Spider-Man: Totem and Tragedy (Men in Tights, Part 2)

[NOTE: This is Part 2 of a column series titled Men in Tights. For the introduction, see Part 1, “Batman: Daemon with a Cape.”]

Spider-Man is another superhero whose origin is steeped in tragedy. When scrawny egghead Peter Parker is granted superpowers by a radioactive spider-bite, he decides to make some money by working as a professional wrestler. After appearing on a TV show and wowing the audience with his spider-powers, he allows a thief to escape, and excuses it by saying the situation wasn’t his responsibility. He later regrets this bitterly when the thief kills his Uncle Ben (no, not the bloke who makes the rice). Distraught over the death of the gentle Ben (no, not the bear), Peter realises too late that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and the costume becomes a way to disguise his identity while fighting criminals, in order to protect his loved ones from reprisals. It also becomes a symbol of his redemption, although I’m not sure if that’s ever stated explicitly in the comics. It’s more the sort of thing fanboys say when they want to look clever on the Internet.

The reasons vary for why Peter wears the costume before he becomes a superhero. In the original Stan Lee-Steve Ditko stories, he wears it to hide his embarrassment in case he loses a wrestling match. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis says it’s to hide his age because the wrestling promoter won’t pay anyone under the age of twenty-one. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film, as far as I can remember it’s because all of the other wrestlers wore costumes so Peter just followed suit. In The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent reboot by Marc Webb (resist the opportunity for a cheap pun … must stay on topic … focus, focus), Peter never even becomes a wrestler; the dual needs of explaining why he wears a costume rather than a ski-mask and why he even needs to remain anonymous anyway are explained by having a criminal promise retribution on Peter as Peter stares at a wrestling poster.

The idea that Peter needs to hide his identity from the outside world while he himself discovers his true identity permeates the entirety of the latest film. This is something that goes back to the original comic, where high school bully Flash Thompson torments Peter Parker but worships Spider-Man, Gwen Stacey loves Peter Parker but hates Spider-Man, and J. Jonah Jameson constantly illustrates his newspaper vendetta against Spider-Man with photos taken by Peter Parker. Furthermore, in “The Master Planner” saga, one of the most iconic moments in Spider-Man’s career — the act of freeing himself from beneath the crushing weight of a piece of overturned machinery so that he can get to Aunt May’s hospital and give her a lifesaving antidote — is undercut by a doctor’s comments after Peter finally gets there: “Too bad someone like [Peter] can’t be an idol for teenagers to imitate instead of some mysterious, unknown thrill-seeker like Spider-Man!”

The Spider-Man persona liberates Peter from his insecurities — people ignore Peter’s wisecracks and ridicule him for his perceived physical frailty, whereas they cheer and idolize Spider-Man — but it also limits him. His social life is a mess, and he alienates those around him by his unexplained absences to engage in crime-fighting. In the “Spider-Man No More!” storyline, he becomes so fed up with his responsibilities as a web-slinging crime-fighter that he quits. This idea is expanded upon in Spider-Man 2 with his powers dwindling as the stress of being Spider-Man becomes too much. Quitting the superhero biz makes him happy, but his powers disappear completely. When trouble rears its head, he once more dons the costume to accept his powers and his responsibilities and save the day.

And the costume doesn’t just work for Peter alone. In the Amazing Spider-Man movie, Andrew Garfield (who looks like a Steve Ditko illustration come to life and given a 21st century makeover) offers a frightened child his mask, saying, “It’s gonna make you strong.” In the comics Ben Reilly also found strength through the costume. Ben, a clone of Peter Parker created by The Jackal, suffered from depression for years as he lived out a directionless existence. But when Peter took a sabbatical from being Spider-Man, he asked Ben to take over, and this gave Ben a new lease of life. He designed a new version of the Spider-Man costume and improved the web-shooters so that they also fired stun-pellets and other pellets that explode into an immobilising web upon impact.

During Secret Wars Peter used an alien replicator to repair his tattered costume, and in the process unwittingly allowed an alien symbiote to attach to his body. To avoid detection, the symbiote cunningly disguised itself as a Spider-Man costume. Not so cunningly, it made the costume black and white and missed off the webbing pattern. Peter put this change in design down to his unfamiliarity in using the replicator. The symbiote attempted to take over Peter’s body, and this led to a battle of wills to decide the victor. In Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the Secret Wars idea of superheroes and supervillains forced to battle each other on an alien planet at the whim of an omnipotent cosmic being was dropped, and instead the symbiote arrived on Earth attached to a meteorite. But it still tried to take Peter over, and it emphasised certain characteristics within him, making him more aggressive and self-centred, although the sign that he was turning truly evil came when he subjected us to a dance routine.

