The Cultural Meanings of Spider-Man: Critical Approaches to an American Icon
Now that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is due in theaters in a few days, starring the inimitable Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, we may want to pause to consider the power of this enduring American icon. For almost half a century, Spider-Man has been a quintessentially American hero full of rich moral and psychological complexity. Virginia Postrel, in an October 2006 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, argued that superheroes like Spider-Man capture the imagination of the masses because they are glamourous, meaning that film audiences emotionally bond with superheroes through “a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration.” Postrel notes that superheroes embody the mastery we desire over our bodies and our longing for solidarity with other people (Justice League anyone?). This is a very interesting “audience-response” model for thinking about the popularity of Spidey, but what about the symbolism of Spider-Man? What does he mean? How do we begin to talk about the cultural work that Spider-Man does? I looked to some academic scholarship for answers, or, at least, the beginnings of answers. I found several articles in the Journal of Popular Culture on the subject that I’d like to write about below. They provide contrasting views of how we can talk about Spider-Man.
I begin with an older article by the distinguished writer Salvatore Mondello, “Spider-Man: Superhero in the Liberal Tradition” (1976). Mondello offers a historical periodization of Spider-Man beginning in 1962 and ending in the mid-1970’s, after Watergate. According to Mondello, between 1962 and 1967, the comic The Amazing Spider Man must be seen as an extension of a conservative view of politics and public life. This is because Spidey’s heroics are placed at the service of Cold War politics (battling Communists) and, in one case, personal gain (helping out with Aunt May’s mortgage). Between 1967 and 1973, Spidey becomes a social crusader targeting problems such as drug use and other public causes. After this period, Spider-Man becomes more of an escapist entertainment disconnected from social problems (Mondello suggests that this is a result of the disenchantment sown by Vietnam and Watergate.) Based on a close reading of certain issues of The Amazing Spiderman, Mondello ultimately concludes that “During the late 60’s and early 70’s, Spider-Man had helped to keep alive American liberalism among the young, a tradition stressing cooperation among individuals and minorities rather than conflict, moderation in politics rather than extremism, and the right of each American to social recognition and economic opportunity.” I wonder what Mondello would say about the Raimi adaptations. Is Spider-Man still an icon of classical American liberalism?
Donald Palumbo’s 1983 article, The Marvel Comics Group’s Spider-Man is an Existentialist Super-Hero; or “Life Has no Meaning Without My Latest Marvels”, gives us a whole different take to consider. Palumbo reads Spider-Man through the lens of the history of philosophy, specifically Existentialism. Palumbo explains that existentialist figures like Spider-Man have a worldview in which an individual’s idealism and the ugly, absurd realities of the world clash. As a result, existential heroes tend to reject god, have troubled relationships with father-figures and live on the margins of society. Palumbo reminds us that although Peter Parker and Spidey never explicitly talk about existentialism, we do know that he reads books by Sartre, Camus and Jung. Regardless, a careful reading of many of the comics shows us that indeed, Spider-Man is an alienated figure who questions his place in the world and his ability to transform it, sometimes to the brink of madness. I haven’t seen Spider-Man 3 yet, but it would seem that the madness part (as expressed through Venom’s hold on Spidey) may be an important piece of the story.
Finally, we come to Niall Richardson’s The Gospel According to Spider-Man (2004), which analyzes the first Spider-Man movie. Richardson writes: “Spider-Man not only employs pastiches of famous scenes from the Bible but also examines the theology of Christian belief. The film’s narrative, like Christian ideology, centers on the hero’s shame for his flawed and lustful flesh and his attempt to transform shame into atonable guilt.” Richardson notes the negative cultural connotations of spiders and how these may be linked to sexuality as something dark and dangerous. He observes that Peter Parker’s camera functions as an expression of his lust toward Mary Jane, and that Parker’s vain attempts at self-aggrandizement ultimately lead to the death of Uncle Ben. Thus, Parker violates a principle that is essentially Christian in nature: use one’s power for the greater good, not for pleasure. As in the previous articles, there’s much to mull over in this article. I was struck by Richardson’s reading of Parker’s physique in relation to Christian images of “Saints crucified and tortured” and by his allegorical reading of the choice between saving Mary Jane and a bunch of kids at the end of the movie.
We will have to wait for the scholars to get around to Spiderman 3 to see what new insights are gleaned from the latest chapter in the story of this American icon. No folk hero or symbol can remain current and socially relevant (or popular) without changing over time and taking on the problems of the day. I haven’t had a chance to think too much about it, but I suspect that Spider-Man today encapsulates some of the themes that made him popular in the past while also speaking to our post 9/11 anxieties. I’m going to think about that and if any reader of this blog has any insights into the same subject, we’d like to hear about it in the comments section.