting payment because we lack the imagination to look for solutions we don’t have to pay for? If our stupidity and helplessness keeps a roof over their heads, is that their fault or ours?

Refusing to give up too easily, I went to the meeting of a group to which I belong — one of those voluntary associations we’re forever being told no longer exist. I asked my question to some friends before the meeting, and within minutes somebody provided an answer. Afterwards I went home, tried it out, and it worked. And I was not one penny poorer.

Community — the real deal — still exists. If we’re willing to trust it. What that means is that we must remember how to trust each other. The real community is us, not an organizing "leader." But we can only trust each other if we dare to trust ourselves. When we allow ourselves to be treated like sheep, we are ripe for plunder by wolves.

The best ideas still come, not from any central committee of self-appointed smarties, but from our friends, our neighbors, sometimes even our children, and ourselves. A little bit of resourcefulness, of self-reliance, of trust in the everyday folks we know, can save us a lot of cash. In the long run, it may save our freedom.

And here's an important point: those in government who claim they will solve our problems for us will not do it for free. That is always the assumption, when they insist on helping us. But it's never true. We will pay for everything we get — and often for things we don't get — in money, time, inconvenience, and anger. And it increasingly looks as if the price they’re demanding is our very souls.




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