Provost's Film Series
February 8, 2011
Introduction written by Toddy Burton
"If you were a character with the power of a spider, what would life be like in the real world?"
– Stan Lee
Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 follows the story of an extraordinarily gifted man trying to balance his mortal desires (love, family) with his sense of duty to his gift. As Christians looking to the ultimate Story as our foundation, we can see threads of Christ’s own journey of sacrifice, death and resurrection portrayed throughout this film. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the truly mythic and the every day provides an effective portrait from which to examine the realities, responsibilities and challenges of who we are in Christ.
First appearing in August of 1962 as the creation of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man has been an enduring character, spanning nearly 50 years of comics, starring in animated and live-action television series, influencing artists and spawning a hit Hollywood franchise (with a reboot currently in production). What is it about this teenager endowed with the power of a spider that so captures generations of imaginations? One allure of comic book superheroes is the characters’ call to greatness inhabited within the ordinary of our world. Spider-Man encapsulates that concept to perfection.
An Intersection of the Two
An investigation into the mythic origins of superheroes, excerpted from “Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory” by Michael Chabon:
"But apart from a marked tendency to orphanhood, the superhero generally disappoints the expectations of mythology. The costumed hero – if not a mutant – is born powerless and unheralded like the rest of us. It takes the bite of a radioactive spider, or some other form of half-disaster (a lab explosion, a brutal act of street violence, a secret government experiment, an emergency transfusion of mongoose blood) to give birth to the hero, who then springs, full-grown like Athena, from the prised-open cranium of everyday life. The superhero works long hours at a day job (even that playboy Bruce Wayne puts in a lot of time at the office) and struggles in every way—legally, socially, emotionally—to fit into the expectations of the quotidian world. The superhero in general has no overt or obligatory sense of destiny and none of the lust for glory and fame and treasure that characterize the classical hero. Superheroes spend a lot of time wishing they could just stay home, hang out with their families and loved ones, date the girl they love, be like everybody else. They excel because they cannot help it, or because it would be wrong not to, or because they need to prove their worth, or to exonerate themselves, or to repay the debt they feel to society, their parents, the wizard in a subway tunnel who endowed them with magic might. Above all, superheroes have secret identities; they have lives and natures that their pursuit of heroism obliges them to conceal, to downplay, to deny. They cannot engage in the boastful trumpeting of one’s name and parentage so beloved among traditional heroes.
The comic book, which descended from the glorious newspaper strip of the early twentieth century like an ape from an angel, preexisted the superhero, but so barely and with so little distinction that the medium has seem indistinguishable in the cultural mind from its first stroke of brilliance. There were costumed crime fighters before Superman (the Phantom, Zorro), but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. As Proust said, more or less, about great works of literature, Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound. All the tropes, all the clichés and conventions, all the possibilities, all the longings and wishes and neuroses that have driven and fed and burdened the superhero comic over the past seventy years were implied by and contained within that little red-and-blue rocket ship hurtling toward Earth. That moment—Krypton exploding, Action Comics No. 1—is generally seen to be minute zero of the superhero idea.
About the reasons for the arrival of Superman at that moment there is less agreement. In the theories of origin put forward by fans, critics, and other origin-obsessives, the idea of Superman has been accounted the offspring or recapitulation, in no particular order, of Friedrich Nietzsche; Philip Wylie (in his novel Gladiator); of the strengths, frailties, and neuroses of his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of Cleveland, Ohio; of the aching wishfulness of the Great Depression; of the (Jewish) immigrant experience; of the mastermind stratagems of popular texts in their sinister quest for reader domination; of repressed Oedipal fantasies and homoerotic wishes; of fascism; of capitalism; of the production modes of mass culture (and not in a good way); of celebrated strongmen and proponents of physical culture like Eugene Sandow; and a host of literary not-quite-Supermans (chief among them Doc Savage) who preceded him…
Thus while claiming, on the one hand, a dubiously ahistorical, archetypal source for the superhero idea in the Jungian vastness of legend, we dissolve its true universality in a foaming bath of periodized explanations, and render the superhero and his costume a time-fixed idea that is always already going out of fashion. In fact the point of origin is not a date or a theory or a conjunction of cultural trends but a story, the intersection of a wish and the tip of a pencil.
We say 'secret identity,' and adopt a series of cloaking strategies to preserve it; but what we are actually trying to conceal is a narrative; not who we are, but the story of how we got that way – and, by implication, of all that we lacked, and all that we were not, before the spider bit us. And yet at the same time, as I have suggested, our costume conceals nothing, reveals everything: it is our secret skin, exposed and exposing us for all the world to see. Superheroism is a kind of transvestism; our superdrag serves at once to obscure the exterior self that no longer defines us while betraying, with half-unconscious panache, the truth of the story we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation, of our story’s recommencement, of our rebirth into the world of adventure, of the story itself."