“At first glance, Spider-Man offers only moral and psychological readings, but J. Michael Straczynski attempted a more mystical interpretation. In ‘The Other’ it is suggested that Peter gained his powers from a mystical source of which the spider is a totem.”

Spider-Man has always been one of the superheroes most obsessive about keeping his civilian identity secret, so you’d expect him to be pretty unhappy during Civil War, when the US government insisted that superheroes register their secret identities, splitting the superhero community into opposing factions, the pro-registration group and the anti-registration group. But Spidey surprised everyone when, swayed by the pro-registration argument, he announced his secret identity during a televised press conference. He was then given a new costume as a sign of his allegiance, an armoured suit designed by Tony Stark. But Peter decided he agreed with the anti-registration faction after all, he switched back to his classic red and blue costume.

At first glance, Spider-Man offers only moral and psychological readings, but J. Michael Straczynski attempted a more mystical interpretation. In The Other it is suggested that Peter gained his powers from a mystical source of which the spider is a totem. As I recall, this was never proved conclusively, so readers can go with the mystical explanation or the scientific explanation, depending on which they prefer.

Another, earlier story that hints at mystical origins to Spider-Man’s powers comes in Kraven’s Last Hunt, a.k.a. Fearful Symmetry, in which writer J. M. Demattais has Kraven the Hunter finally defeat Spider-Man and then adopt his costume and crime-fighting career to prove that he truly is a greater man than his nemesis. The process carries hints of cannibalistic rituals involving the devouring of one’s enemy to gain his strength. And although this is a PG-rated, or rather Comic Code-approved, expression of such an idea, it’s still very strong stuff, with Kraven chomping down handfuls of squirming spiders, their juices dripping from his lips. After defeating Spider-Man, Kraven inhales mystical herbs and battles with a giant spider-creature, all the time his own doubts and fears clamouring in the background, a Greek chorus of screaming neurosis. It is difficult to tell how much of this is genuine mystical experience and how much is hallucination.

To complicate matters, Spider-Man himself experiences visions as he lies in the zombie-like coma to which Kraven’s poisoned dart has condemned him. Trapped in a grave, he retreats from his human persona in order to assuage his fear of death, seeking comfort in the image of himself as a spider, in fact the Spider, the supernatural nemesis which Kraven believes him to be. “I am the Spider: Immortal. Imperishable.” In Spider-Man’s vision, the Spider crawls beneath the earth, heading for the surface, but is confronted by spider-like monsters which quickly defeat it, leaving it dead in the ground. The Spider’s corpse splits open, and Peter crawls free and starts climbing determinedly towards the surface, finally embracing his human side for the first time since his ordeal began. He is just Peter Parker: “That’s my weakness. That’s my strength.” Again, it is difficult to tell how much of this is real; it would be easy to pass it all off as hallucinations from Kraven’s drugs, except there’s the fact that Peter had already been experiencing nightmares about his mortality before his confrontation with Kraven. But Kraven claims the rituals he undertook before their battle allowed him to join with Peter’s consciousness. So how much came from Kraven’s mind, how much from Peter’s grief over recent bereavements, and how much from the Spider — assuming, of course, that such a creature even exists?

The events of the story act as something of a spiritual cleansing for both men, with Peter emerging from them with a new love of life and Kraven experiencing an epiphany. Up until now he has viewed the Spider as a demon that corrupted his beloved Russia, destroyed his parents, and left him bereft of his precious sense of honour, but his latest travails, combined with his victory, allow him to regain his sense of self-worth and view Spider-Man in a new sympathetic light: “Every man, every woman, every nation, every age has its Spider. You have been mine. What a burden. What an … honor.”

About Stuart Young

Stuart Young is the British Fantasy Award-winning author of SPARE PARTS, SHARDS OF DREAMS, and THE MASK BEHIND THE FACE. In addition to writing Sparking Neurones for The Teeming Brain, he blogs at stuyoung.blogspot.co.uk.

Posted on October 3, 2012, in Sparking Neurones and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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